Grace Tjan's Reviews > Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang
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Jan 10, 12

bookshelves: 2011, audio, china, general-non-fiction
Read from December 28 to 31, 2011

In the early 2000s, my brother briefly worked as an executive for a Taiwanese-owned manufacturing company in China. It was a company of truly epic proportions, employing hundreds of thousands in China and abroad, and manufacturing for virtually all the big names in consumer electronics sold all over the world. If you use an IPad or any other Apple product, it would have passed through one of its gargantuan production facilities. Its ‘campus’ in Longhua, an industrial suburb of Shenzhen, was practically a city unto itself with massive dormitories, shops, a sports center and a hospital. Security was tight, discipline militaristic, living condition Spartan and working hours extremely long. Assembly-line pay was miniscule by first world standards, but slightly above average for China. Worker suicides were not unknown*. Once in a blue moon, the big boss, a Taiwanese self-made billionaire who scoffed at business school grads, would drop by to preach the virtues of “hard work” and four hours of sleep a day to stadium-full of employees. On certain auspicious days, everyone had to line up to pay their respect to the Tu Di Gong, the Chinese earth god of wealth, eliciting muffled objections from the Taiwanese Christians and mainlanders brought up as atheists by the Communist state. The Taiwanese executives and managers spoke Taiwanese Hokkien among themselves, a language not understood by most of the mainlanders, and looked down on their workers, migrants from the rural interior who formed the backbone of the company’s operations.

After a while, my brother’s functional Mandarin became good enough to talk directly to the workers. He was impressed by their capacity for hard work and innate intelligence. Considering that these people were probably the first generation ever to leave the farm and were spottily educated in rural schools, it was a revelation to see how quickly they learned how the factory worked and to make hi-tech products according to complex instructions. After working hours, he wandered around the town, an industrial Wild West full of shops selling cheap and/or bootleg goods. You could walk into a hole-in-the-wall electronics shop and buy, say, a ‘Sony’ DVD player for a fraction of the official price. Or, if you liked the design of the Sony but preferred the specs of the Phillips --- mei wenti! No problem. They could assemble one for you. The more reputable shops got their wares from the factories that made these brands, so in a sense they were ‘genuine’ knock-offs. Everyone was ambitious, inured to working conditions that were unthinkable in developed countries, and had no respect whatsoever for intellectual property. The officials expected kickbacks, and practically anything was permissible for the right price. Currency manipulation aside, these attitudes seem to be the real cause behind China’s spectacular economic rise.

This book is a fascinating, occasionally voyeuristic, study of the lives of the assembly-line workers who fueled this rise, specifically a couple of factory girls in Dongguan, another industrial town not far from Shenzhen. Chang, a second-generation Chinese American, followed each of her subjects for years, chronicling their working and private lives, collecting information about their family history and even gaining access to their diaries. Daughters, who are less valued under the Confucian system, became the primary breadwinners of the family under the new values of industrialization (sons are often required to stay in the village to care for their ancestral farms and many factories prefer young women as they are considered more diligent and easier to manage). For the first time in history, unmarried, working-class women call the shots and they are ambitious enough to make the most of this opportunity. A sweatshop job is a stepping-stone to a white-collar job in the same factory. A receptionist with a talent for public speaking can become a successful recruiter for a MLM company. Farm girls who never graduated middle school could own export-oriented SMEs. There is a darker side to all of this, and Chang is never sentimental about her girls; she doesn’t shy away from writing about the sometimes-Machiavellian ethos they employed to get ahead, or about the bogus and criminal enterprises that proliferated to take advantage of ignorant migrant workers.

Between stories of the factory girls, Chang inserted her own family’s history of migration. It is decades and continents apart, for the Changs were an educated, upper middle class family that migrated to America after the Communist victory, but it serves as an interesting contrast to the experiences of today’s rural migrants.

Writing about the rising China is practically a cottage industry of its own, but this book is remarkable for putting a human face on the tide of workers who powers the economic juggernaut. It seems to me that this book and both Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present and Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler, who is married to Chang, present the most honest and insightful picture of contemporary China.


*Long after my brother left the company, these tragic incidents became a PR disaster for the company (and Apple). In response to this problem, the management planned to replace troublesome human workers with automatons.
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