Leslie T. Chang (on migrant Chinese women)

“When you met a girl from another factory, you quickly took her measure. What year are you? you asked each other, as if speaking not of human beings but of the makes of cars. How much a month?…How much for overtime? Then you might ask what province she was from. You never asked her name….

“When you did make a friend, you did everything for her. If a friend quit her job and had nowhere to stay, you shared your [dormitory] bunk despite the risk of a ten-yuan fine, about $1.25, if you got caught. If she worked far away, you would get up early on a rare day off and ride hours on the bus, and at the other end your friend would take leave from work – this time, the fine one hundred yuan – to spend the day with you….

“Workers were required to stay six months, and even then permission to quit was not always granted. The factory held the first two months of every worker’s pay….Getting into a factory was easy. The hard part was getting out.

“The only way to find a better job was to quit the one you had [and lose two months’ salary and start over again]….The pressing need for a place to eat and sleep was incentive to find work fast. Girls often quit a factory in groups,…pledging to join a new factory together, although that usually turned out to be impossible. The easiest thing in the world was to lose touch with someone…” *

Leslie T. Chang was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Beijing when she began to interview and befriend young Chinese women in the factory cities of Guangdong province. Of Chinese descent herself, this American writer had her excellent Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China published in 2008. The passage quoted is from the opening pages of the book. She is married to Peter Hessler, who has written three superb books on life in modern China.  

* If my long overdue brilliant and insightful review of this terrific book is not posted within a week, you should email me indignantly.