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Merle

Merle

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China - Leslie T. Chang You might expect a book about the lives of migrant workers in China to be incredibly depressing, full of tales of abuse. This book isn't like that at all; it's informative, and doesn't gloss over ugly things, but nor does it beat you down.

Factory Girls focuses on the lives of young women living in Dongguan, a huge city in southern China filled with factories and inhabited mainly by migrant workers. The author spent several years getting to know workers there, and most of the book tells their stories. But there's a lot of the author in the book as well; not just recounting her interactions with the migrant women (the migrant population in Dongguan is estimated at 70% female), but also tracing the history of her family in China, before they left for Taiwan and eventually the U.S.

This book is certainly worth reading if you are curious about life in modern China; it's full of stories from the lives of the people Chang meets, as well as some broader factual information to give them context. Chang gets to know a couple of the women very well, meeting their friends and traveling home with them to visit their families. In a way, their stories are surprisingly positive; they seem very in control of their lives and able to pursue what they want from life, which is quite different from the typical industrial revolution story of oppressed workers. They change jobs frequently in search of better opportunities, they date, and they send home enough money to gain a voice in family affairs. But in other ways, the picture is hardly rosy: relationships don't last, everyone is obsessed with money, bosses often cheat their workers and corruption abounds.

From a writing standpoint, the book is good: it's a smooth, easy read without feeling dumbed down, and the organization is clear. However, Chang made a couple of tricky choices that may impair some readers' enjoyment of the book.

First, there's the decision to include so much of herself in the book, and stick scrupulously to events she witnessed and stories she was told rather than trying to draw broader generalizations. Sometimes I felt that the book could have used more breadth or depth, but ultimately Chang seems very careful to limit it to what she can discuss with authority. So, for instance, we get detailed accounts of events and conversations for which the author was present, which aren't necessarily earth-shaking, but which allow the reader to see where her information is coming from. Toward the end, she even admits that the two women she focuses on most may not be representative of most migrant workers, without suggesting how they might be different (for Dongguan, at least, both seem atypical in that they quickly moved up from assembly line work).

Second, there's Chang's decision to write so much about her own family history and her quest to discover it, including her visits with long-lost relatives. She justifies this by pointing out that, like the workers' stories, it deals with migration; perhaps a better justification would be that it provides a historical context, and a contrast between people like her distant cousin who are stuck in the past and the young, ambitious women of Dongguan who are focused on the present and future. While I found the family history reasonably interesting, these sections ultimately seem a little too removed from the subject matter of the book, and cause it to be longer than necessary.

Overall, an interesting, readable and worthwhile book. If you like this and are interested in a fictional take on the lives on young female migrant workers in China, I recommend [b:Miss Chopsticks|194714|Miss Chopsticks|Xinran|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320477641s/194714.jpg|188307].