Reviews of Factory Girls





The New York Times Book Review

Holding Up the Sky

By Patrick Radden Keefe

Toward the end of Factory Girls, her engrossing account of the lives of young migrant workers in southern China, Leslie Chang describes receiving a gift. Min, a young woman who works at a handbag plant, presents Chang with an authentic Coach purse plucked fresh from the assembly line. It emerges that Min's dormitory-style bedroom is stuffed with high-end leatherwear. When the author proposes giving one of the handbags to the mother of Min's boyfriend, Min scoffs. "His mother lives on a farm," she says. "What's she going to do with a handbag?"

The emergence of China's titanic manufacturing base has been chronicled in numerous books and articles in recent years, but Chang has elected to focus not on the broader market forces at play but on the individuals, most of them women, who leave their villages and seek their fortunes on the front lines of this economy.

Since the 1970s, China has witnessed the largest migration in human history, Chang observes, "three times the number of people who emigrated to America from Europe over a century." There are 130 million migrant workers in China today. A few decades ago, a rural peasant could expect to live and die on the same plot of land his family had farmed for generations. But the country's explosive economic growth has allowed the young and adventurous to trade the stifling predictability of village life for the excitement, opportunity and risk of the factory boomtown.

A former China correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Chang focuses on one boomtown in particular, Dongguan, a frenetic jumble of megafactories in Guangdong Province. The city produces garments of every description and 30 percent of the world's computer disk drives. One-third of all the shoes on the planet are produced in the province, and Chang spends time in a factory that manufactures Nike, Reebok and other brands. It has 70,000 employees, most of them women, and boasts its own movie theater, hospital and fire department.

Dongguan is "a perverse expression of China at its most extreme," Chang suggests; it is polluted, chaotic and corrupt, but jostling also with a generation of strivers who are unashamed of their ambition and astonishingly indifferent to risk. New arrivals from the countryside can double or triple their income in a couple of weeks by taking a computer class or learning a little English. Switching jobs becomes a form of self-reinvention, and starting a new business is as easy as purchasing a new business card.

To Chang, the factory girls seem to live in "a perpetual present." They have forsaken the Confucian bedrock of traditional Chinese culture for an improvised existence in which history and filial loyalty have been replaced by rapid upward mobility, dogged individualism and an obsessive pursuit of a more prosperous future. After revealing that her driver's license was purchased on the black market, one woman seems to voice the general ethos of the town when she says to Chang, of her abilities behind the wheel, "I know how to drive forward."

With new job opportunities forever appearing and huge personnel turnover in any given factory, friendships are difficult to make and to maintain, and Chang details the loneliness and isolation of the migrant workers. Dongguan's laborers assemble cellphones, but they purchase them as well, and with their speed-dial archives of acquaintances, the phones become a sort of lifeline, the only way to keep track of the breakneck comings and goings of friends. If a worker's cellphone is stolen, as they often are, friends, boyfriends and mentors may be lost to her forever. "The easiest thing in the world," Chang remarks more than once, "was to lose touch with someone."

People living their lives "on fast-­forward" in this manner would seem to resist any kind of comprehensive portraiture by a reporter. But Chang perseveres, hanging around the factories, purchasing cellphones for some of the women she meets so that she can keep track of them, and eventually renting an apartment in Dongguan. While she relates the stories of numerous different women, she becomes closest with Min, who gave her the purse, and with Chunming, who left her home in Hunan Province in 1992 and has cycled through countless careers and relationships in the years since. (It is Chunming who can only drive forward.)

Chang's extraordinary reportorial feat is the intimacy with which she presents the stories of these two women. Min and Chunming lack the reserve of some of their colleagues. They share their diary entries and their text messages, their romantic entanglements and their sometimes strained relationships with the families they left behind. The result is an exceptionally vivid and compassionate depiction of the day-to-day dramas, and the fears and aspirations, of the real people who are powering China's economic boom.

By delving so deeply into the lives of her subjects, Chang succeeds in exploring the degree to which China's factory girls are exploited — working grueling hours in sometimes poor conditions for meager wages with little job security — without allowing the book to degenerate into a diatribe. There is never any doubt that the factory owners in Hong Kong and Taiwan — and the consumers in American shopping malls — have the better end of the bargain. But for all the dislocation, isolation and vulnerability they experience, Chang makes clear that for the factory girls life in Dongguan is an adventure, and an affirmation of the sort of individualism that village life would never allow.

"If it was an ugly world," Chang concludes, "at least it was their own."




The Washington Post

China's New Working Class

By Seth Faison

China's global rise is powered by mega-factories that churn out toys and shoes and electronics by the billion, and those factories run on the energy of migrant workers who left villages for assembly lines by the millions. Migrant workers now swarm every city in China, where they are easily identified by their cheap clothes and vacant facial expressions. In Chinese, they are known as the "floating population." Whether there are 130 million or 200 million migrant workers -- no one can count them -- many social scientists assert that they represent the largest migration in human history.

In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang delves deeply into the world of migrant workers to find out who these people are and what their collective dislocation means for China. Chang skillfully sketches migrants as individuals with their own small victories and bitter tragedies, and she captures the surprising dynamics of this enormous but ill-understood subculture. In many ways, migrant workers embody the fundamental changes underway in China today.

Chang covered China for the Wall Street Journal, and she's an insightful interpreter of a society in flux. People who leave village life, with its intense cocoon of family and community ties, find themselves untethered in a city, scrounging for work and a place to sleep. "They were prey to all sorts of cons, making life decisions on the barest bits of information," she writes. And yet many migrants also feel freed from a suffocating web of traditional habits and mores. Able to explore and grow in the lawless free-for-all of China's boomtowns, many cross an invisible line into the modern world, and there is no going back.

Chang got to know dozens of young women who have ventured to Dongguan, a new metropolis just north of Hong Kong. She focuses on two particularly compelling ones, Min and Chunming, who gradually came to trust her enough to share their stories, as well as diary entries, late-night phone calls and heart-to-heart confessions. Each is ambitious, impulsive, endearing. Each left home as a teenager and experienced a big adventure. Through their lives, Chang shows us how unmoored China is, erratically yearning for something better, and surprisingly resilient.

One of the women describes her blurry, confusing arrival in a new city, getting lured into a whorehouse, escaping, begging on the street, stealing another woman's ID card to get work at a toy factory, graduating to clerkdom, learning about business, striking it rich with direct sales only to see her company crumble overnight. Chang explores a "talent market," where workers offer themselves to any prospective employer -- a sneaker factory, a dating agency, an illicit nightspot. She reads magazines about migrant life that the women eagerly pass around, with articles titled "Be Your Own Master" and "Ambition Made Me Who I Am." Interactions among migrant women seem a cross between high school networking and wartime bonding. Being far from home, the women depend on each other to survive, yet they unite and separate with remarkable ease. Everyone lies. Promises are made and broken. "Dongguan was a place without memory," Chang writes.

Partway through Factory Girls, Chang abruptly changes gears to tell her own family history. It is fascinating. Her great-grandfather was a landowner in northern China and a Confucian patriarch with four wives. His son, Chang's grandfather, studied mining in the United States and then returned to China. At the height of China's civil war, working for the Nationalists, he was assassinated. Chang's grandmother escaped to Taiwan with her children, leaving relatives and family wealth behind. Chang's father later immigrated to America, where Chang was born and raised. He did not like to talk about family history. Only after Chang had worked in China for some years did she begin to explore and discover the truth, including the myriad resentments and injustices that festered among her relatives, as well as the government's suppression of accounts of the past.

Chang writes about her family and its dislocations with special sensitivity and grace. That story is almost like a book within a book, and it gives a poignant perspective to her accounts of the dislocated migrant workers she gets to know. More than that, it completes her portrait of China.

If the lives of migrant workers seem to represent the new China, with all its unwieldy promise and economic possibilities, Chang's family history reflects the old China, its stubborn intractability and severe injustice. For now, the two still go together.




The New Yorker

China is in the midst of history's largest human migration, a hundred and thirty million of its citizens having left their home villages in search of urban employment. Chang, an American of Chinese descent, explores the migrant experience and "the burden of being Chinese" through the lives of several young women in the industrial city of Dongguan. Their Sisyphean attempts at self-reinvention are both entertaining and poignant; the most ambitious of them achieves modest success selling dubious health products, before falling under the spell of an American raw-food guru. In her diary, she reminds herself, "We can be ordinary but we must not be vulgar." Chang's fine prose and her keen sense of detail more than compensate for the occasional digression, and her book is an intimate portrait of a strange and hidden landscape, "a universe of relentless motion." 




Financial Times

Industrial Evolution

By Nell Freudenberger

When the Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie Chang arrived in the frenetic industrial city of Dongguan in 2004, foreign newspapers had already written of harsh conditions in China's factories. She doesn't hide those facts - girls sleep 12 to a room and work 13-hour days, seven days a week, for a base monthly salary of $50 - but Chang is less interested in exposé than in getting to know the young women of Dongguan's assembly lines.

Factory Girls reveals the workplace through the workers' eyes: "They were 16 years old, on the loose in one of China's most chaotic boomtowns, raising themselves with no adults in sight. They missed their mothers. But they were also having the time of their lives."

Interwoven into Chang's narrative is her own family history, also a story of migration. Her grandfather studied in 1920s America and returned to China only to die in the struggle between the Nationalists and the Communists; her parents emigrated to America through Taiwan after the Communist victory. Chang had been investigating that history for more than a year before her father casually mentioned that two of his father's diaries had survived. "It isn't very interesting," he explained. "He just writes things like, 'Today the Japanese army is closing in around the city.' Stuff like that." "Actually," Chang told her father, "that's pretty interesting."

Chang is married to author Peter Hessler and shares with him a preference for characterisation and idiosyncratic detail over a tightly ordered narrative. Following two young women, Min and Chunming, Factory Girls meanders through the migrants' Dongguan, where Chang's fluent Mandarin is essential.

She spends time inside the massive Yue Yuen factory, which makes Nike and Adidas shoes, employs 70,000 workers and operates its own kindergarten, hospital and fire department. She tours the karaoke underworld, where migrants work as prostitutes, and sits in on a "white-collar secretarial skills special training class", which instructs ambitious students that "purple eye shadow suits all Asian women". When the migrant girls start looking for boyfriends in a discouragingly limited pool, Chang follows them to the "Making Friends Club", home of the "Eight-Minute Date". "The problem is", one girl says, "sometimes eight minutes is too long."

Chang visits her ancestral village but uncovers only traces of her family. It's in Min's village that the historical and contemporary strands of Factory Girls intertwine. Chang finds that the remittance economy has upended traditional village hierarchies, so that young women such as Min are making financial decisions for their elders. Some village traditions do survive, such as a wedding celebration in which older villagers humiliate Min, playing a game with a nasty edge. "Suddenly I felt like an outsider," Chang notes, but it's her ambivalent perspective - Chinese and foreign - that allows her to make her sharpest observations: "I sensed that the Cultural Revolution was rooted in the dynamics of the Chinese village, with its rituals that enforced the safety of the group."

The mob violence of the Cultural Revolution seems irrelevant to girls such as Min, working their way up in the new China. "Who is Chairman Mao now?" Min asks Chang, searching for the current premier's name. "I don't even know." But from Chang's point of view, Min is part of a new revolution among China's youth, with the potential to be productive rather than murderous: "Perhaps China during the 20th century had to go so terribly wrong so that people could start over, this time pursuing their individual courses and casting aside the weight of family, history, and the nation."

That hopeful vision remains to be proved but Chang's elegant book is evidence that the best trips home often require a circuitous approach.




Publishers Weekly

Chang, a former Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, explores the urban realities and rural roots of a community, until now, as unacknowledged as it is massive—China's 130 million workers whose exodus from villages to factory and city life is the largest migration in history. Chang spent three years following the successes, hardships and heartbreaks of two teenage girls, Min and Chunming, migrants working the assembly lines in Dongguan, one of the new factory cities that have sprung up all over China. The author's incorporation of their diaries, e-mails and text messages into the narrative allows the girls—with their incredible ambition and youth—to emerge powerfully upon the page. Dongguan city is itself a character, with talent markets where migrants talk their way into their next big break, a lively if not always romantic online dating community and a computerized English language school where students shave their heads like monks to show commitment to their studies. A first generation Chinese-American, Chang uses details of her own family's immigration to provide a vivid personal framework for her contemporary observations. A gifted storyteller, Chang plumbs these private narratives to craft a work of universal relevance.
Editor's Choice, starred review




Other reviews


“Fascinating…Chang powerfully conveys the individual reality behind China's 130 million migrant workers, the largest migration in human history.”
The Boston Globe

“Chang reveals a world staggering in its dimensions, unprecedented in its topsy-turvy effects on China's conservative culture, and frenetic in its pace…Chang deftly weaves her own family's story of migrations within China, and finally to the West, into her fascinating portrait…Factory Girls is a keen-eyed look at contemporary Chinese life composed of equal parts of new global realities, timeless stories of human striving and intelligent storytelling at its best.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Chang, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal, spent two years reporting in the gritty southern boomtown of Dongguan trying to put human faces on these workers, and the ones she finds are extraordinary. They are, more than anything else, the face of modern China: a country increasingly turning away from its rural roots and turbulent past and embracing a promising but uncertain future…The painstaking work Chang put into befriending these girls and drawing out their stories is evident, as is the genuine affection she has for them and their spirit.”

“In her impressive new book, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, former Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie T. Chang explores this boom that's simultaneously emptying China's villages of young people and fueling its economic growth…To be sure, this mass migration is a big and well-told story. But Chang brings to it a personal touch: her own forebears were migrants, and she skillfully weaves through the narrative tales of their border crossings…She also succeeds in grounding the trend in wider social context, suggesting that the aspirations of these factory girls signal a growing individualism in China's socialist culture.”
Newsweek (International Edition)

“A real coup…Chang, a former Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, does more than describe harsh factory conditions. She writes about the way these workers themselves see migration, bringing us views that are rarely heard. Factory Girls is highly readable and even amusing in many places, despite the seriousness of the subject. In the pages of this book, these factory girls come to life.”
The Christian Science Monitor

“A compelling, atmospheric look at seldom-seen China.”

“A rare and fascinating glimpse into the underbelly of the manufacturing world.”
Far Eastern Economic Review

“Rising head and shoulders above almost all other new books about China, this unflinching and yearningly compassionate portrait of the lives and loves of ordinary Chinese workers is quite unforgettable: it presents the first long, hard look we have ever taken at the people who are due to become, before very much longer, the new masters of the world.”
—Simon Winchester, author of The Man Who Loved China

“Often people ask me, ‘What's it like for women in China today?' From now on I'll recommend Leslie T. Chang's Factory Girls, which is brilliant, thoughtful, and insightful. This book is also for anyone who's ever wondered how their sneakers, Christmas ornaments, toys, designer clothes, or computers are made. The stories of these factory girls are not only mesmerizing, tragic, and inspiring—true examples of persistence, endurance, and loneliness—but Chang has also woven in her own family's history, shuttling north and south through China to examine this complicated country's past, present, and future.”
—Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan