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Saturday, February 4, 2012

FACTORY GIRLS – Leslie T. Chang

I started this book before Christmas and just recently finished it. It is one of those nonfiction reads that you can, and must for mental health reasons, put down for a few days before picking it up again. No worries about losing your place or forgetting what you read because you will be brooding about it the whole time you are not reading.

Chang is herself of Chinese descent. She notes that being obviously of Chinese heritage helped open doors for her during her research that many before her had difficulty obtaining. She actually lived among the factory girls and scoured the cities herself interviewing the workers for her data gathering. Interspersed with the research are stories of Chang's own family exodus from China and the country's history also. Chang's own grandfather had emigrated to the USA to go to college, returned to China to help his country progress, was murdered and eventually became a hero to his descendents. All of this is woven into a very understandable and engrossing book. This book is well constructed, interesting, and well documented. I would like to find a group reading this for discussion as my book is full of sticky notes!

According to Chang since China is still a male-dominated culture, rural families still strive to have male children. They will and often do have many female children in pursuit of an heir. The males inherit all the property and assets and usually are the only children sent for further education after elementary school. In the 1990s the surplus female children began to flood the cities for work in the American factories. These girls may be anywhere from 12 to 15 when they arrive and will stay usually only until they are in their early 30s when they will feel pressured to marry and move back to the rural areas. If they can and are smart enough some will save wages to educate themselves further. Those who can educate themselves will become professionals, factory bosses, or they will emigrate.

The factory girls live in dormitories in the factory compounds. They have little, their relationships are superficial, and they are transient. Some will transfer to better jobs, some will tire and go home, and some will meet men and start homes. Many simply disappear into lives of prostitution or are killed and no one knows where they went. Chang delivers her material in a very matter of fact way so that you know the problem is complex. It is not as simple as - The Unites States puts a bunch of factories here and slaves work in them. It is true U.S. investors put factories in China and girls will make the products for very little per day. However, there are still millions of young people in China who need jobs. Families in China are still having too many children in the quest for males. Americans still want cheap goods. Americans will not make these goods as cheaply as Chinese workers will.

Chang's book lets you get to know some of these workers. She lived with them, went home to the farms with them, listened to and documented their hopes and dreams. There are other books on the market now that will give you a picture of the upwardly mobile, educated, and wealthy of China but this one is a look at the rural people who have seen, in only twenty years, the focus of their country turn from agriculture to industry and technology. The new generation of floating population is creating new classes of its own. Height is very important in this new generation that is just barely free from starvation. Each factory practices its own version of class discrimination too. If you read this book you will be entranced with the worker's stories. It isn't dark, or somber but it isn't sugar-coated either.


  1. China is overflowing with disturbing undercurrents. Factory workers, rich/poor disparity, rampant pollution, food scandals, racial discrimination, government corruption, unnerving nationalism, questionable education practices, etc... We get so excited about this country and it's potential on the world scale but few realize the scale of the domestic problems it faces (and subsequently ignores).

  2. Thanks Ryan. I appreciate your input. Will we ever figure out what our proper and responsible involvement with China should be? This is a very good book.