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  • Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Leslie T. Chang. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2008. 420 pp. Hardcover $26.00, ISBN 978-0-385-52017-1.

Leslie Chang is an American writer who digs deeply into her Chinese heritage. In her book Factory Girls, the setting is the greatest migration in human history of more than 130 million people within the last three decades. Younger country people move from rural to urban-industrial China to seek a better livelihood for themselves and, through money sent home, for their loved ones left behind. These migrants represent the apparent inexhaustible supply of cheap labor that China needs for building its sprawling cities with their high-rises and factory complexes. They maintain and clean its buildings and offices, attend to the households and children of the rising urban middle class, and fill and replenish the assembly lines and various receiving and shipping departments of China’s burgeoning factories. [End Page 330]

Chang’s focus is on the township of Dongguan, part of the Pearl River Delta in south China, thirty miles from the city of Guangzhou (Canton), Guangdong Province. Dongguan is a representative factory city, one of multitudinous in the special economic zones created by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s to attract foreign investments to China to advance its modernizing process. Seventy percent of Dongguan’s population are women who work in its thousands of factories churning out textiles, electronics, shoes, appliances, toys, and Christmas decorations and lights.

Dongguan is a natural place for Chang to contact and get to know her factory girls. Through dogged determination and persistence, Chang is able to make sustained contact and put a human face on people with actual names to an otherwise impersonal monolith of China’s migrant workers and floating population. They are vibrant personalities with interesting stories to tell, such as those of Lu Qingmin, who for Chang is simply “Min,” or “Chunming” (for Wu Chunming). Through these people and their network of friends and acquaintances in their interaction with the author, we come to know closely the thousands upon thousands of factory girls who come and go in Dongguan, a city whose inhabitants are constantly on the move.

These girls are largely poorly educated youth, ages sixteen to twenty-five years, who begin their first industrial employment by joining an army of assembly line workers. The very moment they are employed on the line, Chang tells us, they are already thinking of ways to free themselves from their monotonous and fatiguing tasks. Besides being lured to the city by the possibility of improving the family economy and the excitement of seeing the world, these girls are also driven by the boredom and idleness of the hum-drum farm life that their parents and younger siblings easily manage.

Being young and steeped in the Chinese tradition of self-cultivation (however much on the unconscious level) and despite inadequate formal education, they do often ask the fundamental question of what life is all about. They are anxious to seek opportunities, learning computer skills, speaking English, gaining poise and self-confidence in assertive training—all to remake themselves into more marketable human resource in the plethora of self-improvement schools that have mushroomed in their factory city.

The culture of Dongguan is an exaggerated secular form of the old revolutionary notion of self-reliance. In that whirlwind manufacturing environment, one can only depend on oneself, and truth-speaking is not a particularly useful virtue in getting ahead in a factory society. One has to bluff one’s way into getting ahead by lying about one’s qualifications and work experience, if necessary, in order to get out of the grind of assembly-line captivity. Friendships, both male and female, are fleeting at best, so Chang tells us. With the population of Dongguan being largely female, prostitution is common and much more lucrative than working on the assembly line. The Silverworld Hotel in town, according to Chang, [End Page 331] engages as many as three hundred young women (actually girls) who can massage or provide other services...