Friday, May 14, 2010

Factory Girls by Leslie Chang

This book is the first real look at the everyday migrant population in China - the folks that work in the factories that usually make the products that we consume here in the West.  It specifically looks at female migrant workers and was originally conceived as a series of articles that would appear in the Wall Street Journal.

In this book, Leslie Chang journeys to Dongguan, China and follows two women as they attempt to rise through the ranks in industrial factories, starting with the assembly lines to management. In addition, she follows them through their journey into self-improvement and dating.Interspersed in between the stories of the two women that she follows, Chang also tells the story of her own family and their migration from farm to city and from mainland China to Taiwan to the United States.

Chang does a remarkable job painting this world.  It's a world where just about everyone  that has "gone out" to the city from their rural village is under 30 and where friends and boyfriends are lost when a person loses their cell phone (because cell phones are the only reliable way for migrant workers to keep in touch with each other). It's also a world where changing jobs every month or so isn't unusual - people seemingly changed jobs as easily as they changed their clothing.  It's also a world where a small amount of knowledge of English and computers carried you from the depths of the factories to their offices and lies about your qualifications led to you getting jobs, and where employers never took five minutes to verify that. It's also a world where there are factories so large, that they have their own hospitals and own fire departments.

The more interesting parts of the book, for me, focused on the migrant workers, their lives and their motivations.  I found the sections about Chang's family to be a little bit slow and sometimes uninteresting. I appreciated that Ms. Chang didn't draw any moral conclusions (at least not explicitly) so that I, as the reader, could attempt to draw my own conclusions.  I also really appreciated how Ms. Chang didn't seek to propose any solutions.  She envisioned her role as providing information to the reader and she did that adequately, although one shouldn't expect a comprehensive guide to migrant workers going in. I think that a book lie that would take more than the approximately 440 pages that this book was. Her prose is very accessible and very readable; the book moved pretty quickly (even the parts that I wasn't particularly fond of). You should also not expect her to delve into the controversies surrounding factories - unions, human rights violations, etc. - again because I think that this wasn't the point of the book and also would have made the book much, much longer than it is.

This was a really wonderful book that deserved the accolades given to it.

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