This evening I helped at my second Hong Kong International Literary Festival event: a standing-room-only talk by Leslie T. Chang, the author of FACTORY GIRLS. My duties were crowd control and ticket collection, so I did not have a chance to talk to the author personally. She had a very professional air and she was an interesting and straight-forward speaker. I am about halfway finished with her book, so I'll be putting up a review as soon as possible (I like it so far).
FACTORY GIRLS explores the lives of the Chinese young people who leave their rural villages to work in big factories in cities like Dongguan and Shenzhen. They represent the largest human migration in history, and most of them are young women between the ages of 16 and 22. They staff the massive factories that produce everything from shoes to electronics to machine parts. Chang introduced her book by explaining that there have been plenty of books written about the evils of factory life in China; she wanted to write the stories of the real people.
Chang took a unique approach in writing her award-winning book because she chose to follow her subjects around for several years to see what happened to them, rather than just interviewing a bunch of factory workers and then writing about it. Her talk earlier in the day (while I was at work) was about the process of writing in reverse, never quite knowing what would change in her subjects' lives as she wrote. She said she was actually a source of constancy for the young women she wrote about because, unlike most of the people in their transient lives, she was always there.
Chang talked about the fierce independence and the drive to get ahead of many of the girls. They are living during a time of immense change in China. Their overt individuality and independence are unprecedented in Chinese culture. These village girls are making opportunities for themselves by taking extra courses, staying informed about the different work options, and learning to live in the big cities, even though this makes it increasingly difficult to relate to the older generations. She showed some pictures of the factories and the women she studied, and she wanted to emphasize that many of them are happy to be living in the city, sending money home, and carving out bigger lives than their villages offer.
The audience asked about how Chang was able to get the girls to trust her. As a Chinese-American woman working in China, she said she was able to connect with the girls because she too knows what it is like to leave your home to pursue bigger opportunities. She also did not look too different from them, so factory bosses were less likely to chase her away. She was uniquely positioned to literally write about history in the making as she recorded the personal stories of the young women who form the backbone of Chinese industry.