Picador £12.99 (420pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897

Factory Girls, By Leslie T Chang

"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world, but Chang writes of the parents of migrants: "At every stage they gave bad advice; they specialised in outdated knowledge and conservatism born out of fear ...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

Click here to purchase this book

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells