To help further my understanding of China, I read Factory Girls by Leslie Chang, an insight to the lives of a few of the millions upon millions of young female migrants who move to the ‘instant-cities’ of Southern China in search of opportunity. We see this fascinating world through the eyes of the formal Wall Street Journal correspondent, Leslie Chang, a young Chinese-American woman. She blends in to this world and is able to establish a close relationship with the girls allowing her to see the smaller-scale backdrops against which they live their lives while maintaining a good eye for the wider social and economic forces at work. As the book progresses, Chang undertakes a journey of self discovery into her family history and finds parallels between the girls stories and her own families migrations.
For most girls the journey begins with a desire to find purpose in their lives : “There was nothing to do at home, so I went out.” They leave with little more than the number of friend or relative and the name of a factory. Once in the city the girls are part of a fiercely competitive environment where they can rarely rely on anyone but themselves. Girls switch friends and factories in a heartbeat and don’t often look back. They never get too attached and they never settle.
Changs descriptions of Dongguan are often Orwell-esque with mass-labour, bare-bones living conditions and booming slogans: “To die poor is a sin”; “Through doing something you will learn it”; “If you don’t work hard today, you’ll look hard for work tomorrow.”
Employers are free to discriminate as they see fit. Advertisements often state that migrants from a particular province need not apply. Other restraints such as age, gender and even height also come into play. The constant movement of workers means there are always hundreds of vacancies and lying about skills, qualifications and experience often seems the best way to land a job.
To our western culture, this seems no way to live but for the girls they decision is simple. They are young and ambitious and they see little for themselves in their rural towns. Migrating to the city is an opportunity to see the world, develop themselves and learn new skills. They are driven by a desire to improve themselves and to take control of their fate: “To come out from home and work in a factory is the hardest thing they have ever done. What keeps them in they city is not fear but pride: to return home early is to admit defeat. To go out and stay out is to change your fate.”
Many of the girls do succeed but often find that success has not made them happy. They are painfully aware of their drawbacks and always aim to improve themselves. It begs the question: will these girls ever find happiness and satisfaction with their lives?
China is a country of mesmerising scale but the success of this book is to take the blurred crowd and throw a few single faces into fascinating focus. The girls portrayed in this book have endured seriously hard work and received little reward for their struggles and in that sense the book can be sad but it is also uplifting and inspiring, for the girls remain defiant and determined: “In all the time I knew them, the migrant girls never asked me for help, and rarely even for advice. Life was something they faced alone, as they had been telling me from the first day we met. ‘I can only rely on myself’.”