Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang
Leslie T. Chang’s bio notes her gratitude to her immigrant parents for “forc[ing] her to attend Saturday-morning Chinese school” while growing up outside New York City. That multilingual skill clearly gave her privileged access during the decade she spent as a China correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, while that lofty journalist background imbues her debut title with meticulous details … but what permeates her Factory Girls with immediacy and depth is her intimate, gifted storytelling.
Life in 21st-century China morphs daily. Businesses – and fortunes – appear and disappear overnight. The loss of a cell phone can mean permanently broken ties. Personal facts like birthdates are negotiable. Official documents can be bought. Lies are at least as common than truth.
In this uncertain new world, some 150 million Chinese citizens are mobile, hopping from job to job, relocating from villages to cities. Fascinated by this growing population of young and unskilled workers – some 70% of whom are young women – Chang chose Dongguan, one of China’s largest factory cities, as her research base. “I was invisible in Dongguan,” she writes, able to move freely, meeting – and often losing – a rotating roster of the city’s transient workers. Chang develops close ties with two of these “factory girls,” Min and Chungmin, who prove to be surprisingly transparent in sharing not only their hopes and dreams, but the secrets they would never even confess to their family or friends.
“The history of a family begins when a person leaves,” Chang observes. These factory girls are often the first to venture out with the belief that “‘[t]he farther away from home you go, the more splendid it is.'” Like her subjects, Chang’s family’s American history began decades before when her father left China for the other side of the world. While exploring and recording the factory girls’ first-to-leave stories, Chang also researches her own, interweaving almost a century of her multi-generational discoveries with the 21st-century narratives of a brand new China.
Chang’s three-pronged book is an intricate mosaic of new and old, ambition and desperation, tenacity and indecision, achievement and loss. She writes with clarity and conviction, bearing witness to the breathless changes in this “place without a memory.” As history, as sociological study, as memoir, as just a downright unforgettable book, Factory Girls is quite the engaging, compelling accomplishment. That six years have passed since its publication makes me hopeful that Chang is furiously working on another title. Impatient demands aside, here’s to book #2 hitting shelves sooner than later.
Tidbit: Watch Chang’s 2012 TEDGlobal presentation, based on Factory Girls, here. Meet her equally gifted storytelling journalist/author and MacArthur “Genius” husband here. Talk about a most dynamic duo indeed!