Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
by Leslie T. Chang
(Spiegel & Grau, $26)

That $2 calculator in your kitchen drawer might have been “factory-approved” by a 16-year-old, says former Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie T. Chang. One such teen, Min, left impoverished rural China a few years ago and moved south to the burgeoning industrial belt—part of a mass of 130 million workers who over the last three decades have staged the largest migration in human history. What Min found in the city of Dongguan was 13-hour workdays, $25-a-week wages, and a culture that encouraged job-hopping. In just four years, Min talked her way from an assembly line to a low-level office job, then into a purchasing department. At 21, she was able to buy her parents a city apartment and scold them sharply whenever they appeared slow in catching up with modern ways.

Min is one of the stars of Chang’s “highly readable” inside report on the new China, said Dan Southerland in The Christian Science Monitor. She’s also an ideal emblem of the young working women who make up as much as 70 percent of the new recruits in Dongguan. Many exhibit “a bracing individualism” that the previous generation can barely comprehend. Yet the lives these young women find in the factory towns can be grim and unpredictable, said Seth Faison in The Washington Post. One woman tells Chang about getting lured into a whorehouse soon after her arrival, then escaping, begging on the street, and stealing another woman’s ID card to land a factory job. “Everyone lies. Promises are made and broken,” and friendships are formed and dissolved just as easily.

When Chang weaves in an account of her own Chinese family’s history, it “feels like a digression,” said BusinessWeek. Factory Girls is at its best when the author is touring noisy factory floors and the smelly dorms in which the women sleep 12 to a room. One of Chang’s most “memorable” chapters concerns Min’s trip back to her hometown, said Jeffrey Wasserstrom in Newsweek. When
Min first returns to her village, we can feel her struggling to “bridge the chasm” that has opened between her and the family members she has left behind. This sort of tale seems familiar from America’s own recent history—except that the young rebel is an ambitious young woman working an assembly line in Dongguan.