Sunday, December 30, 2012

Factory Girls by Leslie T Chang

Towards the beginning of Factory Girls Leslie T Chang makes a startling statement.  China has 130 million migrant workers - this represents the largest ever migration of a people in human history  They go to the cities not only to find better paid work, but because there is little to do in the countryside.  In this way their migration is like most other migrations in history: a shortage of land and a surplus of people.

Factory Girls concentrates on two individual girls in the middle of an urban megalopolis in China.  We read about how and why they came and their attempts to establish themselves in their new surroundings.  In this new urban environment they can shed the expectations of old China and are free to take charge of their own lives.  They are empowered by the money they earn which gives them a higher status - both in their own eyes and in the eyes of their families.  Some are encouraged to return home to marry someone their parents have arranged for them, but most of them seem to prefer to stay where they are.  They find suitable mates using their own resources.

Self-reliance is a recurring theme in the book.  Girls prosper by making their own opportunities: taking evening classes, learning new skills (notably English and computing) and challenging the boss and thereby getting noticed i.e. 'Keep from getting lost'.

Jobs are found through contacts, advertisements and Talent Fairs.   It is common to jump from job to job.  Sometimes a month's notice is sacrificed in order to jump immediately to another, better job.  It is easy to lose track of friends and relatives in this overwhelmingly large mass of people, and so the mobile phone, primed with everyone's number, becomes important.  Losing, or having a mobile phone stolen, is a disaster.

Modern China, with its billions of people, seems an inhuman place.  Leslie T Chang uses her own family history to make an interesting comparison with the past.  The pre-twentieth century Chinese world seemed kinder and more human-sized, but as numbers have grown, as the cities have swollen, the individual has come to matter more.  Family, history and nation have been cast aside - and to delve too deeply into the recent past uncovers such inhumanity that it has driven one of Leslie Chang's relatives mad.  The biggest migration in human history has resulted in a loss humanity.   People become more corrupt and self-centred.  They lie and cheat: false qualifications seem the norm.  As we are all pushed into smaller and smaller areas of land I see this desperation being repeated in other places.  Factory Girls is a fascinating study but ultimately a profoundly depressing one.


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