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BOOK REVIEW

A new chapter of industrialization

By Michael Kenney
November 11, 2008
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FACTORY GIRLS
From Village to City
in a Changing China

By Leslie T. Chang
Spiegel & Grau, 420 pp., $26

During the mid-1800s, thousands of young women migrated from the farms and rural villages of northern New England to work in the textile mills of Lowell. They lived together in company-owned boardinghouses, working long and tiring hours, but got paid regularly and enjoyed the social and cultural attractions of urban life.

The lives and experiences of those "mill girls" are being replicated today in the raw, unfinished factory cities of southern China. And those life experiences are explored with rich detail in Leslie T. Chang's "Factory Girls," an account that deftly balances the intimate and the sociological.

Chang's parents left China during the 1948 civil war and settled in the United States. Their experiences provide unnecessary padding to Chang's account. She is a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the wife of Peter Hessler, author of several notable books on the country.

Initially reporting for the Journal, Chang followed several young women who had "gone out" - the Chinese phrase is "chuqu" - from their villages in the countryside to Dongguan, a booming city in the industrial area of southeastern China, "a land of full-throttle industry" where a new corporate headquarters "looks out on rice paddies, fish ponds, and duck farms."

Officially, Dongguan has 1.7 million local residents, and an estimated 7 million migrants in a nation where there are now some 170 million migrants.

One shoe factory to which Chang had access employed 70,000 workers making athletic shoes for Adidas, Nike, and other labels. By comparison, the Boott Mills in Lowell employed 2,000-3,000 workers in the mid-1800s. Like Lowell, the Dongguan shoe factory had dormitories and cafeterias, and like many Chinese government agencies and commercial enterprises, its own commissaries and a hospital.

Chang's principal informants, Lu Qingmin, whom she calls "Min," and Luo Chunming - almost more like "companions," as she visits them in their worker dormitories, and socializes with them - exhibit a mixture of girlish innocence and gritty determination. "Their lives and struggles," Chang writes, "were emblematic of their country today," and to some extent of her own family, "leaving home, enduring hardship, and making a new life."

In the culture that has developed around the migrant workers are such things as advice magazines, talent markets, and language schools. English was seen as important for success in Dongguan.

In this world with few fixed points, the mobile phone is an important object, allowing migrants to keep in touch with friends, and to help in finding the inevitable new job. When Lu's phone was stolen, Chang writes, "the friendships of a year and a half vanished as if they had never been. She was alone again."

It is important to understand that China's recent economic growth and its rapidly evolving urban culture - all much on display during this summer's Beijing Olympics - is occurring in the context of a very traditional society. That shock of conflicting cultures appears in Chang's account of accompanying Lu Qingmin when she returns for the traditional New Year's holiday to her family's faraway home.

Chang found life in the countryside "not relaxing." It was "a place of constant socializing and negotiating, a conversation that has been going on for a long time and will continue after you are gone." She soon understood "why migrants felt so alone when they first went to the city," but also "how they came to value the freedom they found there, until at last they were unable to live without it."

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.

BOOK REVIEW

FACTORY GIRLS From Village to City in a Changing China By Leslie T. Chang

Spiegel & Grau, 420 pp., $26

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