A worthy toil

A stunningly good book about migrant labourers

A worthy toil

Bad cover, good book

You should never judge a book by its cover. That goes doubly so for Factory Girls, whose cover is so unappealing it might pass for an academic tome. Fortunately, what’s beneath the cover is neither dry nor academic. In fact, if you want to gain an insight into modern China, there are few books as useful.

Author Leslie Chang has spent years researching her subject, and lived in China as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

As the name suggests, her subject matter in Factory Girls are the female employees who power China’s dynamic coastal factories – the young migrants from the countryside who sew together your running shoes and assemble your mobile phone.

Chang decided she wanted to get to know these girls better, and so moved to Dongguan, a bustling factory city in Guangdong. Her research took place before the recent downturn – which has seen around 20 million migrant workers laid off – but that does not make the book any less relevant. There are still more than 100 million ‘factory girls’ clocking on each day

The book begins by describing the conditions the girls work in: the long days, the low wages, the lack of real friends and so forth.

The picture painted is of a tough existence. At this stage the text could easily become an indictment of China’s Dickensian working conditions and exploited masses.

But what makes Chang’s book different is that she prefers to try to get into the girls’ heads, to understand what drives them, their choices, and what they have left behind.

In fact, the book charts the upward mobility of the girls that Chang befriends. They start at the bottom – as workers in factories – and through sheer force of will (and a fair dose of dishonesty) jump into clerical jobs. Some even start their own companies.

Chang also returns to the countryside to see the girls in their homes. She portrays the strange paradox at the centre of their lives: they miss home, but they like the freedom they have gained to map their own path in Guangdong, away from their meddling, conservative parents.

Factory Girls is extremely well written, and Chang has a good turn of phrase. For example, when a teacher at a self-improvement class talks about drinking games, he speaks “with the solemnity of someone talking about the need to land a 747 in a case of emergency.”

And when she goes out with local entrepreneurs she is taken to an “eight-thousand-square-metre Japanese restaurant whose chief selling point seems to be that it was eight-thousand-square-metres.”

Interesting information and trivia also abound, such as the fact that it takes a Yue Yuen assembly line 10 hours to make a shoe and 200 pairs of hands to do so.

But perhaps where the book is strongest is in its exploration of morality. In the chaotic world of Dongguan, no one cares about resumes or diplomas. Everyone has lied and faked their way into every job they have ever got, and assumes the same about everyone else. The key thing is how confidently you lie, and how quick you are to learn on the job. As one of the teachers at the self-improvement school says: “People who are too honest in this society will lose out.”

Towards the end of the book, one of the girls (named Chunming) tells the author her brother has scored well in the civil service exam. “I asked her what kind of person aspired to be an official. ‘The big bosses need the help of officials with the right connections,’ she explained. ‘And the officials work together with the companies. It’s a form of cooperation. So deciding to be a government official is just another way to go into business.’ She didn’t mention job security, or prestige, or the desire to serve one’s country: being an official was just an alternate route into the market economy. It was the best explanation I had heard of why anyone in China entered government service.”

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