A quick review of Factory Girls…

June 16, 2010 at 8:11 pm (Uncategorized)

         During the course of my research on mobile communications in developing Asia, I decided that I needed an Anthropology course to further expand by knowledge base.  One of the books the class required was Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang.  This is a great book for people interested in doing an ethnographic study in another country.  Although the book isn’t primarily about cell phones usage, the technology plays a huge role in how these women navigate fast-paced urban city life and jobs.  Below is a short (by short I mean less than 2,000 words) summary of the book.

               With industrialization growing at an alarming rate, China’s migrant workers populations, particularly the women are being thrown into a world where they are not only fighting to create sustainable incomes for their families back home, but to also find their own voices and independence among thousands of others. Over the course of three years, Leslie T. Chang weaves Factory Girls around the stories of Min, Chunming, and other girls with her own family history to give the reader an opportunity to see China as it was, where is now, and possibly where its future lies. In essence, the book is really about how industrialized China is slowly changing from their traditional ways to Western ideals of individuality.  In addition, we are confronted with feminism from a cultural perspective, where the girls who were in villages, perhaps bound by the traditional patriarchical family structures; are now making major family and personal decisions.
            Although the author is Chinese, she is American born and her lens is distorted by a Western perspective. As she talks about the girls and her own family we are constantly seeing Chang looking for areas of conflict and inequality, which in many cases was rightly so.  For example, Min and Chunming’s families were willing to forego their daughters’ educations, but sent them to work out in the factories without any parental supervision.  Several times in Chang’s study we are confronted with parents trying to get their daughters to send more money home, yet ignoring the hardships their children are facing alone. 
            Min is especially critical of her parents when they complain of others sending more money home.  Both of her parents have had a taste of factory life, but continue to ignore the hardships their daughter is dealing with.  Part of her criticism stems from the fact neither of her parents were able to succeed in the city, while she not succeeded where they failed, she also was making more money than they ever had.  These young women are making careers for themselves and finding their voices, while it seems like their parents appear to be trapped in how much money they can get their daughters to send home.
            Money has also shifted the family’s power structure.  Min sent home $1,300 and is now able to “monitor her father’s purchases and reject[ed] his business plans.”  She had the upper hand in the family because she was their main source of income.  Min, and perhaps many young women like her, has inadvertently become the new Chinese feminist.  They came to realize after working and jumping factories, that they held the upper hand and they used it full force.  Min was able to dictate family affairs from the city and make important decisions like adding an indoor bathroom and the younger children’s education.  Chang compares this to her own foreign educated grandfather, who was beaten with a stick by his father for changing majors.  Although Min is at the “lowest rung of society”, but because she became successful she immediately rose to a higher level than the rest of the family. 
            Chunming was also rebelling from the traditional ways of her family.  She regularly jumped factories and made the decision to study English to the dismay of her parents, who feel she should just stick to one factory.  However, if Chunming had taken her family’s advice she would not have taken the risks she needed to advance.  In this way, family posed to be a hindrance to her advancement and success.  Chunming resorts to lying to get what she wants, even when it comes to potential relationships.  She creates an Internet dating ad where she posts another picture.  Although she using deception to catch a potential suitor, she still laments that the Internet has made relations between people false. 
           Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book was when Chang was traveling with Min to her village for the holidays.  Min presents her a gift of a Coach wallet, which might retail in the U.S. for fifty dollars, but she and her then boyfriend were able to walk out the door with these bags. Essentially, you have an American classic made completely in China.  The same goes for these shoe factories, where expensive footwear is being made by these young women, who will probably never be able to afford a pair with the low wages they earn.  In many ways, Chang paints a picture of urban China as being a machine driven, cement environment; where the loss of a cell phone can result in losing contact will all of your friends and even boyfriends.  This world is so fast paced that even education has stopped trying to keep up.  In fact, the book Square and Round becomes a hit with Chinese workers because it is a rejection of all the things Chinese tradition has to offer.  Essentially, the book reinforces the idea of materialism, pettiness, envy, and subterfuge.
            At the beginning of the book, the girls are exceptionally lonely and scared.  They are being forced to grow up in a fast-paced urban environment where dangers await at every corner.  Having to navigate this daunting world with the pressure to send more money home seems like it is a massive burden for such girls to handle.  Chang only delivers the stories of a few girls, but what about the millions of others who do not make it and succumb to the city?  She describes karaoke bars where a young virginal woman started working and would cry when men groped her too hard.  However, by the end of the book, both Chunming and Min felt going back to the village would be shameful.  It would mean all they had worked for would disappear.  In fact, many of these fled the villages to get out of arranged marriages, and although burdened with the need to provide for families back home, found their life in the city to exciting.  Chang describes village life as being idle and too slow for the girls, who have now had a taste of freedom and independence.
            In addition, the need to become a success was very over-powering for these women.  The Chinese saying of “to die poor is a sin” resonated loudly.  Originally, the need for success was dictated by family need, but as soon as these girls started seeing success; they began to spend money on themselves.  The author describes the women who would buy new clothes, shoes, and makeup products.  The cell phone also became a sign of success and at its most basic level was the key to progress.  Without it people lost contact and had difficulty finding work.  It also served as way to show family in the village that these girls were capable of running their households.
            With over a 130 million people migrating from the Chinese countryside to the cities, China has the fastest rate of growth in the history of industrialization.  What is most striking about this migration is the way the under thirty population of girls have taken over the running of their households with a few thousand dollars.  Where once older relatives gave the young red envelopes with money, the tables have now turned as the young are now in charge of caring for parents and younger siblings.  What is most striking is how girls who are not held to the same standards as their male counterparts are leading the way towards Chinese feminism.  Chang allows the reader to have an insider look at how China’s migrant workers are pushing the country into becoming an industrialized superpower.

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2 Comments

  1. Debbie James said,

    Sadaf – I enjoyed your summary of FACTORY GIRLS. I am particularly curious about how family power shifts are resulting from young women’s migration to the city and factory jobs. Is this happening in other industrializing countries? India maybe?

    I am curious as to how women are managing this transition from traditional gender and age roles. In either place, I would imagine cell phones are helping to facilitate this power shift. I would be interested in learning your perspective on the role of cell phones in this context beyond maintaining existing relationships. Do you think this shift would/could occur without cell phones?

    • sadafali10 said,

      Hi Debbie! Thanks for the comment. Although I didn’t focus on the cell phone for this post, it actually plays a pivitol role in how these women are navigating their new urban environments. They are using them to not only maintain existing relationships, but also to open up new job opportunities. One of the girls starts a lucrative health supplement business by just wheeling and dealing via cell phone. In fact to lose the phone creates a huge setback because these women’s livelihoods are dependant on the contacts they secure via their phones.
      To answer your question on India …I think that mobile phones are playing a big role in rural development. Check out this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fIefLK5LKBI
      Indian farmers are using the mobile phone to sell their goods. It’s actually pretty cool when you think about the power of the cell phone. In addition, the cell phone is being used to teach children English via text messages. In some of the research I’ve also come across, women are using the phone to create small business opportunities for themselves in the form of selling pre-paid phones and minutes. There’s been quite a bit of research done on this in Bangladesh.

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