Our Book Club chose an unusual selection for our monthly discussion - “The Factory Girls” by Leslie T. Chang. This non-fiction opus tells the story of the lives of several young girls in rural China who leave their unproductive farm areas to find profitable work in the larger cities, mainly a city named Dongguan. They are, in reality, migrant workers who used the term “go out,” to indicate their decision to leave home. With little education and experience, they must sometimes resort to lies in order to get a foot in the door of a factory which pays its workers barely a subsistence income.
Factory Girl in China
Leslie T. Chang is a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing who made the acquaintance of two of these girls, Min and Chunming, and learned about their lives over the course of three years, creating the substance for her book. Leslie is of Chinese extraction herself, and her name is spelled Zhang in Chinese.
There are over 130 million migrant workers in China since the Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 to 1976, under the direction of Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Communist Party in China at that time. In reality, the country was harmed economically during Mao Zedong’s reign.
Families lived in abject poverty and relied on their children for any financial support they could give. Parents did not like the idea of their young daughters, and even sons, migrating to large cities to find work, but were happy when their children sent money back home. The workers were paid 400 yuan a month, which is equal to $50, and could increase that amount by working overtime. The legal working age was 18, but 16- and 17-year-olds could work certain jobs for shorter hours. Many lied about their age and even had forged birth certificates, some using a different name, just to get a job.
Factory Girls in China
Assembly-line work was the entry-level position in factories which manufactured hundreds of varieties of products which were sold globally. The young people hopped from factory to factory, finding the working conditions intolerable all over.
China, at that time, was a hotbed of corruption, with bribes, kickbacks, cheating and stealing to get ahead. As a small number of young people advanced in their positions, they bought into the idea of profiting on the side by cheating their employer.
It was considered a huge asset if a worker learned to speak English. This project was always on the minds of those who wished to advance. Language schools arose, and were quickly filled with young aspirants willing to pay to learn English.
Chinese Girls Learning English
Both Min and Chunming had the capability to advance in their jobs, and became managers and even small business owners who could make as much as the equivalent of $1000 a month, able to have nice apartments with nice furnishings in the city. Their escapades with trying to find a husband were related comically, as they pointed out the defects of the men who asked them for dates.
My own reaction to the book was huge gratitude that we live in a country where young men and women are not required to suffer the humiliations and deprivations that are related in Leslie Chang’s work. I also felt great admiration for those who suffered such pain just to make a living and to help their family to have a better life.
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