What an interesting book, despite its flaws! Factory Girls tells the story of the young women who work in Dongguan, a city close to Hong-Kong where, it seems, all the luxury bags of the world (think Coach and Gucci) and many sneakers are manufactured, along with many other items. The women are very young; in theory they must be 18 to work in the factories but many borrow others’ ID cards and start working as young as 16. They come from the countryside, typically from large families (the one-child family appears to be solely an urban phenomenon), and lack the money (or, sometimes, the aptitude) to attend high school, their parents being more likely to pay for a son’s high school tuition. Nothing in their past rural life has prepared them for their new world. They’ve never seen a bathroom; never travelled more than a few miles until their train ride to the city, never owned more than a couple of basic objects.
The factory towns are a Wild West (or rather, East.) Since it’s impossible to hire experienced workers, it’s common practice to, shall we say, inflate one’s resume; turnover is massive despite the punitive, and apparently not always legal, pay practices; and, most interestingly for me, there’s a flourishing private training industry. The factory girls are eager to improve themselves and despite the punitive hours they work (over 12 hours a day, with overtime, six days a week…) they sign up for improbable classes that can mix basic hygiene with make-up tips, spoken English, and lots of Carnegie-like inspiration, all taught by remarkably ignorant but enthusiastic teachers. Amazing!
Clearly the social fabric of the country is changing rapidly under the influence of these women. Their relative riches allow them to become decision makers in their families of origin and their ways of dating will surely change the power structure in the families they create. There’s a funny chapter on singles clubs.
The author unwisely and inexplicably adds a couple of chapters with her own family history: her grandparents being on the wrong side of the communist revolution; her parents’ immigration into the US; her return to China as a journalist. Perhaps it’s to give us a sense of the historical perspective? In any case it’s not particularly interesting and I would recommend skipping those chapters entirely to focus on the fascinating lives of the factory girls.
I will look at the “Made in China” Christmas presents a little differently this year. Great book.