Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 8:12 PM
Former China Wall Street Journal correspondent Leslie T. Chang has written a book about migrant workers called Factory Girls. With a wonderfully light touch, Chang describes the social and economic factors behind the largest mass movement of people in history—the urbanization of China's rural population.
As the name suggests, Factory Girls focuses on female migrant workers who make up the majority of the work force in most of southern China's factories. In particular the book tells the stories of two migrant women who became friends of the author:
Wu Chunming is an ambitious go-getter who falls for pyramid schemes, narrowly avoids being drafted into service of ill repute at a massage parlor, starts her own company, keeps a diary and constantly re-invents herself; Min remains a factory employee throughout the period recounted in the book, but does manage to get off the assembly line, the worst paid place to work.
Chang spent several years getting to know her subjects and found herself increasingly interested in her own family history, which she traces back to an ancestor named Zhang Hualong who migrated to Jilin Province in what was then called Manchuria. The author herself was born in the United States, and her family's story is one of moving around.
As she writes, "the history of a family begins when a person leaves home", and she gracefully sets the progress of her migrant worker friends against her own family history.
Below is an excerpt from the chapter titled 'To die poor is a sin' from Factory Girls.
Factory Girls is published Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. This except from the book is republished with permission.
The excerpt below starts with a translation of a diary entry written by Wu Chunming.
To die poor is a sinby Leslie T. Chang
The first time Wu Chunming went out she did not tell her parents. It was the summer of 1992 and to migrate was something bold and dangerous. In her village in Hunan Province, it was said that girls who went to the city would be tricked into brothels and never heard from again.
Chunming was seventeen years old that summer. She had finished middle school and was peddling fruits and vegetables in a city near home; she migrated with a cousin who was still in school. The two girls borrowed money for train tickets to Dongguan and found jobs in a factory that made paint for toys. The smell of the chemicals gave them headaches, and they returned home after two months as broke as before. Chunming went out again the following spring. Her parents objected, and argued, and cried. But when she decided to leave anyway, with a few friends from nearby villages, her mother borrowed money for her train fare.
Guangdong in 1993 was even more chaotic than it is today. Migrants from the countryside flooded the streets looking for work, sleeping in bus stations and under bridges. The only way to find a job was to knock on factory doors, and Chunming and her friends were turned away from many doors before they were hired at the Guotong toy factory. Ordinary workers there made one hundred yuan a month, or about twelve dollars; to stave off hunger, they bought giant bags of instant noodles and added salt and boiling water. "We thought if we ever made two hundred yuan a month," Chunming said later, "we would be perfectly happy."
After four months, Chunming jumped to another factory, but left soon after a fellow worker said her cousin knew of better jobs in Shenzhen. Chunming and a few friends traveled there, spent the night under a highway overpass, and met the girl's cousin the next morning. He brought them to a hair salon and took them upstairs, where a heavily made-up young woman sat on a massage bed waiting for customers. Chunming was terrified at the sight. "I was raised very traditionally," she said. "I thought everyone in that place was bad and wanted me to be a prostitute. I thought that once I went in there, I would turn bad too."
The girls were told that they should stay and take showers in a communal stall, but Chunming refused. She walked back down the stairs, looked out the front door, and ran, abandoning her friends and the suitcase that contained her money, a government-issued identity card, and a photograph of her mother. Footsteps came up behind her. She turned in to one alley and then another, and the footsteps stopped. Chunming ran into a yard and found a deserted chicken coop in back. She climbed into the coop and hid there, all day and all night.
The next morning, her arms laced with mosquito bites, Chunming went into the street and knelt on the sidewalk to beg for money, but no one gave her anything. A passerby brought her to the police station; without the name or address of the hair salon, the police couldn't help her either. They gave her twenty yuan for bus fare back to her factory.
The bus driver dropped her off only partway back to Dongguan. Chunming started to walk, and a man on the street followed her. She spotted a young woman in a factory uniform and asked if she could sneak into her factory for the night. The young woman borrowed a worker's ID card and brought Chunming in, where she hid that night in a shower stall. In the morning, Chunming stole clean pants and a T-shirt that were hanging out to dry in the bathroom and climbed the factory gate to get out. By then she had not eaten in two days. A bus driver bought her a piece a bread and gave her a lift back to Dongguan, where her cousin and his wife worked.
Chunming did not tell them what had happened to her. Instead she wandered the streets. She befriended a cook on a construction site who let her eat with the other workers, and at night she sneaked into friends' factory dorms to sleep. Without an ID card, she could not get a new job. After a month of wandering, Chunming saw an ad for assembly-line jobs at the Yinhui toy factory. She found an ID card that someone had lost or left behind and used it to get hired. Officially she was Tang Congyun, born in 1969. That made her five years older than she really was, but no one looked closely at such things.
For years after she left the factory, she received letters addressed to Tang Congyun. Chunming never found out who she was.
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