I started writing a review of Leslie T. Chang’s “Factory Girls” several months ago when I first finished the book. Embarrassingly my attraction to shiny objects and bits of ribbon had shuffled the unfinished post into what was surely eternal-draftdom, until I happened across it this morning while doing some housekeeping here on Lost Laowai.
My lateness in posting the review is perhaps fitting considering I was quite late to reading the 2008 story about migrant factory workers in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan. And while my (now finished) review is bound to be a bit disjointed as I try to remember what my random notes were in reference to, I felt I needed to complete and post it if for no other reason than to highly recommend you read the book.
“Factory Girls” was my follow-up read to Peter Hessler’s “River Town“, and it wasn’t until mid-way through Chang’s book that I learned the two were married with children — somewhat disproving the whole “opposites attract” cliche (though “powerhouse China-focused narrative non-fiction writers attract” isn’t as like to inspire songs).
In a lot of ways “Factory Girls” and River Town share a common theme. They both paint a picture of a place–Hessler’s Fuling, and Chang’s Dongguan–through a patchwork of well-woven personal tales, while ultimately telling the story of the author’s own journey.
I have to confess, I very nearly put down “Factory Girls” after the first chapter, as I was struggling to connect with the characters and its somewhat dry introductory pages. I was well-rewarded for sticking with it though, and looking back, I think it was probably more my misconceptions about the book than the book itself that initially turned me off.
The story’s opening centres on Lu Qingmin, a 16-year-old girl from rural China that has recently arrived in the industrious city of Dongguan, Guangdong. It’s tough to imagine a character further away from a 30-something, city-born, Canadian, white guy than that. It doesn’t take long however for Chang to find the universal threads of her subjects’ lives and firmly attach them to her reader.
As much as the peek inside the lives of modern migrant workers in a 24-hour lights-on factory city was interesting, I found the parts of the book involving the author’s own family–of earlier migrants–most fascinating.
Chang’s grandfather was Zhang Shenfu, an American-educated engineer who was killed at a Fushan, Liaoning, mine in 1946 — it is assumed that he was stabbed to death by communist bayonets. After his death her family struggles through the Chinese civil war that eventually saw her father’s family flee on one of the last planes out of Beijing for Taiwan, and eventually immigrate to the US.
It is in telling her own story that she comes to, and shares, some of her more prolific thoughts, always careful to find her way back to the central theme of her book:
“And perhaps I, too, am more Chinese than I knew. Because now I understand all of them–understand why a person would choose not to tell her story, or be unable to tell it, or not admit to any feeling, because the emotion would overwhelm you otherwise. I understand the poem my aunt Nellie wrote for her father [Zhang Shenfu], in which she tries to contain her emotion, to shape her personal sorrow into something proper and purposeful. In the final verses, she fails–But I hate it! Father–and the emotion floods through, a secret wound suddenly open to the world.
“Perhaps China during the twentieth century had to go so terribly wrong so that people could start over, this time pursuing their individual courses and casting aside the weight of family, history, and the nation. For a long time I thought of Dongguan as a city with no past, but now I realize it isn’t so. The past has been there all along, reminding us: This time–maybe, hopefully, against all odds–we will get it right.
Through contrasting her subjects’ lives in both their ancestral homes in rural China and their adopted ones in the factory cities, Chang does a fantastic job of illustrating the complex portrait that is modern China and the effect it has on people both as they relate to their families and how they look at themselves.
“At home, the travelers fall back into the slower rhythms of the farm. Hierarchy governs village life: The older men, the chief decision makers in their families, choose what is best for the community too. A family eats and farms together, and at night the children often sleep with their parents in one large bed. The older children discipline the younger ones, and the younger ones obey. Guests show up unannounced and stay for days; communal routines of eating and sleeping and, these days, television viewing absorb them easily. There are no secrets in the village.
“In the city, this way of life is already dead. Small families live in high-rise apartments alongside neighbors who are not their kin. People forge relationships with those they do not know. Young migrants in the city have lived freely among strangers; they have competed for jobs; they have dated whom they pleased. No matter how fondly they recall their rural childhoods, in truth the village cannot take them back.”
“It seemed everything in Dongguan could be reduced to numbers: sales, kickbacks, language ability. The height of a potential boyfriend. You started with numbers–What year are you? How much a month? How much for overtime?–and then other numbers charted your progress: salary, the square-footage of an apartment, the price of a new car.
I think the challenge for any non-fiction author writing about China is to create something that stands up over time. I’ve started a number of “China books” since moving to the country that I had to put down part-way through as they simply were too specific to a time and place and had since dated themselves to obsolescence when their main argument failed to materialize or had been negated by impossible to predict changes. With the speed of development happening here, and the seemingly insatiable appetite of large publishing houses to capitalize on the “IT”-ness of China, finding a book that succeeds in this respect can be a challenge. I was happy to find River Town held up when I read it nearly 15 years after it had been written, and I believe “Factory Girls” will continue to as well.
At the end of “Factory Girls”, Chang takes the opportunity to answer how she feels relevance in non-fiction writing is achieved:
If you focus tightly on a single issue you risk becoming obsolete, because issues change. In the mid-1990s, scholars were debating whether China’s rapid economic growth would cause the country to break apart. That argument has now been settled definitively, and these days all those “Will China Break Up?” books feel like ancient history. A book about how the Olympics will change China might feel the same way a few years from now. I think that Tolstoy’s famous dictum in War and Peace–that the life of the lowliest foot soldier in Napoleon’s army is more important than the life of Napoleon himself–applies to this period in Chinese history. When you look back on this time, the big events will probably turn out to be less important than the transformations in individual lives going on beneath the surface.
Ultimately “Factory Girls” shows that telling the stories of individuals is not just the way to write a book that holds up over time, it is also a fantastic method of delivering and discussing wider ideas about what all this change means, how it is improving some things and tearing apart others. The book deftly delivers poignant commentary on China, not by examining the country as some massive generic sack of rice, but by appreciating and trying to understand the motivations of each grain.