It’s been raining a lot in Chengdu. A lot. Which isn’t necessarily conducive towards my goal of learning how to ride a push bike around a traffic-clogged Chinese city this summer. It is however perfect reading weather. And perfect weather to finally post a book review on Leslie T. Chang’s “Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China.”
Chang’s book about the life of migrant women in Southern China and the story of her family’s own migrations has been popping up on my Amazon.com recomended reading list ever since I read Peter Hessler’s Country Driving. It wasn’t till Hessler visited Chengdu as a guest in the Bookworm’s 2011 Literary Festival that I realized that Chang is Hessler’s wife (he did however, recommend the book as top reading in China).
Chang shouldn’t have to stand in the shadow of her husband’s extensive writing on China, she stands on her own serving as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and writing on how socioeconomic change alters lives in China. In her book she covers in depth the lives of young female migrant workers, the cultural and emotional obstacles they face in their constant moving and what that means for China today.
The statistics on the current rural-urban migration in China are fascinating. For example, Chang writes, “China is a quarter century into the largest migration in human history” which is “three times the number of people who emigrated from Europe to America over a century.” The number was recorded in 2003 as being 140 million people, creating an “internal floating population.”
As Chang relates in her book, often migrates “go out” of the village to seek a better life, better skills and economic advancement for their families. “Factory Girls” notes how that is now changing, while filial piety is still important, self-reliance has become more prominent in the migrant mindset. Chang follows the lives of a handful of women, getting incredibly personal, following their woes of their job, wage increases, romances and disconnect with their families back in the villages and on the farms. Considering how difficult it is for outsiders to get a true glimpse of what’s going on in China it is impressive how welcomed Chang is into these women’s lives.
One cannot encounter a article of the current migration in China without reviewing one of its main catalysts, the hukou system. An internal id or passport system with in China, this household registration system set up two kinds of population, rural and urban. As the hukou determines many of your public services such as education, health care and housing. While it used to restrict mobility between rural and urban populations, its relaxation is part of what opened the flood gates of workers moving from Western and Central China to Southeastern cities. It is the hukou system which also keeps the younger generations in the village for schooling, only to be looked after the elderly.
The migrants that Chang encountered were often moving without IDs, ignoring age restriction and mobility allowances. These grey dealings are just another testament to how business in China will develop in any costs. Without IDs these women are part of the floating, unaccounted population in China. Chang allows for the reader to not only glimpse into the lives of these workers but into the dealings of factories in Southern China. She quickly learns three main principles to business dealings, “Never plan ahead. Never turn off your mobile phone. Never be on time.”
What are the implications of this migration on China’s future? I’m definitely not equipped with enough knowledge of China to determine this. But I can say that from my very limited time in the villages surrounding Chengdu, they are ghost towns, abandoned by anyone over 18 and under 50. Also, within the Chengdu city limits, blue and white housing dot construction sites throughout town. This is migrant working housing, very easily put up and very easily torn down. A very eye-opening, basic way of life.
It was good to experience Chang’s perspective and her personal connection to the idea of migration in her own family’s history. In a sense I too connected to the idea of leaving home, going place to place looking for work, abandoning my homeland looking for a better life. Am I an middle-class migrant? Does such a thing exist? Probably not, but regardless, give Chang’s book a whirl.
“Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China” by Leslie T. Chang is available at amazon.com here in both hard copy and kindle edition.