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Holding Up the Sky--Book review on NYT

By PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE
Published: November 7, 2008
Toward the end of “Factory Girls,? her engrossing account of the lives of young migrant workers in southern China, Leslie Chang describes receiving a gift. Min, a young woman who works at a handbag plant, presents Chang with an authentic Coach purse plucked fresh from the assembly line. It emerges that Min’s dormitory-style bedroom is stuffed with high-end leatherwear. When the author proposes giving one of the handbags to the mother of Min’s boyfriend, Min scoffs. “His mother lives on a farm,? she says. “What’s she going to do with a handbag??

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FACTORY GIRLS

From Village to City in a Changing China

By Leslie T. Chang

420 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $26

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'Factory Girls,' by Leslie T. Chang: Dynamic Young Engines Driving China’s Epic Boom (October 22, 2008)
An Excerpt From 'Factory Girls' (randomhouse.com)The emergence of China’s titanic manufacturing base has been chronicled in numerous books and articles in recent years, but Chang has elected to focus not on the broader market forces at play but on the individuals, most of them women, who leave their villages and seek their fortunes on the front lines of this economy.

Since the 1970s, China has witnessed the largest migration in human history, Chang observes, “three times the number of people who emigrated to America from Europe over a century.? There are 130 million migrant workers in China today. A few decades ago, a rural peasant could expect to live and die on the same plot of land his family had farmed for generations. But the country’s explosive economic growth has allowed the young and adventurous to trade the stifling predictability of village life for the excitement, opportunity and risk of the factory boomtown.

A former China correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Chang focuses on one boomtown in particular, Dongguan, a frenetic jumble of megafactories in Guangdong Province. The city produces garments of every description and 30 percent of the world’s computer disk drives. One-third of all the shoes on the planet are produced in the province, and Chang spends time in a factory that manufactures Nike, Reebok and other brands. It has 70,000 employees, most of them women, and boasts its own movie theater, hospital and fire department.

Dongguan is “a perverse expression of China at its most extreme,? Chang suggests; it is polluted, chaotic and corrupt, but jostling also with a generation of ­strivers who are unashamed of their ambition and astonishingly indifferent to risk. New arrivals from the countryside can double or triple their income in a couple of weeks by taking a computer class or learning a little English. Switching jobs becomes a form of self-reinvention, and starting a new business is as easy as purchasing a new business card.

To Chang, the factory girls seem to live in “a perpetual present.? They have forsaken the Confucian bedrock of traditional Chinese culture for an improvised existence in which history and filial loyalty have been replaced by rapid upward mobility, dogged individualism and an obsessive pursuit of a more prosperous future. After revealing that her driver’s license was purchased on the black market, one woman seems to voice the general ethos of the town when she says to Chang, of her abilities behind the wheel, “I know how to drive forward.?

With new job opportunities forever appearing and huge personnel turnover in any given factory, friendships are difficult to make and to maintain, and Chang details the loneliness and isolation of the migrant workers. Dongguan’s laborers assemble cellphones, but they purchase them as well, and with their speed-dial archives of acquaintances, the phones become a sort of lifeline, the only way to keep track of the breakneck comings and goings of friends. If a worker’s cellphone is stolen, as they often are, friends, boyfriends and mentors may be lost to her forever. “The easiest thing in the world,? Chang remarks more than once, “was to lose touch with someone.?

People living their lives “on fast-­forward? in this manner would seem to resist any kind of comprehensive portraiture by a reporter. But Chang perseveres, hanging around the factories, purchasing cellphones for some of the women she meets so that she can keep track of them, and eventually renting an apartment in Dongguan. While she relates the stories of numerous different women, she becomes closest with Min, who gave her the purse, and with Chunming, who left her home in Hunan Province in 1992 and has cycled through countless careers and relationships in the years since. (It is Chunming who can only drive forward.)

Chang’s extraordinary reportorial feat is the intimacy with which she presents the stories of these two women. Min and Chunming lack the reserve of some of their colleagues. They share their diary entries and their text messages, their romantic entanglements and their sometimes strained relationships with the families they left behind. The result is an exceptionally vivid and compassionate depiction of the day-to-day dramas, and the fears and aspirations, of the real people who are powering China’s economic boom.

BY delving so deeply into the lives of her subjects, Chang succeeds in exploring the degree to which China’s factory girls are exploited — working grueling hours in sometimes poor conditions for meager wages with little job security — without allowing the book to degenerate into a diatribe. There is never any doubt that the factory owners in Hong Kong and Taiwan — and the consumers in American shopping malls — have the better end of the bargain. But for all the dislocation, isolation and vulnerability they experience, Chang makes clear that for the factory girls life in Dongguan is an adventure, and an affirmation of the sort of individualism that village life would never allow.

“If it was an ugly world,? Chang concludes, “at least it was their own.?

Patrick Radden Keefe is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His book “The Snakehead,? about the Chinese human smuggler Sister Ping, will be published next year.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/books/review/Keefe-t.html?_r=2