Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
by Leslie T. Chang, Spiegel & Grau, US$26.00
"Socialism is Great": A Worker’s Memoir of the New China
by Lijia Zhang, Atlas & Co, US$24.00
The life of a migrant worker is one of relentless pursuit of opportunity. Young women working in factories in southern China look for better conditions, overtime, better pay and better lifestyles.
Unlike their rural ancestors, who often led the lives fate had in store for them, these migrant workers are risk takers, willing to bet a poor hand on the chance of a more comfortable future.
On the road
Journalist Leslie T. Chang spent several years on the trail of a clutch of female migrant workers. She documents their progress and tells their stories in Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China.
The focus of Chang’s research was Dongguan, a city in southern China that has emerged as one of the world’s great manufacturing centers. There was precious little in Dongguan before local and multinational companies set up gargantuan factories and began employing people by the tens of thousands to man the production lines.
Laborers who saw minimal potential in their farms flocked to Dongguan, turning the city into a melting pot of hopes, dreams and harsh realities.
"My goal in coming here today is to give myself more opportunities," says Wu Chunming, one of Chang’s subjects. Wu’s agenda extends beyond the workplace – the words are her self-introduction at a gathering of men and women all of whom are in search of partners.
At the other end of the scale is Lu Qingmin, who made the trip into Dongguan at the age of 16 – below the legal age of employment- and turned 17 during her first week on the job.
Chang is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who for a long time resisted the call of China. Her own family history tracks that of the country, a convoluted string of events that sees the rise and fall of families: Success, tragedy, war, splits, death and unfairness. As much as Factory Girls is a study into the lives of migrant workers in China it is also a history of a family and a personal story that gives context to what is happening in Dongguan.
Chang digs deep into the spirit of self-reliance that characterizes the migrant workers. In describing their experiences, she manages to combine empathy with a much-needed degree of journalistic detachment. It is an appealing approach, one that contrasts strongly with another book that tracks the life of factory workers, "Socialism is Great": A Workers’s Memoir of the New China by Lijia Zhang.
Bye-bye rice bowl
Zhang, who left an "iron rice bowl" job in a missile factory in Nanjing to pursue a life as a writer, tells a somewhat narcissistic tale. Her memoir offers interesting insights into factory life in the early 1980s, but it does not flow as nicely as Factory Girls. Neither does Zhang’s first-hand account of factory life – which comes complete with accounts of the political moves behind China’s reforms filtered down to the workers – match up to Chang’s objective and wide-angle research.
The tide may have since turned for Chang’s Dongguan workers – presumably some have returned to their farmsteads, opportunities on the south coast having dried up – but Factory Girls remains the superior account of dynamics that made China’s economic growth possible.
Excerpt: Homeward Bound
The last time I went to Yue Yuen was in January 2005. The factory girls wore thin cotton jackets, their shoulders hunched against the cold. Being cold appeared to be a pragmatic decision: Winter in Dongguan did not last long enough to justify spending money on a warm coat. Jia Jimei was just returning to her room when I stopped by, and she smiled when she saw me. She had dyed her hair with dark crimson streaks.
Work in the factory had slowed once Christmas passed, and now the traditional calendar took over, filling the streets with festive crowds returning home for the new year. Migrants who had just arrived in the city often wandered solitary and lost, but the ones heading home were different. They walked with purpose, in groups; they looked happy, and they knew the way. They carried cash in their pockets and shopping bags of gifts for their families – CD players, comforters, candy for the younger children. At home on the farm it was dahan, the Great Cold, the season to welcome in the new year, but by the Dongguan calendar it was time to reap the rewards of a year’s hard work. This was the only harvest that mattered now.