Customer Reviews: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
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on October 11, 2008
Interesting subject, thorough research, well-written. Even the digressions (about the author's family and their histories in and out of China) are fascinating, though they don't quite mesh with the rest of the book. The experiences the factory girls have and their personal transformations will resonate with American readers - here is the self-improvement, hard work and confidence Horatio Alger stuff that used to inspire America transplanted into a culture that is receptive and eager to absorb it, and here, too, are lucid accounts of the sad gaps between ambition and ability, ideals and reality, success and failure that go with immigrant experiences. The author was able to get closer to her subjects than anyone else I have read and writes very well indeed. Her account of how the internal migrant experience has mutated in China over the last 10-15 years is particularly fascinating. I read this cover to cover with great interest and hope the author is a work on a new book. (I don't know what is bothering the one star reviewer -- this review is written in Henan where I am visiting my Chinese wife's family, and I have read countless books on China and spent lots of time here and can vouch for the authenticity of this book).
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on October 31, 2008
In this book, Leslie Chang delves deeply into the world of migrant workers to find out who these people are and what their collective dislocation means for China. Chang skillfully sketches migrants as individuals with their own small victories and bitter tragedies, and she captures the surprising dynamics of this enormous but ill-understood subculture. In many ways, migrant workers embody the fundamental changes underway in China today.

Chang covered China for the Wall Street Journal, and she's an insightful interpreter of a society in flux. People who leave village life, with its intense cocoon of family and community ties, find themselves untethered in a city, scrounging for work and a place to sleep. "They were prey to all sorts of cons, making life decisions on the barest bits of information," she writes. And yet many migrants also feel freed from a suffocating web of traditional habits and mores. Able to explore and grow in the lawless free-for-all of China's boomtowns, many cross an invisible line into the modern world, and there is no going back.

Chang got to know dozens of young women who have ventured to Dongguan, a new metropolis just north of Hong Kong. She focuses on two particularly compelling ones, Min and Chunming, who gradually came to trust her enough to share their stories, as well as diary entries, late-night phone calls and heart-to-heart confessions. Each is ambitious, impulsive, endearing. Each left home as a teenager and experienced a big adventure. Through their lives, Chang shows us how unmoored China is, erratically yearning for something better, and surprisingly resilient.

One of the women describes her blurry, confusing arrival in a new city, getting lured into a whorehouse, escaping, begging on the street, stealing another woman's ID card to get work at a toy factory, graduating to clerkdom, learning about business, striking it rich with direct sales only to see her company crumble overnight. Chang explores a "talent market," where workers offer themselves to any prospective employer -- a sneaker factory, a dating agency, an illicit nightspot. She reads magazines about migrant life that the women eagerly pass around, with articles titled "Be Your Own Master" and "Ambition Made Me Who I Am." Interactions among migrant women seem a cross between high school networking and wartime bonding. Being far from home, the women depend on each other to survive, yet they unite and separate with remarkable ease. Everyone lies. Promises are made and broken. "Dongguan was a place without memory," Chang writes.

Partway through "Factory Girls," Chang abruptly changes gears to tell her own family history. It is fascinating. Her great-grandfather was a landowner in northern China and a Confucian patriarch with four wives. His son, Chang's grandfather, studied mining in the United States and then returned to China. At the height of China's civil war, working for the Nationalists, he was assassinated. Chang's grandmother escaped to Taiwan with her children, leaving relatives and family wealth behind. Chang's father later immigrated to America, where Chang was born and raised. He did not like to talk about family history. Only after Chang had worked in China for some years did she begin to explore and discover the truth, including the myriad resentments and injustices that festered among her relatives, as well as the government's suppression of accounts of the past.

Chang writes about her family and its dislocations with special sensitivity and grace. That story is almost like a book within a book, and it gives a poignant perspective to her accounts of the dislocated migrant workers she gets to know. More than that, it completes her portrait of China.

If the lives of migrant workers seem to represent the new China, with all its unwieldy promise and economic possibilities, Chang's family history reflects the old China, its stubborn intractability and severe injustice. For now, the two still go together.
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VINE VOICEon October 26, 2008
From this book's opening paragraph positing two factory girls meeting each other with an opening question of, "What year are you," the China-knowledgeable reader knows with certainty that author Leslie Chang has her literary finger firmly on the pulse of mainland China. The good news is that Ms. Chang sustains her dead-on rendition of Chinese culture and factory life throughout the full length of this deeply engaging look at China's massive migrant work force. FACTORY GIRLS is informative and insightful, offering a first-hand view of the (mostly) young women who make up what the Chinese aptly call the "liudong renkou," the "floating population."

Ms. Chang, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent and spouse of China author Peter Hessler (RIVER TOWN and ORACLE BONES), directs her attentions to the industrial heart of southeastern China, in the city of Dongguan. There she meets and obtains the confidence of several young women from peasant families who have migrated from small villages in the country's interior, agricultural provinces to take factory jobs. There's Lu Qingmin, a migrant from Hubei Province who follows her older sister Guimin's trek to the factory world in Guangdong Province, near Hong Kong. There's Wu Chunming, the inveterate diarist and self-motivator, a native of Hunan Province who left her village for factory life in 1993, long before the migration became a massive movement.

Amazingly, as Chang reveals, some of the young women had no idea what factory work was like before arriving there, imagining it as some sort of chatty, casual environment. What they discover is, of course, far different, but Chang uses her personal entrée to explore their motivations. First and foremost is money, both for their own use and equally to send back to their families. As time passes, however, some of the young women find themselves motivated by life style changes, new opportunities, chances to learn new skills (including the English language), and even to remake themselves into urbanites. Along the way, Ms. Chang picks up the stories of others whose orbits intersect with those of the factory girls. For example, there's Mr. Wu, inventor of an absurd "assembly line English program," and his devoted student, Liu Yuxia, and Ding Yuanzhi with his bizarrely successful perversion of a self-help book entitled "Square and Round."

Without doubt, FACTORY GIRL's most affecting segment concerns Lu Qingmin's return trip to her parents' home. Here Chang illustrates the widening gulf between generations and life styles as well as the spectacular role reversals that modernization has forced upon families. No longer can the elderly be revered for their experience and wisdom. Now they are obsolete, unable to earn even a modest income, unconnected in a wired world, ignorant of everything from fashion and job-hopping to flush toilets and dating.

Ms. Chang takes a somewhat risky approach to her story of a changing, industrializing China. Instead of focusing strictly on her factory girl subjects, she intersperses their stories with her own rediscovery of her family roots in and around Beijing. The literary purpose is clear: to delineate through generational differences the shift from the Mao-era, collectivist approach to and philosophy of life to the burgeoning sense of individualism and self-actualization in the present-day world of a developing, Westernizing China.

Unfortunately, Chang's excursions into her own family history distract from the far more interesting stories of her young female subjects, the village migrant villagers struggling to survive, make money, and find their place in the changing world of Chinese life. Chang's family was clearly a privileged one, filled with college educated professionals and migrants to Taiwan and the United States. They seem strangely out of place here, in much the same sense that tales of the Red Guard and the Cultural Revolution ring hollow and anachronistic in the lives of the young factory girls' lives. As a consequence, these personal biographical interludes feel more intrusive than illustrative. I read them impatiently, wanting only to get back to the stories of Lu Qingmin and Wu Chunming and their factory girl colleagues. If anything, Ms. Chang's efforts to climb inside her subjects' skins do not go far enough. We want to learn still more from the forward-looking stories of Qingmin and Chunming and less about the buried past represented by the pathetic, backward-looking obsessions of her father's first cousin, Zhang Hong.

FACTORY GIRLS is nevertheless a revealing portrayal of a rapidly changing society seen through the least of its players, the young women who populate the factories that now produce so much of the world's goods. Her stories exemplify beautifully her book's catch phrase: "The history of a family begins when a person leaves home." Ms. Chang's strong eye for the telling detail brings fascinating tidbits of Chinese life and culture to the reader, and she does so in a style that is both entertaining and highly readable. We can only hope to see more from her in the coming years.
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on November 5, 2008
Factory Girls is a non-fiction book written by an Chinese-American journalist. It focuses on the stories of girls who immigrate from rural Chinese villages to factories in more urban areas of China. The girls work in shoe factories, purse factories, factories that make one specific plastic piece for a larger item, and a lot of other factories, but their stories are all the same -- they left the village for better opportunities.

I'm glad that someone finally wrote a book like this. People in America like to focus on poor working conditions of factories in China, but what they don't realize is that a lot of the people working in those factories would rather work 14 hour days sitting in an assembly line and earning 10x the amount they make doing back-breaking work on a farm. The author does a great job showing the lives of these girls who leave their village without imparting any judgement on them or their bosses.

I enjoyed reading the stories of the handful of girls who worked at one factory, jumped to the next, jumped to another job, and so on, but I thought the author's own story of her family felt a bit tacked on. It made the book feel like it was trying to be two separate books. The author's story could have gone in a separate book about families affected by the Communist Revolution.

The book is easy to read. Even though the factory girls' stories started sounding similar toward the middle of the book (that was the point), it never felt like a chore to read. I'd recommend the book to anyone interested in the side of the story that doesn't usually get covered in western newspapers.
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on November 17, 2008
As someone who lives in Beijing and has been part of the East Asian Studies scholastic community for years, I can honestly say that this book sums up everything my mountains of pretentious textbooks and Dashan-esque snooty white dudes have ever said about life in China. The book is long, as it should be, because there is so much to observe. The author's analysis is thoughtful, and never condescending or presumptuous. Her personal family history is so fascinating. Many reviews say it interrupts the rest of the book, but it doesn't feel that way to me. It provides a concrete historical background so that you see a snapshot of modern culture, then a digression to find out more about China's past. Her comments about various ironies of Chinese modern culture are spot-on but always kind. I would teach an entire course on this book, and it should certainly be required reading for any class on modern China, women in China, Chinese economics, etc. I haven't been this excited about a single book in a long time. Thank you Leslie T. Chang for writing this book!!!
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on November 9, 2008
I enjoyed very much reading this book. I read the author's WSJ article long time ago, so I was eagerly waiting for this book to come out. The stories are very interesting yet poignant at the same time. These girls' ambitions, hard work, & constant desire for self-improvement put those Americans who take everything they have for granted to shame.

I admire the author's courageous effort in her research, following the girls to their factories, villages, and business meetings. Joining millions of migrants in the crazy Chinese New Year travel BY TRAIN & then BY BUS - is not for the ones with fainted hearts... TO live in the rural village with no heat in February (below freezing point weather)for TWO WEEKS - is not an easy task for someone who's American born, or even native Chinese from the northern part of China (where there is heat in winter). Mao in the old days arbitrarily decided that "north of the Yangze River is allowed to have heat in winter, south of it no need". What a tyrant!!

I gave the book 4-star instead of a 5-star only because:
1. I found the stories a bit choppy. I had a hard time tracking all the names & places & found myself flipping back to see who's whom. A clearer timeline might have been helpful.
2. I would like to see some pictures of Dongguan, factories, dorms, places where the author & girls have been to, and a detailed map perhaps, tracking each girl's job hopping steps. A picture is worth a thousand words. Author might want to set up a website with some additional information.
3. The author's own family history, while very touching to read, is somewhat distracting from the girls' stories, despite the author's effort of drawing the analogy of "her grandfather was just like these migrant girls by leaving their own village decades ago". I think that the author should've saved that material & write another book about it.

Overall, this is a great book, and kudos to Leslie for her hard work & incredible effort to make these girls' stories known. Bravo!
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on November 16, 2009
Leslie Chang's "Factory Girls" From Village to City in a Changing China" is an exploration about the migration of primarily female workers from rural villages to fuel the demand for labor in the modern industrialized cities. Through interviews spanning several years, Leslie follows a handful of initially naive, but also amazingly daring young women that move to the city in hopes of landing factory jobs and achieving economic success and independence. These women view themselves as modern-day pioneers, establishing themselves in the modern industrial world in order to improve the future prospects of their families. Through the eyes of these women, readers learn what life is like inside the factories, and how the working conditions are simply considered to be part of the price to be paid.

I began the book expecting to read horror stories of oppression and servitude. Nothing could be further from the truth. What these women rapidly learn is that they constitute 70% of the labor force, and that number carries weight. While some working conditions such as holding back a month's pay for "security" are commonplace and accepted, other treatment is not tolerated and the women (at least the ones interviewed for this book), thought nothing of quitting their jobs at the drop of a hat, because they knew they could always find another one. In fact, the book is primarily about how these women strive for upward mobility in the workplace - how they learn (or fake) skills that will garner them a higher salary at the next job down the line, or how they start, fail, or succeed at their own businesses. They are unabashed self-promoters.

All of the women send some money back home to their families and the more they send back, the more power they wield on their infrequent visits - financial power brings real power when it comes to making decisions within the family - and the parents acquiesce to these decisions in order to obtain the benefits that their daughters can provide. After short visits with rounds of friends and relatives in their villages, it is usually back to the city to continue the struggle.

Interwoven in these accounts is Leslie's personal research into the path taken by her own parents and grandparents in their emigration to the United States - a fascinating story with many threads that Leslie explores on her trips. While I found this story interesting, I would have preferred a more concentrated focus on the factory girls of the story.

I came away from this book with a newfound point of view, that the industrialization of China is ultimately empowering for Chinese women in ways that life on rural farms can never accomplish. The aggressive way in which these women approach the workplace and their determination to succeed was a real eye-opener. It would not surprise me in the least to find that 10-20 years from now, the majority of the factories and industrial businesses in China were run by women.
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on May 27, 2012
First things first. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but when certain ignorant Amazon customer reviewers make frivolous off-the-cuff comments like the book is "boring" or "the chapters don't flow easily," when that is decidedly not the case, I must state right off that this marvelous and well-written book is one of the best introductions to Chinese society I have read.

Late in the book there is a disturbing account of a small-scale business operation in an apartment in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. The male running it keeps his female underlings working all day and forbids to them to leave the apartment except for a few hours once a week; they sleep in a cramped dormitory-style bedroom. Quiz: this operation is A) a brothel, B) a sweatshop, C) a religious cult, D) none of the above. D is correct: it's a private English language school for adults, mainly female factory workers between jobs who want to gain English credentials. Their teacher's notion of language learning is, like so much in China, quantitative-based and modeled on the factory assembly line: a machine he invented rapidly rotate words which the students must memorize as they flash by. This episode in Leslie Chang's book is representative in presenting two aspects of life in China for the hundreds of millions of migrant workers trying to achieve career stability or success in the city. On the one hand, there is the optimistic assessment, emphasized by Chang throughout the book, namely the freedom migrants now have to leave the village and go where opportunity beckons, with increasing numbers of success stories, primarily for female migrants, who often paradoxically enjoy greater freedom than males due to the obligations of male migrants to return to the village and care for their family. As Chang recounts with the stories of two migrants she befriended and followed for two years, Min and Chunming, the choices young Chinese women from the countryside now have at their disposal for upward mobility can be compared to the freedom and allure of worldwide travel young people from the developed world enjoy.

On the other hand, there is a powerful counterforce holding many Chinese back from freedom and autonomy: the imposing psychological control of group conformity. As a longtime American resident in China, I see this all the time in numerous guises among all social strata, not just migrants (and I write about this in my website attached to my Amazon profile). Although it is true that working conditions in factories have been improving over the past few years as workers learn about their rights and bargaining power through better communication (the internet) as well as negative publicity about labor exploitation at Foxconn, this still largely applies to skilled factory workers. For countless other workers in the service industry (restaurants, shop workers, the sex industry), working conditions remain awful - 12-14 hour days, 1-2 days off per month, minimum wage. Educated white-collar workers, for their part, experience a different kind of exploitation, hardly less grim: typically just as long working hours (though varying considerably from company to company) or 24-hour cellphone monitoring when off work, with elaborate penalty systems for failure to respond immediately to cellphone summons or other minor infractions (one highly educated female I know who worked as a journalist for a national newspaper quit because they were docking too much of her pay each month for largely unspecified penalties).

So returning to the aforementioned English training school, where Chang would describe the conditions experienced by these women as a matter of personal freedom and choice, we also recoil at the psychological coercion involved, which prevents them from rebelling, protesting and leaving. To be sure, this school is a bizarre exception, and most English schools in China, even unaccredited ones, are run like normal schools, with students present only during class hours. But another book needs to be written that deals with the dark side of China's economic success, even in these upwardly mobile times. It's good to have Chang's upbeat account, but for every migrant who achieves success like Min, how many millions of Chinese (including the educated class) remain locked and paralyzed in their internal cages of fear and anger, quietly spending their entire waking hours making superiors rich while they receive a pittance (not to mention the horrifying ongoing problem of companies that don't pay their workers at all, even an entire year's promised wages, folding up operations just before the Spring Festival and disappearing). After years of teaching in Chinese universities, I could see the mental slavery all around me on university campuses, which unlike universities almost anywhere in the world, are completely void of any signs of student protests. Largely enabling and ensuring China's economic expansion, in short, is group coercion and internalized fear on a scale few other societies know.
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VINE VOICEon October 31, 2008
If you are anything like me, you have wondered about the lives and work conditions of the workers in China that manufacture the good we buy and use on a daily basis. In addition, I wonder if they know what they are making and have any desire to own these things. If these questions, and more, make you curious, then this is the perfect book for you to read.

The author looks at the lives of the (mainly) women who leave the country side to come to the factories to make money for themselves and for their families. Focusing on the city of Dongguan, which is known as a manufacturing city, the author looked for and found 2 subjects that were interested in telling their stories. She actually found more, but do to the turnover rates at the factories, she lost touch with them fairly rapidly.

Imagine, if you can, a factory that makes most of the athletic shoes for many of the main brand names in the industry, along with a few lesser brands. What would that factory look like and how are the workers treated? Would you be surprised if I told you the factory compound employs 70,000 employees (no, that isn't a misprint) and that the workers work forced overtime, make less than $200 a month (on average) and live and eat within the factory compound? I know I was amazed and tried to picture what a factory of that size looked like.

Interspersed with the information about the factories, the city, and life in the city, the author presents a history of her family. While it may seem out of place, the information is very useful in demonstrating how China has changed financially, as well as socially, over the past 100 years. The information paints a stark change in the way society functions and demonstrates that China is a different country now from what it was even a mere 10 years ago.

This was an excellent read that had me looking at electronic items I used every day in a totally different light. And, I am sure it will cause me to think twice when I next purchase something made in China. I will wonder if the people who made it are treated as slaves or if this factory is one of the better ones. And I will wonder if they aspire to own whatever it is I want (and probably don't really need). This is an excellent book that puts a face on the globalization of industry and I cannot recommend it highly enough!
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on March 17, 2014
I have had the good fortune to meet and work with some Chinese women who are recent émigrés to the U.S. and have found them to be extraordinarily resourceful and independent. I purchased some books in order to better understand a culture that produces young people with such determination. This is not a book about historical figures or great deeds, nor is it an academic book dealing with politics or economic theory. Instead it is a third person journal which traces the lives of two particular young women who have made the decision to leave their old village life behind and travel to the city in search of employment and a new way of life. Their stories are told with compassion but unwavering objectivity. What they find and what happens to them along the way is the story of millions of young Chinese girls from rural families who make the same decision. Each one of them is different but most are driven by the shared goal of independence and a desire to better themselves and improve the lives of the family members they leave behind. They all face hardships which must be overcome in order to pursue their dream. They do this in a uniquely Chinese way: blending a strong sense of obligation to family and their traditional village values with a new faster paced urban way of life and an emerging sense of autonomy. They are pursuing an individual destiny despite being born into a stratified social order where futures are largely determined by circumstances of birth. The interplay between the two sometimes opposing and vastly different world views is what this book is really about. I found it informative, compelling and even inspiring at times This is not a book about making tennis shoes
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