Books

To die poor is a sin

Leslie_Chang_Factory_Girls.jpg

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.

You can read a review of the book by Jeffrey Wasserstrom on Newsweek here, and buy the book on the Random House website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Borders.

The excerpt below starts with a translation of a diary entry written by Wu Chunming.

To die poor is a sin

by Leslie T. Chang

May 25, 1994

After I was fired from the Yongtong factory, fortunately my wages were fully paid. I had more than one hundred yuan on me and I was not frightened at all. Still I was a little worried, since after all I did not even have an identity card. But with no way out I could only take an ID card that said I was born in 1969 and try my luck. Who knew my luck would be pretty good? I made my way into this factory's plastic molds department.

Since I have come to Guangdong, I have jumped factories four or five times, and each factory was better than the last. More important was that at each instance, I relied on myself. I never begged for help from anyone. Although I have a few good friends, not one helped me at the time when I most needed it.

I remember when I fled back from Shenzhen. At that time, I truly had nothing to my name. Other than my own self, I had nothing else. I wandered outside for a month, completely penniless, once even going hungry for two days, and no one knew... Although older cousin and his wife were in Longyan, I did not want to go find them, because they could not really help me. I often wanted to rely on others, but they cannot be relied on. You can only rely on yourself.

Yes, I can only rely on myself.

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.

Chunming worked at the Yinhui factory for a year, mixing vats of plastic that was poured into molds to make toy cars, planes, and trains. She was bold and she liked to talk, and she made friends easily. Her new friends called her Tang Congyun. She had become, quite literally, someone else.

For years after she left the factory, she received letters addressed to Tang Congyun. Chunming never found out who she was.

There are currently 14 Comments for To die poor is a sin.

Comments on To die poor is a sin

it always sickens me to read about journalists--especially foreign journalists in china--who "befriend" their subjects and then profit from the relationship by disgorging this intimacy for their readers.

i'm thinking now of Peter Hessler, Michael Meyer... ... ...

the book's cover (above) is fantastic, however. great use of the reddish hues against black-and-white.

I know, slowboat! How dare these Americans speak fluent Chinese, spend years volunteering in rural Sichuan and Beijing elementary schools, then write books about people who agree to be interviewed and fact-check the work. Better to be a salaried journalist, speak little Chinese, rely on fixers/translators, never revisit the people being written about, and face no consequences from their subjects. FACTORY GIRLS is narrative non-fiction, not an "I lived in China" book. Read it before judging it by its (lovely) cover.

i would like to express my absolute disgust at certain authors writing tell-all books about rickshaw drivers.

The author seems to be aware the concerns you voice, slowboat. She noted some of her reservations about the limitations of short-form journalism and the difficulties she faced in writing this book in a blog post published earlier this year on The China Beat.

I'm also reminded of this profile of Daily Show correspondent John Oliver, who makes the insightful observation that "the beauty of being a journalist is that it enables you to talk to people in a way that outside the bounds of your job description would seem rude....It's possible to treat people, as a journalist, with absolutely no respect and have that misconstrued as professionalism rather than just very poor manners."

Lao She:

The fact that this book is not the worst of the west's china journalism does exempt it from criticism, nor does it lessen my contempt.

and thanks for the link, Joel.

where does one go next to become the truest of all china hands, the envy of every over-educated, under-employed, and hyper-localized expat in the PRC? six years in a Shanxi village fixing tractors?

I am disgusted that people are writing, and even reading books instead of working for world peace.

Slowboat, you obviously the bitter English teacher stuck in your mind numbing job teaching business people boringness nothing. Stop being so angry. It is good these stories told so western people buying the toys know how they come to them.

I don't have a moral problem with journalists or anyone else befriending locals, and then writing about what they learnt from them. What's wrong with that?

This book offers many fascinating insights into the world of Chinese migrants, and, most importantly of all, it doesn't portray them to be the passive victims of a changing world. Instead, the migrants who are given a voice in this book exercise considerable agency, and their daily struggles to improve their lives, and the lives of their families, is quite inspirational.

The chapter that looks at the importance of mobile phones I found to be particularly interesting: "In the migrant world, the mobile phone was a metaphor for the relentless pace of city life." An essential possession of migrant workers, "the mobile phone was the first big purchase of most migrants. Without a phone, it was virtually impossible to keep up with friends or find a new job....Anyway, people jumped jobs so often that dorm and office numbers quickly went out of date. In a universe of perpetual motion, the mobile phone was magnetic north, the thing that fixed a person in place."

I lived and worked in China myself for five years, and I recently had a China travel narrative of my own published. One of the topics I touch on in the book, is the way that migrant workers use various strategies to assert for themselves a new identity. For example, when I lived in Shenzhen I would often see small groups of migrant workers taking turns to have their photo taken in front of the iconic Diwang Building – once the tallest in all of Asia – each one claiming some belonging to the city, it seemed. Their photos, no doubt, were sent home to the relatives, used to assert for themselves a new identity. Although clearly not the intended patrons of the Diwang, these migrant workers were using the building for their own ends, for I witnessed in the tactics of these workers the ability to create a space for themselves in a place defined by the architects of elitist power and wealth.

I found Chang's book to be a worthwhile read. It helped to further shape my understanding of how at least some migrant workers in China live.

I blame the internet.

I would say, 'To die rich is a sin!'

It appears that Chinese people are massively insecure about their own culture.
If you 'bash America,' I would agree with you, as it's fucked up!
That's why, as an American I live in China!
The only problem it seems China wants to be like America! A big mistake!

Woo hoo!

Capitalism is crumbling.

Who has actually read this to either praise or condemn it?

since when did you have to actually read a book to self-righteously condemn it for righteousness sake? I for one am also sickened by this author, and would like at this time to point out my snobbish disapproval by folding my arms and raising my nose. There, its done.

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