"There was nothing to do at home, so I went out." So begins the journey of millions of young Chinese migrants as they seek work in one of the "instant cities" of southern China. Many are young girls who drop out of school and head south in ones or twos, with often little more than determination and a relative's phone number or a factory name. Factory Girls is their story, written by a former Wall Street Journal correspondent.
One of the biggest challenges Leslie Chang faced during her research was simply maintaining contact. The girls live in a feverish city with over ten million young migrants, who switch friends and factories almost on a moment's whim, and where the loss of a mobile phone often means losing contact with everyone they know. To an outsider it might seem foolish that any parent would let their 16 or 17-year-old child into such an exploitative world, but Chang writes of the parents of migrants: "At every stage they gave bad advice; they specialised in outdated knowledge and conservatism born out of fear ... But once a migrant got to the city, the parental message shifted dramatically: Send home money, the more the better."
For the girls, it was often a simple decision. They were young and ambitious and saw little for themselves in their rural towns. Their motivations were similar to Western counterparts heading off on a gap year: see the world, develop themselves, learn new skills. "To come out from home and work in a factory is the hardest thing they have ever done. It is also an adventure. What keeps them in the city is not fear but pride: to return home early is to admit defeat. To go out and stay out is to change your fate."
There are thousands of factories and millions of workers, and Chang's descriptions of Dongguan are sometimes an Orwell-esque vision of work-stations and dormitories; mass labour, morning exercises, and booming slogans. "To die poor is a sin"; "Through doing something, you will learn it"; "If you don't work hard today, you'll look hard for work tomorrow." Job advertisements reduce people to shortlists of acceptable characteristics: "Receptionist: sweet voice. Good appearance and disposition. Knows office software and Cantonese." "Sales specialist. Can eat bitterness and endure hardship. Open to men and women with rural residency. No only children."
Employers are free to discriminate wildly and sometimes advertisements state that people from a certain province need not apply. But the constant moving of workers means that there are also hundreds of vacancies, and to lie about your experience seems the best way of getting a job. "No one in the factories of Dongguan had been properly educated for the task at hand," Chang states, for China suffers from an antiquated education system. "The needs of the Chinese economy were changing so fast that the education system was not even trying to keep up anymore."
Many of the girls do succeed, but find that success has not made them happy. Min works in a designer handbag factory, and fills her room with black-market bags. "That's for holding make-up," she says of a Coach purse, while she stores her keys and ID in a Lacoste hobo bag of sage-green suede.
It's a big story, difficult to research, but as a young Chinese American woman Chang blends into this world. She has a good eye for the social and economic forces at work, as well as the smaller-scale backdrops against which the girls live their lives. As the book progresses, Chang begins to find parallels between the girls' stories and her own family's migrations, first to north-east China in the 1700s, then in the aftermath of the Second World War as they fled to Taiwan and the US. Wherever the migration, the possibility of exploitation and danger does not change, but neither do the opportunities. The same hope of improvement drives all the characters.
China is a country that dazzles by scale but the success of this book is to take the blurred crowd and bring the single human face into fascinating focus. It is also an uplifting book, for the defiant and determined voices of the girls stand out: "In all the time I knew them," Chang writes, "the migrant girls never asked me for help, and rarely even for advice. Life was something they faced alone, as they had been telling me from the first day we met. 'I can only rely on myself'."
Justin Hill's novel 'Passing Under Heaven' is published by Abacus