I’ve had a copy of Factory Girls sitting on my “to read” pile for a few months now. I kept putting it off because although I was interested in the topic, I expected it to be a rather depressing exposé of factory conditions in China, so waited until I was in the mood. Quite what mood I thought that would be I can’t tell you.
I wish I hadn’t put it off: this is a wonderful book. It isn’t about slave labour, awful conditions, or poor wages, but about the people who work in the factories: the “factory girls” of the title, in fact.
Listen to an extract from the book here
Factory Girls explores the culture of migrant workers in China, people who leave rural homes to find their fortune in the rapidly growing cities where people labour away six days a week to make everything from screws to cars. Internal migration has a long history in China but in the past decade or so it has changed considerably. It has also changed the culture of the family.
The book follows a few girls and tells their stories as they leave behind family and friends and forge new lives. For some it’s a way of sending money home that can supplement (or even overshadow) the meagre earnings of the family farm. For others it’s part of the family contract: the older children leave school early, go out to work, and send money home so the youngest can go to school for a bit longer. By the end of the line, one of them may even go to college.
For these girls there are lots of traps. One ends up running away from a massage parlour when she worries about what she will be expected to do, and ends up living rough for a while. She later builds up a social network but it is all contained on her phone; when that is stolen, everything is lost (including the contact details of the job she had been promised) and she has to start again.
As the stories are told, we learn a lot about how business is done in China, the depth of corruption from the “innocent” (10% “commission” to purchasers of a company’s goods) to the less innocent (a shopping mall whose new walls are already crumbling). We also find out about working conditions in the factories, but this isn’t an exposé – what you read might depress you but it isn’t meant to be some sort of undercover reporting, but a telling of people’s lives. These girls put up with shared dormitories in the factory, with long hours, and the occasional day off, because they see it as leading somewhere, and in many ways better than living at home and raising pigs.
In that sense it’s a real eye-opener as it makes you see the situation not from a western perspective but through their eyes. Some of the stories are sad, but there are times when you can’t help laughing at the girls’ resilience in the face of bullying or hardship, or the absurdity of the way business is done. And while it’s easy to laugh at the way China does things, it’s worth remembering that a similar book could be written about the UK where dodgy workmanship and backhand deals are hardly unknown.
The book points out how many decisions are made by people: boyfriends are judged not on looks or income but on height, because that is a good indicator of potential. Getting married is important and the rush is on: any woman over 30 who is unmarried is out of the game. And there are significant points of cultural shift taking place in the book: the breakdown of the traditional rural family, the reversal of roles (it’s the children who now give red envelopes of cash to their elders at new year, not the other way around), the development of a middle class that can’t bear to see how their parents still live (one section where a girl returns home and introduces her family to the concept of a rubbish bag is amusing).
There are a couple of chapters where the author (an American Chinese) tells the story of her own family’s struggle in post-war China and their escape via Taiwan to the USA. These are interesting but distract somewhat from the main thrust of the book.
If you’re interested in how business is done in China then there are probably better, more focussed, books on doing deals, negotiation, etiquette and so on. But if you want to know how doing business in China affects (for good or bad) the lives of people there, this is a fascinating book. It gives you an insight in to the culture of business – at a personal level, rather than a technical level.
The stories are moving, frustrating, funny, personal and particular: it doesn’t pretend that they are representative of everyone, only of those specific people. There are things in there I recognise from my own brief visit, and lots that tallies with other accounts I’ve heard. But it is only part of the picture. Yet what sets this book apart from others such as “Poorly Made In China” (another interesting book on business dealings between East and West) is that it is written by someone who is Chinese herself and who lives there, rather than a westerner adopting a patronising “this has to stop” tone.
Reading this book is like reading a book about how the industrial revolution transformed Britain, except with mobile phones, internet dating and more. What’s happening in China happened here, and is in some cases still happening. In that respect the book is like a mirror: if you laugh at it, or worry about it, you have to think “how does it work here?”
The factories of Dundee were not a million miles from the factories in this book. The stories won’t be that much different either.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough: it’s funny, sad, frustrating and illuminating. It’s also very well written and thoroughly engaging. If you’re interested in how things that are designed in the west get made in China, this is well worth reading. But if you’re just interested in learning a little bit about other people’s lives, you need to read this book.
Buy it from Amazon for £4.54 (December 2010 price). Also available in Kindle format for reading on Kindle, iPhone, iPad etc.