Interview: Leslie T. Chang

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Bong Miquiabas speaks with Leslie T. Chang about her two years spent among the Factory Girls of Dongguan.

Any savvy reporter knows that great stories can often be found in commonplace situations. Journalist Leslie T. Chang took this approach to winning effect in her new book Factory Girls. Her story about the lives of  Chinese migrant factory workers uncovers a world fuelled by individual hustle, overwhelming pressure to succeed, and, ultimately, hope.

Chang, who was born and raised in New York, and educated at Harvard, first visited Dongguan, in Guangdong province, in 2004 as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She saw there was far more to say about the state of Chinese factories than merely detailing the often atrocious working conditions. “It began with a bit of a contrarian instinct,” says Chang, of her decision to write a book examining the lives and choices of Chinese migrant workers. “Newspapers had missed out on a lot of human interest.”

Factory Girls chronicles the colourful lives of two workers in particular; Chunming and Min,  young women of humble rural backgrounds. The book also traces the life of Chang’s paternal grandfather, a mining expert who studied in the US and returned after the Second World War to strife-torn China as the Kuomintang and Communist forces battled for control of the country.

“Learning my family story also changed the way I saw the factory towns,” writes Chang in Factory Girls,. “There was a lot to dislike about the migrant world of Min and Chunming: the materialism, the corruption, the coarseness of daily existence. But now there was an opportunity to leave your village and change your fate, to imagine a different life and make it real. The journey my grandfather attempted was one that millions of young people now made every day.”

Yet Chang didn’t initially plan on twinning the storylines, much less writing in an intimate voice. “My years as a journalist had not taught me how to write first person,” says Chang, who is fluent in Mandarin, and spent a decade in total living in China. “My first draft was two books – the book of the migrants and my family’s story. Everyone, my editors, my husband (acclaimed writer Peter Hessler, author of River Town) said, ‘You are the glue that ties this together.’”

What ensues is a carefully reported and deeply sensitive account of life in China through the eyes of migrant workers, as told by a self-aware migrant’s heir. Indeed, Chang was so captivated by her subject matter that she took unpaid leave from the Journal to work on the book, ultimately leaving the newspaper.

It’s not hard to understand why. Chang found two strong-willed women whose life journeys make for irresistible drama. She met Chunming at a dating agency event and was impressed by the Hunan native’s story: began work at a toy factory, almost got tricked into working at a brothel, and talked her way into countless other jobs. Chang writes of Chunming: “[I]t was what she had said [at the dating agency event] that I remembered – ‘My goal in coming here today is to give myself more opportunities.’ That, and her voice: sharp as a scythe, and unashamed of its broad peasant accent that no number of years in the city could erase. Hers was a voice that won arguments and carried across construction sites and made men sit up and take notice.”

As for Min, Chang met the then-17 year-old Hubei native through a woman who worked at a migrant magazine. “Min struck me as very spirited, very talkative. I was looking for people who were interesting.”

Chang describes a chronically changing environment, in which every one of China’s 130 million migrant workers (at last count) has one eye on their precious few belongings, and another on a better job opportunity. Workplace promotion, we learn, often depends on sly networking and luck.

However, what surprised Chang most about the factory girls she met was “the speed of the change in their lives.” It was constant and relentless, she says. “Every time I saw Min she had some momentous change, whether it was a new job, a new boyfriend, or a new hairstyle. The biggest challenge was keeping up with [her subjects] week-to-week. Min once lost her cell phone, and her cousin called me up and notified her. Otherwise we would have lost touch.”

Factory Girls would already be gripping on account of its content, which is by turns funny and moving. But Chang’s descriptive language, verging on the literary, gives the reader great faith in her appropriateness as narrator. For example, on meeting a one-time neighbour of her grandfather in Jilin province, Chang writes:

“She had lived next door to our family compound when she was young. As soon as she understood who I was, she began talking fiercely at me in a thick country dialect, her gums working silently in the spaces between the words. The woman’s face was thin and puckered, like parchment, with bright rheumy eyes.”

In a story teeming with memorable moments, Chang says her trek to Min’s village in Hubei stood out “because it’s only when you’re in the village that you realise what the city means – the collective nature, the pressures, the expectations, the gossip, the backstabbing of village life. When [migrants] come to the city for the first time, it’s really shocking and traumatic being totally alone. Over time they can see solitude, freedom and opportunity as good things.”

The book has been roundly praised, with The New York Times naming Factory Girls in its list of ‘100 Notable Books of 2008.’ Chang has not decided what comes next. She and Hessler now live in Colorado, where she says “there are a lot of interesting stories to be told.” She adds, “I’m just waiting to see how my ideas develop, trying to do a lot of reading about the American West.”

Although Chang and her husband have no immediate plans to move back to China, she says now is a unique time to document the country. “This is a golden moment for reporting and writing about China because people are so open, but, at the same time, their lives are undergoing incredible change. It wasn’t this way in the past and I don’t know if it will be this way in the future.”For the country’s migrant workers, at least, there truly is no time like the present.

 

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