Author highlights Factory Girls in China

12/13/10 Dawn Morgan Elliott
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Leslie T. Chang is a former Wall Street Journal correspondent who lived in and wrote about China for a decade. In her 2008 book Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, she tells the story about how nearly 130 million young people leave their rural homes for the city, or going out, in hopes of a brighter future. WMNF’s Dawn Morgan Elliott spoke with Chang last week about the reasons she wrote her book.

"I wanted to write the book because I felt like there was a lot of misunderstanding about the young people who work in the factories in China and the stories that I’d seen in the newspapers had generally focused on the abuses and the oppression of their life. These are the people who make the shoes and handbags and daily use items that we buy at WalMart and Target and use every day. So I wanted to understand a bit more about what these people who are making these products, what their lives are really like."

What kind of feedback have you gotten on your book from Americans around the country?

"People say, 'You know, I’m really surprised to hear that these young women have goals and dreams and ambitions.' That coming out to the city and working in the factories is also a sense of adventure and opportunity and not just kind of suffering and abuses. So I think it hopefully opens people’s eyes to a more complete picture of what life is like for this group of people in China."

Can you talk about the two women that you chronicled in the book?

"One is named Lu Qingmin [nicknamed Min], when I first met her she had just turned 18 years old. She’d been working in the city for two years. Starting off on an assembly line, making kind of cheap electronic calendars and pocket calculators, that kind of product. The other woman I write about is Wu Chumming, and when I met her she was in her early 30’s. She had been living in the city for more than a decade. I wanted to sort of chronicle the lives of these two women, and I purposely chose women who were at different stages of life, because I think their experiences were very different. I basically spent about two years just following their lives, going down to Dongguan, which is this huge factory city in south China. Going down every month, and basically spending a week or two, just kind of hanging around with these girls as they went out on dinners or dates, or weekends going out with friends, meeting them after work, and just kind of seeing the changes in their lives over that period."

In the beginning of the book, I think it was Min’s story, the first factory that she went to when she first came out; she didn’t stay at very long. And can you talk about how it was kind of a gamble when you moved from one factory to another?

"Yeah, that was one of the really surprising things for me was how often people jumped factories. My impression was maybe they would come out from the countryside to the city, land a job, and then just kind of stay there because they were so afraid of being unemployed or being homeless. Because, basically, it’s only when you have a job that you have a dorm bed and a place to eat and basically a way of living. I kind of thought that there would be quite a bit of stability, but in fact the complete opposite was true. For example with Min, she found a job immediately but she hated the job and the pay was really bad, and then she very quickly jumped into another job and then another job. The way these young people would just kind of almost blindly jump into a new world was just amazing to me, the kind of courage that they had that I think most of us would lack to basically jump into the unknown again and again in their effort to better themselves and to find a more lucrative and more appealing position."

You described the migrants in your book, that they were considered to be the rural elite. Can you talk about why?

"So generally these are the young people who have finished middle school, or attended a couple of years of middle school, who can read and write pretty well, who come from sort of middle level rural families. These are the people who want to go out from home and find a better life for themselves. And, you know, that was another surprising thing was people before had often depicted these migrants as kind of like driven by poverty and hunger and desperation and that was not what I found by talking to the migrants. I found that they left home with a clear goal in mind, knowing what they were looking for. Pretty resourceful in terms of being able to find a place, find a job, and find a better life for themselves."

Would you compare that "going out" to the American Dream?

"In many cases I think that's a pretty good analogy because these people are going to the city to improve their lives, to fulfill their dreams, to move up the economic ladder, to meet a person and marry and hopefully set up a family and a home in a new place. I think all these parallels with immigrants coming to America in the 19th Century work pretty well. Again, I felt like when you make that kind of comparison people understand more clearly that this is a story about opportunity and adventure as much as it's a story about hardship and pain and suffering and leaving people behind."

That was WMNF’s Dawn Morgan Elliott talking with writer Leslie T. Chang on her book Factory Girls. You can listen to an extended version of the interview on Monday, December 27 during a special author edition of the WMNF Evening News, which will feature conversations with current affairs writers such as Dave Eggers, Walter Dean Myers, and more.

Leslie T Chang

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