Factory Girls: Extended Interview

12/27/10 By 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. She wrote her 2008 book, Factory Girls, to give a face to the approximately 130 million Chinese migrants who make all the stuff that fill up American stores and closets.

Two young female faces are at the heart of Chang’s story. They belong to women who willingly traded in rural village life in hopes of fruitful futures in China’s industrial meccas.

"One is named Lu Qingmin [nicknamed Min], when I first met her she was 18 years old. She’d been working in the city for two years. Starting off on assembly line, making cheap electronic calendars and pocket calculators. The other woman I met is Wu Chumming, in her early 30’s, living in the city for more than a decade. I wanted to 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 two years following their lives, going down to Dongguan, this huge factory city in south China. Going down every month, spending a week or two, just hanging out with these women as they went out to dinner or dates, weekends going out with friends and after work, 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 a really surprising thing for me was how often people jumped factories. My impression would be that they came out to the city, land a job, and just stay there because they were afraid of being unemployed or homeless. Because it’s only when you have a job that you have a dorm bed and a place to eat and a way of living. I thought there would be quite a bit of stability, but in fact the complete opposite was true. For example with Min, she landed a job quickly but she hated it and it paid badly. So she jumped into another and another. The way these young people would almost blindly jump into a new world was just amazing to me, the kind of courage they had that most of us would lack to jump into the unknown again and again in their effort to better themselves and to find a more lucrative and appealing position."

The city that Min was in, that was Dongguan? It was huge, developed city but you said that she’d take bathroom breaks to look out at the mountains. How quickly did that city grow and how big is it?

"Dongguan is a city in south China. An hour and a half from Hong Kong. Originally just farmland. A part of the country very fertile, rice fields, semi tropical and palm trees. It’s a very green, fertile, rich place. When Min would sit in her factory looking out the window, that is what she’d see. She’d see the greenness and nature and think about home And all the things she was missing from being on the assembly line. But at the same time this is a huge, rapidly developing city. Basically over the last two decades Dongguan has changed from being farm land to being a completely overbuilt city of thousands of factories and high-rises and industrial it’s hard to describe, but you travel through the city and its street after street of factories, factories, factories. But in between the factories there’s often small plots of farmland where people are still farming, so there’s this weird mix of the past and the future in one place. Dongguan has a population of about 10 million people by American standards that sounds massive, but by Chinese standards that’s just one of many huge sprawling cities full of industrial zones and factories."

Can you explain why the factory workers were mostly female?

"Across China there are migrants of all ages and both genders. And women make up about 1/3 of the migrant population in China, which is about 100 million people. But in the factories, which are gathered mostly on the coast of China, especially on the Southeastern coast, most of the women on the assembly line are young women. And the reasons for this is basically because the bosses prefer young women, they feel that they’re they are more hard working, more focused and diligent and tend to get in less trouble. Males are more problematic as far as the bosses are concerned. Young men will often form gangs, gamble and drink. When you’re in one of these cities like Dongguan, where I was reporting, that are mostly these low-end massive factories, you’d see these hordes of young women on the street. I describe it in my book as a huge open air high school, except it’s almost all girls. Packs of girls everywhere. It’s kind of an amazing experience when you first see it."

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

"So generally they’re the young people who have completed middle school, or did a couple of years of middle school. Who can read and write well. And want to go out from home and find a better life. And that was another surprising thing. People before have depicted these migrants as 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 finding a place, a job, and a better life for themselves."

Would you compare that going out to the American Dream?

"And in many cases I think that was a pretty good analogy because these people are going to the city to improve their lives, move up the economic ladder set up a family and a home in a new place. I think all these parallels of immigrants coming to America in the 19th C work pretty well. Again, when you make that kind of comparison more clearly I think people understand more clearly that this is a story about opportunity and adventure as much as it is about hardship and pain and leaving people behind."

You wrote that at one time migration was illegal?

"Yeah, ever since the communists set up rule in 1949, the set up a very strict what was called a household registration system, which basically said that where a child was born was where it had to live. What that did was force most people in rural China to stay there. And there was a kind of elite, in China terms, a few million people, who were allowed to live in the cities and have the benefits of the communist system, like guaranteed jobs, welfare, schooling, medical care. That system stayed in place for decades and it forced most of the population to stay in the countryside whether they wanted to or not.

"And that started to change in the early 80’s when the economic reform started. For the first time people didn’t have to rely on the government system in order to have food. They could take the money they had and buy food in the markets. And that’s how people started to leave the countryside and gradually filter into the cities to find work. So this migration has been going on for two decades. But it’s still a new thing because for decades they were accustomed to the idea of where you were born is where you’re going to live your whole life."

Regarding the workers' rights: while some Americans might have a stereotype idea of a long work day and low pay, in your book you wrote there is a minimum wage, legal work limit is 49 hours a week. But also that city officials were more concerned with keeping factory owners happy?

"In any American terms the kind of job and situation that Chinese workers have would seem extremely abusive and oppressive. It’s pretty common to work 11 hours a day, 6 days a week, and many factories impose stricter conditions than that. It’s common for workers to live in dorms 10 to a room. 10 bunk beds stacked on top of each other with an aisle a few feet in between is standard. So by any American standards, these are really tough conditions.

"One of the reasons I wanted to write this book is to have the Chinese point of view. When you think about they’re coming from the Chinese countryside, where people live in very cramped and primitive conditions and have gone away to school and lived in similar dorms, the factory situation doesn’t look much different to what they had before.

"And as long as they’re making and saving money, for these workers, that’s enough. That’s what they want. So, one of the things that was curious to me was that workers I met and befriended, they never talked about living conditions and working conditions in the factory. Those weren’t the things that they cared about. Which isn’t to say that they thought it was great. But they took it for granted that life was going to be this way and their focus was elsewhere. Their focus was on how they were going to make more money, or how they were going to take a class and become a secretary or how they were going to find the right person to marry. These were the kinds of things that consumed their lives, and not how hard the daily living and working conditions of the factory were.

After following the girls for a couple of years, what can you say about the ending without giving the ending away?

"I could say a couple of things. One is the rapid change in their lives. Every time I went down to Dongguan, once a month to see Min and Chunming and other people I knew, they would have some drastic change. Anything from I have a new boyfriend to a new hair style to I have new job to ‘I’ve decided to completely quit that old way of life and here’s what it is.’ So every time I’d go down, new stories and new adventures to tell me. That was the kind of thing that kept me going and I hope it keep the reader turning the pages. The other thing is when you stand back and look at the trajectory of their lives, it’s almost always upward. This is something that I thought traditional journalism couldn’t really capture, because if you go spend an hour talking to a worker on the street, you get a snapshot of their life and you don’t get a sense of the movement. But if you go watch them month by month for a couple of years, you can see their lives are improving. For many, many people, they’re starting out on the assembly line and then up into low level office work, becoming secretaries or sales people and eventually moving into the beginning of an urban Chinese middle class and that’s the story of where China is today. And that’s the story I wanted to tell, just focused on the lives of a couple of these young women."

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