Revisiting Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls”

At Tea Leaf Nation, Gloria Wang surveys Chinese reactions to Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls, recently released in simplified characters five years after its original English-language publication. The book follows two female migrant workers in Dongguan over the course of three years.

Though not didactic, the book nonetheless serves to raise awareness of migrant workers among urbanites, who tend to turn a blind eye to the migrant workers. One of the most-read reviews of “Factory Girls” on Douban, a social media platform popular among book-lovers, reads:

Chang’s book reveals a familiar yet distant world. Every day we come across many migrant workers on the streets…but we are used to looking down upon them and ignoring them…we are simply not in a position to look down up them, since we are all the same. [Migrant workers] may not expect sympathy or help from others – the phrase they speak most often is ‘people can only rely on themselves’ – but what they need most are respect and equality. [Source]

Chang rejects the common portrayal of China’s migrant factory workers as passive victims of global capitalism. In an article at The New Yorker following This American Life’s retraction of claims about working conditions at Foxconn, for example, she argued that “Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods. They choose to leave their farming villages for the city in order to earn money, to learn new skills, to improve themselves, and to see the world.” But Wang quotes independent book reviewer Han Shu, who found this aspect of the book unpersuasive. From the same post at Tea Leaf Nation:

The claim that [the factory girls] are living happy lives and are on their way to achieving their middle class dreams, perhaps drawn from Chang’s own experience, is to be taken with a grain of salt; it seems a bit too baseless and superficial. This kind of naive American thinking is okay for Americans who are not familiar with China’s national condition, but it doesn’t provide any new insight for Chinese readers. When she met with Chinese readers in Beijing and Shanghai, Chang reiterated that she was only a journalist, and her responsibility was to faithfully record what she saw and heard. Perhaps we cannot ask too much of a foreign journalist. [Source]

See Chang speak for herself in a 2012 TED talk based on the New Yorker article, via CDT.