Book review: Factory girls

Migration to the city

Mish Khan

Society and culture | East Asia

11 August 2015

Mish Khan reviews Factory Girls by Leslie T Chang detailing the contemporary situation of female migrant workers in industrial cities in China.

Factory Girls by Leslie T Chang traces the lives and experiences of migrant workers in the industrial manufacturing hub of Dongguan to successfully document the cultural transformation experienced by Chinese migrant youth. Attracted by the opportunities for better pay, exposure to an urban environment, and the opportunity for upwards mobility that a city can offer, thousands of youth are leaving their villages to undertake assembly line work in industrial cities. Factory Girls offers an insider perspective on how migrants undergo the modern transformation from a rural to urban identity. It successfully demonstrates both the dichotomy between rural and urban values and the inerasable links to rural culture inscribed in migrant identity.

Chang begins with the accounts of migrant workers whom have recently arrived in Dongguan. Dongguan is a vast, dynamic city with an average annual growth of 13.3 percent, dubbed “the world’s factory.” Assembly line jobs are constantly advertised, as switching between factories (aka ‘factory hopping’) is very common. Dongguan has incredibly high career mobility- learning another dialect, computer skills, or taking etiquette classes will land you in the reception area of a factory. But a pretty face, being from a certain province, or being tall reflects just as favourably- whereas being a single child or short could make you ineligible for many jobs. Chang characterises this unfairness with an expression used by the migrants- chi ku, to eat bitterness- stating “suffering in silence is not how migrant workers see themselves- to return home early is defeat, to go out and stay is to change your fate.”

Other areas Chang explores within migrant experience are education and self-improvement. Many migrants working in Dongguan were financially supporting the education of their younger siblings despite never having the opportunity to finish their own schooling. Despite this, many migrants seek out education in the city to help promote their career. Just as the cultural identity of the migrant changes, so do their needs. For the urbanised migrant, education means after hours commercial schools that intend to mould them for an office environment so that they can leave their assembly line roles. These skills include secretarial skills, computer skills, etiquette classes, grooming classes, etc and typically cost around one month’s salary. Equipped with such skills, a worker can interview for a job as a receptionist, clerk or sales person. Rapid self-improvement is a constant theme across the different migrant accounts. As one of the tutors preaches, “If you do not work hard these two or three years you will spend your whole life at the lowest level of society.”

Dating in Dongguan is a quick and competitive process. Dating clubs offer a huge selection of member portfolios, categorised by age and sex, which list qualities such as height, career, apartment and car ownership, etc. It is not uncommon for people to lie in these profiles. But despite this suggesting that their love life is superficial, surveys have actually found that living in the city granted women more liberty in negotiating their own love lives. Traditionally, a young migrant woman would live with her husband’s family after marriage and resume working on the farm, and thus was pressured to find an approved match from a village close to her own family’s. Conversely, migration to a city makes a rural woman more likely to choose her own husband, seek equality in marriage, view divorce as an acceptable option, finance her own wedding, and remain in the city to work. A huge factor in this independence is young girls being financially independent and thus in a better position to negotiate with their families.

Within the fast paced, hectic motion to the city, family remains the one fixed point in the migrant’s universe. The continuing link to family has stabilised China in an age of mass migration. Migrants financially support their family with their earnings as one of the chief sources of village income. Migrant girls enjoy a new status of importance at home, having seized the role of improving village life. When returning home to celebrate Chinese New Year, the difference in lifestyle is excruciatingly evident. Almost everything is performed communally- eating, bathing, sleeping, and visiting other families. This is a stark contrast to the loneliness of the city. Chang describes the family village as an escape for the migrant, explaining that no matter what hardships a migrant encounters in the city, they may always rely on returning home.

Amidst numerous writings that concentrate on the misery and abuse of factory work, Chang sets out to capture migrants as individuals with personal stories, and to explore how the identity of the migrant develops as they are exposed to urban cultural paradigms. From an anthropological perspective, Chang provides an interesting and insightful view of how migrant identity transforms to tolerate an explosive urban environment.

To read more about Leslie Chang, visit her website at ‘Factory Girls’ is available at the ANU library, or online at

Back to Top
Join the APP Society

Leave your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Press Ctrl+C to copy