I am going to write this review before reading others' reviews, because I loved this book and want to actually write out one of my little thingies about it before my mind is changed or my positive opinion changed. That always happens.
There's something about social type commentaries written by journalists that means that there will be factual and other inaccuracies, glossings over and other things that a lay reader doesn't pick up on. I have a history degree and studied a fair bit of Chinese history, but will always feel like a hopelessly incompetent outsider when it comes to 'understanding China'. China is such a large country in every sense and meaning that the word could possibly have, that writing about any part of Chinese history, culture, society and anything else is surely an impossible task. The population is almost inconceivably large, it covers an enormous geographic area with timezones, weather patterns and agricultural and industrial profiles.
Leslie Chang wrote for the Wall Street Journal and before embarking on researching this book, published a few articles about internal migrants shaping China. She then went and lived in Dongguan, which is where most of the book is set. Dongguan is a factory town, the destination for millions of Chinese (mainly) women who (mostly) in the late teens leave their villages.
The book was recommended to me by my mum, to whom it was recommended by a friend who works for a large electronics company an ex pat living in Shanghai. I thought it would be along the lines of No Logo, exploring the slavish working conditions in factories and exploitation of people who are locked into lives of misery and servitude. It's not that, though I'm sure there is much of that in China as elsewhere around the world.
I think Leslie Chang does a brilliant job of moving from being an outside observer documenting what she sees, and a participant in this world. My copy of the book has an interview with Chang as a kind of epilogue, wherein she outlines that rather than using the traditional journalistic formula of going into a situation with a set of questions or a particular issue to explore, she went in and just.. went with it. She went to Dongguan, met people that she thought would form the basis of her book, and then lost touch with them after one encounter. The two girls that are central to the book are both interesting, familiar and completely strange to me. They both left their poor rural villages to work in factories; they left not knowing where they were going, what they would do, and where it would take them.
The Dongguan in the book is both fascinating and completely terrifying to me. Only the most tenacious, confident and persistent could survive in a place where to make it, rather than education, understanding or skills, lying and bluff get you ahead. It seems like the most materialistic place imaginable, where potential partners are dumped before a word is spoken for being too 'low class', quiet or short. Hair cuts are of greater consequence than jobs or living situations, and knowledge is gained and imparted through the kind of motivational slogans found on gym walls everywhere.
People are caught between families that don't understand their new life, how it works and and what it involves, and people who are friends as long as they're next to you following the exact same path. Everything is temporary, picked up and dropped with what seems like reckless abandon, in the search for the next best thing, in a rush to become richer and more successful. It's not a book to gush about, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and feel like I have a much richer understanding of a big force that shapes part of China, or at least a part of the Chinese population.
I found it very readable, and I genuinely cared about the people in the book, despite their decisions sometimes making me want to hurl the book across the room and slap them across the face with a furious 'You stupid girl!'. I would not survive in their world; reading about it was enough to make me grit my teeth and recoil at times. But it's absolutely fascinating, and until I can read or speak Chinese, I must rely on books like these to get a better sense of how a great part of the world lives and works.