Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

( 27 )

Overview

An eye-opening and previously untold story, Factory Girls is the first look into the everyday lives of the migrant factory population in China.

China has 130 million migrant workers—the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the ...

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Overview

An eye-opening and previously untold story, Factory Girls is the first look into the everyday lives of the migrant factory population in China.

China has 130 million migrant workers—the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta.

As she tracks their lives, Chang paints a never-before-seen picture of migrant life—a world where nearly everyone is under thirty; where you can lose your boyfriend and your friends with the loss of a mobile phone; where a few computer or English lessons can catapult you into a completely different social class. Chang takes us inside a sneaker factory so large that it has its own hospital, movie theater, and fire department; to posh karaoke bars that are fronts for prostitution; to makeshift English classes where students shave their heads in monklike devotion and sit day after day in front of machines watching English words flash by; and back to a farming village for the Chinese New Year, revealing the poverty and idleness of rural life that drive young girls to leave home in the first place. Throughout this riveting portrait, Chang also interweaves the story of her own family’s migrations, within China and to the West, providing historical and personal frames of reference for her investigation.

A book of global significance that provides new insight into China, Factory Girls demonstrates how the mass movement from rural villages to cities is remaking individual lives and transforming Chinese society, much as immigration to America’s shores remade our own country a century ago.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Very few Americans know that 130 million Chinese villagers have migrated to industrial cities in their country to secure a better life. In Factory Girls, former Wall Street Journal Beijing correspondent Leslie T. Chang takes readers inside the lives of these young, struggling internal émigrés, describing how they adjust to the challenges and vicissitudes of their new lives. Focusing on two teenage girls, she utilizes their diaries, emails, and text messages to present their hardships and hopes. An up-close and personal look at the greatest human migration in history.
Patrick Radden Keefe
Chang's extraordinary reportorial feat is the intimacy with which she presents the stories of these two women. Min and Chunming lack the reserve of some of their colleagues. They share their diary entries and their text messages, their romantic entanglements and their sometimes strained relationships with the families they left behind. The result is an exceptionally vivid and compassionate depiction of the day-to-day dramas, and the fears and aspirations, of the real people who are powering China's economic boom. By delving so deeply into the lives of her subjects, Chang succeeds in exploring the degree to which China's factory girls are exploited—working grueling hours in sometimes poor conditions for meager wages with little job security—without allowing the book to degenerate into a diatribe.
—The New York Times Book Review
Howard W. French
Ms. Chang…describes this endless flow of labor from the hinterland to the booming cities of the east as the "largest migration in human history." But she gives us something more personal as well, including an extended aside in which she explores her ancestors' roots in China. The results are deeply affecting. Her focus, as suggested by the title, are the young women who overwhelmingly staff the factory assembly lines in the new industrial supercities of the Pearl River Delta of southern China. In the course of her narrative, she builds a quiet but powerful case that through their tireless work and self-sacrifice, these women, invisible to the outside world and to most Chinese, are this era's true heroes…Ms. Chang's rich narrative takes us deep inside a country that is changing too fast for any reckoning about the outcome or even direction, and she is wise in avoiding easy conclusions or even approval.
—The New York Times
Seth Faison
Chang skillfully sketches migrants as individuals with their own small victories and bitter tragedies, and she captures the surprising dynamics of this enormous but ill-understood subculture…Chang writes about her family and its dislocations with special sensitivity and grace. That story is almost like a book within a book, and it gives a poignant perspective to her accounts of the dislocated migrant workers she gets to know. More than that, it completes her portrait of China. If the lives of migrant workers seem to represent the new China, with all its unwieldy promise and economic possibilities, Chang's family history reflects the old China, its stubborn intractability and severe injustice. For now, the two still go together.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Chang, a former Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, explores the urban realities and rural roots of a community, until now, as unacknowledged as it is massive-China's 130 million workers whose exodus from villages to factory and city life is the largest migration in history. Chang spent three years following the successes, hardships and heartbreaks of two teenage girls, Min and Chunming, migrants working the assembly lines in Dongguan, one of the new factory cities that have sprung up all over China. The author's incorporation of their diaries, e-mails and text messages into the narrative allows the girls-with their incredible ambition and youth-to emerge powerfully upon the page. Dongguan city is itself a character, with talent markets where migrants talk their way into their next big break, a lively if not always romantic online dating community and a computerized English language school where students shave their heads like monks to show commitment to their studies. A first generation Chinese-American, Chang uses details of her own family's immigration to provide a vivid personal framework for her contemporary observations. A gifted storyteller, Chang plumbs these private narratives to craft a work of universal relevance. (Oct. 7)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Former Wall Street Journal correspondent Chang penetrates the teeming world of young female migrant workers and finds, rather surprisingly, that it holds a lot more promise than being stuck on the farm. "There was nothing to do at home" was the recurring explanation the author received from workers who had moved to China's cities looking for work. Despite low wages, long hours, no health benefits and exploitive bosses, these girls, as young as 16 (they often lied about their ages), braved the danger of the unknown and sought new lives, sometimes with an older relative's help, sometimes by simply knocking on a factory door. Some 115 million migrant workers have been key to China's recent economic growth, providing the biggest source of wealth accumulation in rural China; the government no longer hounds these workers, but encourages them. Chang penetrates their world through the stories of two particular workers in the factory town of Dongguan. Min, born in a farming village in Hubei, went to Dongguan with her older sister and swiftly rose from a lowly assembly-line job to white-collar office work because of her nice handwriting. She sent money home and hoped to return there to find a husband. Chunming arrived in Dongguan from Hunan Province when she was 17; she narrowly escaped being pressed into a brothel and by sheer will and determination to better herself gained steady promotions into management and high-paying sales jobs, until in her early 30s she predicted that within three years she would achieve her goals of "financial independence and freedom." Enduring discrimination, loss of friends and dehumanizing dating rituals, these migrants still relished their independence and heightenedstatus at home. Chang clutters their fascinating narratives with clumsy attempts to incorporate the migrant stories of her own family members, who fled the communist revolution. Somewhat bland and meandering, but in-depth reporting contributes significantly to our knowledge about China's development.
From the Publisher
"Brilliant, thoughtful, and insightful." —-Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385520188
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/4/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 178,889
  • Product dimensions: 5.21 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

Leslie T. Chang lived in China for a decade as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She is married to Peter Hessler, who also writes about China. She lives in Colorado.
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Read an Excerpt

1 Going Out

When you met a girl from another factory, you quickly took her measure. What year are you? you asked each other, as if speaking not of human beings but of the makes of cars. How much a month? Including room and board? How much for overtime? Then you might ask what province she was from. You never asked her name.

To have a true friend inside the factory was not easy. Girls slept twelve to a room, and in the tight confines of the dorm it was better to keep your secrets. Some girls joined the factory with borrowed ID cards and never told anyone their real names. Some spoke only to those from their home provinces, but that had risks: Gossip traveled quickly from factory to village, and when you went home every auntie and granny would know how much you made and how much you saved and whether you went out with boys.

When you did make a friend, you did everything for her. If a friend quit her job and had nowhere to stay, you shared your bunk despite the risk of a ten-yuan fine, about $1.25, if you got caught. If she worked far away, you would get up early on a rare day off and ride hours on the bus, and at the other end your friend would take leave from work--this time, the fine one hundred yuan--to spend the day with you. You might stay at a factory you didn't like, or quit one you did, because a friend asked you to. Friends wrote letters every week, although the girls who had been out longer considered that childish. They sent messages by mobile phone instead.

Friends fell out often because life was changing so fast. The easiest thing in the world was to lose touch with someone.

The best day of the month was payday. But in a way it was the worst day, too. After you had worked hard for so long, it was infuriating to see how much money had been docked for silly things: being a few minutes late one morning, or taking a half day off for feeling sick, or having to pay extra when the winter uniforms switched to summer ones. On payday, everyone crowded the post office to wire money to their families. Girls who had just come out from home were crazy about sending money back, but the ones who had been out longer laughed at them. Some girls set up savings accounts for themselves, especially if they already had boyfriends. Everyone knew which girls were the best savers and how many thousands they had saved. Everyone knew the worst savers, too, with their lip gloss and silver mobile phones and heart-shaped lockets and their many pairs of high-heeled shoes.

The girls talked constantly of leaving. Workers were required to stay six months, and even then permission to quit was not always granted. The factory held the first two months of every worker's pay; leaving without approval meant losing that money and starting all over somewhere else. That was a fact of factory life you couldn't know from the outside: Getting into a factory was easy. The hard part was getting out.

The only way to find a better job was to quit the one you had. Interviews took time away from work, and a new hire was expected to start right away. Leaving a job was also the best guarantee of getting a new one: The pressing need for a place to eat and sleep was incentive to find work fast. Girls often quit a factory in groups, finding courage in numbers and pledging to join a new factory together, although that usually turned out to be impossible. The easiest thing in the world was to lose touch with someone.

*
• *

For a long time Lu Qingmin was alone. Her older sister worked at a factory in Shenzhen, a booming industrial city an hour away by bus. Her friends from home were scattered at factories up and down China's coast, but Min, as her friends called her, was not in touch with them. It was a matter of pride: Because she didn't like the place she was working, she didn't tell anyone where she was. She simply dropped out of sight.

Her factory's name was Carrin Electronics. The Hong Kong-owned company made alarm clocks, calculators, and electronic calendars that displayed the time of day in cities around the world. The factory had looked respectable when Min came for an interview in March 2003: tile buildings, a cement yard, a metal accordion gate that folded shut. It wasn't until she was hired that she was allowed inside. Workers slept twelve to a room in bunks crowded near the toilets; the rooms were dirty and they smelled bad. The food in the canteen was bad, too: A meal consisted of rice, one meat or vegetable dish, and soup, and the soup was watery.

A day on the assembly line stretched from eight in the morning until midnight--thirteen hours on the job plus two breaks for meals--and workers labored every day for weeks on end. Sometimes on a Saturday afternoon they had no overtime, which was their only break. The workers made four hundred yuan a month--the equivalent of fifty dollars--and close to double that with overtime, but the pay was often late. The factory employed a thousand people, mostly women, either teenagers just out from home or married women already past thirty. You could judge the quality of the workplace by who was missing: young women in their twenties, the elite of the factory world. When Min imagined sitting on the assembly line every day for the next ten years, she was filled with dread. She was sixteen years old.

From the moment she entered the factory she wanted to leave, but she pledged to stick it out six months. It would be good to toughen herself up, and her options were limited for now. The legal working age was eighteen, though sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds could work certain jobs for shorter hours. Generally only an employer that freely broke the labor law--"the very blackest factories," Min called them--would hire someone as young as she was.

Her first week on the job, Min turned seventeen. She took a half day off and walked the streets alone, buying some sweets and eating them by herself. She had no idea what people did for fun. Before she had come to the city, she had only a vague notion of what a factory was; dimly, she imagined it as a lively social gathering. "I thought it would be fun to work on the assembly line," she said later. "I thought it would be a lot of people working together, busy, talking, and having fun. I thought it would be very free. But it was not that way at all."

Talking on the job was forbidden and carried a five-yuan fine. Bathroom breaks were limited to ten minutes and required a sign-up list. Min worked in quality control, checking the electronic gadgets as they moved past on the assembly line to make sure buttons worked and plastic pieces joined and batteries hooked up as they should. She was not a model worker. She chattered constantly and sang with the other women on the line. Sitting still made her feel trapped, like a bird in a cage, so she frequently ran to the bathroom just to look out the window at the green mountains that reminded her of home. Dongguan was a factory city set in the lush subtropics, and sometimes it seemed that Min was the only one who noticed. Because of her, the factory passed a rule that limited workers to one bathroom break every four hours; the penalty for violators was five yuan.

After six months Min went to her boss, a man in his twenties, and said she wanted to leave. He refused.

"Your performance on the assembly line is not good," said Min's boss. "Are you blind?"

"Even if I were blind," Min countered, "I would not work under such an ungrateful person as you."

She walked off the line the next day in protest, an act that brought a hundred-yuan fine. The following day, she went to her boss and asked again to leave. His response surprised her: Stay through the lunar new year holiday, which was six months away, and she could quit with the two months' back pay that the factory owed her. Min's boss was gambling that she would stay. Workers flood factory towns like Dongguan after the new year, and competition for jobs then is the toughest.

After the fight, Min's boss became nicer to her. He urged her several times to consider staying; there was even talk of a promotion to factory-floor clerk, though it would not bring an increase in pay. Min resisted. "Your factory is not worth wasting my whole youth here," she told her boss. She signed up for a computer class at a nearby commercial school. When there wasn't an overtime shift, she skipped dinner and took a few hours of lessons in how to type on a keyboard or fill out forms by computer. Most of the factory girls believed they were so poorly educated that taking a class wouldn't help, but Min was different. "Learning is better than not learning," she reasoned.

She phoned home and said she was thinking of quitting her job. Her parents, who farmed a small plot of land and had three younger children still in school, advised against it. "You always want to jump from this place to that place," her father said. Girls should not be so flighty. Stay in one place and save some money, he told her.

Min suspected this was not the best advice. "Don't worry about me," she told her father. "I can take care of myself."

She had two true friends in the factory now, Liang Rong and Huang Jiao'e, who were both a year older than Min. They washed Min's clothes for her on the nights she went to class. Laundry was a constant chore because the workers had only a few changes of clothes. In the humid dark nights after the workday ended, long lines of girls filed back and forth from the dormitory bathrooms carrying buckets of water.

Once you had friends, life in the factory could be fun. On rare evenings off, the three girls would skip dinner and go roller-skating, then return to watch a late movie at the factory. As autumn turned into winter, the cold in the unheated dorms kept the girls awake at night. Min dragged her friends into the yard to play badminton until they were warm enough to fall asleep.

The 2004 lunar new year fell in late January. Workers got only four days off, not enough time to go home and come out again. Min holed up in her dorm and phoned home four times in two days. After the holiday she went to her boss again, and this time he let her leave. Liang Rong and Huang Jiao'e cried when Min told them her news. In a city of strangers, they were the only ones who knew about her departure. They begged her to stay; they believed that conditions at other factories were no better, and that to leave or to stay would be the same in the end. Min did not think so.

She promised she would return for a visit after she got paid at her new job. Min left that same day with a few clothes in a backpack and the two months' wages that the factory owed her. She did not take her towels and bedding with her; those things had cost money, but she couldn't bear the sight of them anymore.

In ten months on the assembly line, Min had sent home three thousand yuan--about $360--and made two true friends.

She should have been scared. But all she knew was that she was free.

*
• *

In the village where Lu Qingmin was born, almost everyone shared her family name. Ninety households lived there, planting rice, rape, and cotton on small plots of land. Min's family farmed half an acre and ate most of what they grew.

Her future appeared set when she was still a child, and it centered on a tenet of rural life: A family must have a son. Min's parents had four girls before finally giving birth to a boy; in those early years of the government policy limiting families to one child, enforcement was lax in much of the countryside. But five children would bring heavy financial burdens as the economy opened up in the 1980s and the cost of living rose. As the second-oldest child, Min would bear many of those burdens.

She disliked school and did poorly. As long as she could remember, she was in trouble. She climbed the neighbors' trees to steal their plums; if she was caught she got a beating. Once when her mother ordered her to do chores, Min refused. "There are so many people at home. Why do I have to do it?" Her mother chased her for a quarter mile and hit her with a stick.

She was good at having fun. She learned how to swim and to drive a truck; she loved roller-skating and hid her injuries from her mother. "I have fallen every way there is to fall," Min said. "But you can't think about that." She was her father's favorite. One summer, he rented a truck and she traveled the countryside with him, selling watermelons from their farm. They drove during the day and slept in the truck at night; it became one of Min's fondest memories. Most migrants associated the place they came from with poverty and backwardness, and some were even reluctant to say the name of their village. But long after Min came to the city, she still talked about her hometown as if it were something beautiful.

In the late 1990s, both of Min's parents went out to work to earn money for their children's schooling. Her father worked in a shoe factory on the coast, but poor health drove him back. Later her mother went out for a year. Min boarded at a middle school in a nearby town but returned home every weekend to cook and wash clothes for her father and the younger children.

Almost all the young people in her village had gone out. When Min was still in middle school, her older sister, Guimin, went to work in a factory in Dongguan. Soon after, Min failed the national high school entrance exam and her parents considered having her go out, too. Guimin phoned home and urged them to keep Min in school; Guimin's factory wages, she said, would help cover the tuition. Their parents agreed, and Min enrolled in a two-year vocational high school. That made her one of the most educated people in the village--more educated than Guimin, who had sacrificed her own schooling to help the family.

Guimin came home for the 2003 lunar new year holiday and took Min away with her when she left. Min had one more semester of school, but she wanted to save the tuition and get a jump on the job hunt. She was thrilled to be leaving home; she had never ridden on a train or seen a factory. "I wanted to get out early, learn some things, and see the world," she said.

In Dongguan, Guimin rented a cheap hotel room for Min and found her a job in a Japanese factory that made liquid crystal displays. Min worked there for a month and left. She had never been in a place where she didn't know anyone, and she was so lonely she couldn't bear it. She returned to the hotel and found a job at another factory but didn't take it. Her sister offered to continue paying for the hotel room, but Min felt herself becoming a burden. At a bus station, she spotted a help-wanted flyer for a quality-control job on the assembly line of an electronics factory. She dialed the number on the ad--many were just scams to trick migrants out of their money--and the person who answered the phone gave Min directions to the factory. It was a three-hour bus ride to the southeast tip of Dongguan and Carrin Electronics, the place where Min spent her hard year alone.
The minute she entered the factory grounds, Min realized the place was worse than the Japanese factory she had just left behind. But it was too late to turn back, and she did not want to ask her sister's help again. She was getting used to being on her own--it was better that way.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Pt. 1 The City

1 Going Out 3

2 The City 17

3 To Die Poor Is a Sin 44

4 The Talent Market 72

5 Factory Girls 98

6 The Stele with No Name 120

7 Square and Round 171

8 Eight-Minute Date 206

9 Assembly-Line English 246

Pt. 2 The Village

10 The Village 269

11 The Historian in My Family 303

12 The South China Mall 334

13 Love and Money 360

14 The Tomb of the Emperor 377

15 Perfect Health 388

Sources 409

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 27 )
Rating Distribution

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(11)

4 Star

(7)

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(6)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 27 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    And I thought I had cell phone problems

    I loved this book. It was really interesting to hear about the young women leaving home to pursue a better life in China's industrial cities. It was nice for Leslie to show the contrast of their lives back home in their rural villages, compared to how they live life away from home in an urban environment. How they are able to change identities and how easy it is to lose track of someone if anything happens to their cellphone. Just shows how much of a migrant life these young women lead. I was surprised to learn that some of the factories were so large, that they had their own communities with housing, markets, and community areas such as parks and schools for migrant families. The book doesn't only focus on girls in factories, since there is a small chapter on bar girls and "working" girls. This book really makes me want to visit China and see the economic and physical changes taking place there. Great read and very interesting. I hope Leslie Chang writes another book soon.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 19, 2009

    Eye Opening

    After reading this book, I am not sure you want to buy anything made in China.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 15, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Thoroughly researched and well written...

    The author shared her experiences in her acquaintance with a couple of teenage migrant workers; depicting the life style and popular mentality of young migrant workers. China sustains its economic growth by exploiting the massive labor force consists of young migrant workers. Anything with a 'made in China' label maybe produced with the blood, sweat and tears of teenage girls.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 28, 2012

    This is marvelous reporting, with a personal touch and a giganti

    This is marvelous reporting, with a personal touch and a gigantic scope. Chang checks out the greatest migration in world history--the 160 million-plus village job seekers who have flooded into China's urban industries. And most of these people, it seems, are just girls--leaving home, moving out, and moving up. Chang befriends some, sharing their stories of pounding the pavement between jobs, slaving 14-hour days, living in factory dorms, and constantly scheming for a better life. The schemes are the main things that drive the action. These girls are trying to teach themselves English, taking semi-bogus skills seminars, lying about their experience in job fairs, moving up to secretary or sales rep. Most of the girls Chang meets are lonely, justifiably paranoid, and fearsomely self-reliant. Their ambitions and desires are the real force driving China's transformation.

    Chang weaves in the story of her own family, with its earlier generations of pioneering migrants. I think this part of the book is a bit too long and detailed, but it helps set a wider context for the present drama. Her book is about migrants, their adventures, their courage, and the change they bring to the world. It's about people, not social trends. But along the way, Chang can't help but paint a big picture. And for me, several things stand out about modern China. One is that, unlike the cities of Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, or India, China's cities are not surrounded by migrant shantytowns. The factories mostly have prison-like dormitories for the migrants. Also, China's villages remain intact. The laws prevent landlords or moneylenders from evicting whole families and villages off the land. Only the semi-willing job seekers go to the city and enter the Satanic mills. On the whole, the setting Chang paints looks grim. But the characters are pulsing with life and hope.

    --author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2012

    So-so

    I finished this book because it is an area that one doesn't read
    about often. It was often disjointed and boring, however.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2012

    Amazed

    Amazing

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2011

    Good book @ a great price

    The book was a good book at a great price. I needed this book to read for college. This was one of the cheapest copies that was new online. I also got free shipping because I bought all my school books online at barnes and nobels. Shipping was good. The price was great.

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  • Posted December 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    1/2 the book was awesome and thought-provoking, the other 1/2 bored me a bit. . .

    I would have preferred that Ms. Chang focused her book more on the lives of these "factory girls" as her title states. I personally found the chapters that details her ancestors' roots in China a bit boring and I don't quite see the connection to people like Min or Chunming or any of the other girls that were central to Ms. Chang's book.
    On the chapters that did focus on these young Chinese girls and why they had to, or chose to escape their farm lives and to work in a factory, was thought provoking and well written. I also thought Ms. Chang's viewpoint was honest in terms of showing that the Chinese are money hungry and willing to deceive and be dishonest to get financial security. Overall, I thought the book was enjoyable when Ms. Chang focused on sharing with us the lives of those young women but found it difficult to absorb the parts with all that Chinese history about her ancestors.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Terrific book

    This book will really open your world view.Best book I have read in a long time!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2010

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