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This book brushes a brutal, but realistic, picture of the new (and the old) China: the villages without men (and now even without young women), the cities of singles, the sweatshops and the sweat cities, as well as the individual struggles against exhaustion or for a better education.
This monumental economic and social upheaval is illustrated by in depth documentary reports on the lives and loves of two young girls and on the author's research about her own roots, which are heavily marked by wars, warlords and, most of all, by the Cultural Revolution.

Cultural Revolution
After being outvoted in the Central Committee of the Chinese CP, Mao fought back by setting up the young generation against the old one: `everyone lost years in education, health and family members. But, people still don't (want to) speak about this catastrophe. They repressed the painful past or are seeking excuses like `so many people suffered'.

Migration from the villages
One third of the migrators are very young single women, some not older than 16 years: `They took such risks, and they were surrounded by corrupt or dishonest people.'
Moreover, `unlike men, women had no home to go back to. According to Chinese tradition, a son was expected to return to his parents' house with his wife after he married. Daughters would never return home to live - until they married, they didn't belong anywhere.'

Working conditions in the sweatshops
In some sweatshops, the working conditions are simply dismal: `up till 13 hour workdays with two breaks for meals. Some Saturday afternoons there was no overtime. That was their only half day rest. Salaries (not always paid on time) stood at 50 $ a month.'
The sweat city of Dongguan (between Shenzhen and Guangzhou) could stand as a good example of a sweat city with its outspoken characteristics of `materialism, environmental ruin, corruption (kickbacks and bribes), pollution, noise, prostitution, bad driving, short term thinking, stress, striving and chaos.'
At the other end of the social scale stands the `Yue Yuen factory with its population of seventy thousand workers; a manufacturer for Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Puma, Asics with a complete vertical integration from design, glues, soles to finished products. Workers eat, shop and sleep in the factory, which has a kindergarten, a hospital and an average salary 72 $ for sixty hours work week.'

Even with these very long working hours, some people still find the time to study. But, the needs of the Chinese economy are growing so fast that education cannot follow.

The link between the migrations
The journey that my grandfather attempted was one that millions of young people now make every day - they leave home; they enter an unfamiliar land; they work hard. They were/are concerned with their own destinies, and they made/make their own decisions. It was/is an ugly world; but, at least, it was/is their own.

This book is a must read for all those who want to understand the world we live in.
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on 2 May 2010
I bought this book on a bit of a whim to have something to read while on a holiday visiting family. I will admit that beforehand I knew almost nothing about contemporary China, and also didn't really have any interesting. I can't stress enough how engrossing this book is - beyond any educational level it is extremely well written. I had to ration how many pages I read a day to make the book last the duration of the trip - could not get enough. The people and situations are fascinating, and it really feels like you're getting to glimpse into a world you otherwise wouldn't. I can't recommend this book highly enough, it sparked for me a major interest in China, and it has done the same for everyone I have told to read this book.
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VINE VOICEon 23 October 2012
I found this book whilst searching on amazon for biographies and it sounded fascinating. When it arrived it was over 400 pages of tiny writing and I thought that this would be a bit of a challenge.
From the start, the story of modern China is personified in the various characters that the author follows around, this makes the book very readable and easy to connect with. Even though the characters are imaginable, their situations are very difficult to picture and their attitudes are even harder to empathise with. Industrial China is far removed from our world, although in some ways there is a lot of commonality.
I've never been to China but the descriptions from friends who have been tally with this book, with one of the main impressions being the pace of life and the fast changes - "everything is in the process of becoming something else". The atmosphere created is exactly how I think it is at the moment, plenty of people on the move and relationships all very short. Some people are brought into the narrative and disappear very quickly, never to be mentioned again.
The author digresses away from the story of the factory girls as she takes the opportunity to investigate and report on her family's history. This is not completely in the spirit of the book but does give the chance to present a whistle stop summary of Chinese modern history, giving a background to the personal stories. I got quite confused in this section, a family tree would have been great as all the the Zhangs started to merge at one point.
Great book which is very accessible.
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on 30 November 2010
This is marvelous reporting, with a personal touch and a gigantic scope. Chang checks out the greatest migration in world history--the 160 million-plus village job seekers who have flooded into China's urban industries. And most of these people, it seems, are just girls--leaving home, moving out, and moving up. Chang befriends some, sharing their stories of pounding the pavement between jobs, slaving 14-hour days, living in factory dorms, and constantly scheming for a better life. The schemes are the main things that drive the action. These girls are trying to teach themselves English, taking semi-bogus skills seminars, lying about their experience in job fairs, moving up to secretary or sales rep. Most of the girls Chang meets are lonely, justifiably paranoid, and fearsomely self-reliant. Their ambitions and desires are the real force driving China's transformation.

Chang weaves in the story of her own family, with its earlier generations of pioneering migrants. I think this part of the book is a bit too long and detailed, but it helps set a wider context for the present drama. Her book is about migrants, their adventures, their courage, and the change they bring to the world. It's about people, not social trends. But along the way, Chang can't help but paint a big picture. And for me, several things stand out about modern China. One is that, unlike the cities of Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, or India, China's cities are not surrounded by migrant shantytowns. The factories mostly have prison-like dormitories for the migrants. Also, China's villages remain intact. The laws prevent landlords or moneylenders from evicting whole families and villages off the land. Only the semi-willing job seekers go to the city and enter the Satanic mills. On the whole, the setting Chang paints looks grim. But the characters are pulsing with life and hope.

--author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization
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VINE VOICEon 14 October 2012
I wanted to love this book because the subject fascinates me, as China moves onwards and upwards, however this book is predominantly a jumble of the issues raised and does not follow a more linear style, which would have been useful. For one thing the author detracts from the stories by speaking at length about her own family roots, and whilst her roots are broadly related to the theme of the book - it is quite tangential to the central theme of the consequences (positive and negative) of China's employment migration patterns. Not to take anything away from the author, but the self-referential style tries to staple one story onto another - and her own family's struggles (which are quite unique and worthy of an exploration) would have better suited another book.

The organisation of the book is also poor, in the sense that the author presumably tries to replicate the fragmentary lifestyle of the migrants by following a saccharin perambulating format, drifting into lives and drifting out again.

Further to this, which is presumably a journalistic trait, the author repeats central messages multiple times through the book - so any form of subtlety is absent. It is quite painful at times, as the same sentences are repeated, in the same italicised font at multiple places. This sledgehammer approach to being didactic is especially patronising.

However, I did finish the book and it was a worthy read overall.
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on 7 February 2011
The subtitle of this fascinating book is particularly expressive and descriptive: Voices from the Heart of Modern China. First published in 2008, the book follows the lives of two migrant girls, as they leave home (and occasionally return) to make their way in the burgeoning factories of China's south-east regions, as part of the "largest human migration in the world's history" as 130 million seek fortune and "life-changing possibilities" away from the country villages of their birth in the new towns and factories. It provides an intimate portrait of the lives, aspirations, frustrations and values of the girls striving to make both a physical and cultural separation from their homes, and to find their own way in the modern evolving China. Somewhat disjointed at first, the book makes, then loses contact with the girls, and then having seemed to express disinterest in her own family history, the author embarks on one of a number of interludes as she explores in great detail her own history from her grandfather's assassination by the Communists to the present day via various relatives still living in China.
As the book progresses, however, this exploration alongside the stories of the girls - provides a deeply absorbing insight into some of the lives of modern China as they struggle with the past and present, and deal with conflicts of family, future, boyfriends, bosses, and opportunities.
While mentioning only in passing some of the major movements and leaders in China in the past few generations, the focus is firmly on the present day and how the girls come to terms with their past by moving forward with resolve and determination ("to linger on loss was pointless").
This provides unique insights into the past and changing culture and values of these girls and their families, with whom the author (herself an American Chinese) shares much as they make their way forward and away from their past. In the revealing "discussion with the author" at the end of this publication, Leslie Chan suggests that this detailed account of a period in the lives of the girls gives a more real and vibrant feel for China and its developing culture, than any amount of generalisation or more formal "history" could ever do. It is impossible to disagree.
A delightful and interesting read.
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VINE VOICEon 23 December 2010
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.

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: An Insider's Account of the China Production Game (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 some British towns 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.
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on 4 February 2011
I have spent much time in China for over twenty years now - the people from the shop floor still being very much aloof from me. This book has brought me closer to who they really are and what they really think and feel. If you have a desire to understand the culture of this fascinating country and its endearing people then this book will grip your interest and expand your knowledge. Beautifully written this is an absorbing experience.
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on 24 March 2011
Just a short review:

I have read many books on China recently, and this is by far the best. If you want to get somewhere nearer understanding modern China, this is the book to read.

Ostensibly about the lives of the 130 million migrant workers in China, this book is about much more than that. It is a exposition on modern Chinese history and national identity. But at its heart it is the story of migrant women, leaving home at a very young age, to 'go out' into the world, travel hundreds of miles to huge industrial towns, and find work, and a new life. It is quite a moving story, and after reading it, I felt a huge amount of empathy and admiration for the women whose stories had been told throughout the book.

It is a fascinating glimpse into part of the reason China is becoming a superpower. If you read any book about China, read this one.

Thank you Leslie Chang, for writing such an excellent and enlightening book.
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on 3 May 2010
I bought this book expecting it to be something of an unpleasant truth. And though undoubtedly this is true in many ways and for many in China, what this book shows is that even in these hard conditions workers have freedoms and opportunities for social mobility that was not previously available to them. I found some of the stories of these Chinese people very inspiring. The author is a real insider too as she enters this world at the heart of modern China and the heart of our globalized society.
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