Factory Girls – Book Review

At the job-market in Dongguan

This is an extended reportage book about the migrant population in south China. Leslie Cheng ventures south on business from Wall Street Journal writing articles and collecting memories which are later used to build the story of this book. It is a compelling mix of autobiography, where Cheng searches for her own Chinese-American roots, modern history account and intimate portraits of the lives of some random individuals turning friends over the years.

It is hard enough to understand the staggering numbers of migrant workers: Each year 10 million move from the countryside into the hundreds of swelling million-count cities across the coastal provinces of China. The last 30 years it adds up to 300 million. Even more difficult is to imagine what it means to the individuals in such a malstroem of new jobs, houses, foods, purchase possibilities.
The timescale of a career is measured in years, not decades. Education and specific professional training is hard currency and payback time is counted in months. The teachers today were novices a year ago. The building where the training is held did not exist last year.

Chang shares her encounters and reflections upon what it means both for the individual and for society. The incidental individual experiences are recounted with a backdrop of research about the bigger picture. It is deeply enjoyable to read, I could not help but laughing out loud while reading the chapter about the English-teaching machine. At the same time I learned a lot about contemporary China. One of the books that Chang describes, “Square and Round”, was referenced yesterday by a Chinese colleague, and it helped me a lot to understand some office politics thanks to the introduction given in this book.

The lemming trek from the Chinese rural plains into the exploding mega-cities will continue for years, so the book is likely to stay relevant for a long time.