Tales of Determination
Leslie T. Chang compares the experiences of women factory workers in two very different countries
Chinese-American journalist and author Leslie T. Chang moved to Shanghai, China at the end of 1998 to work for The Wall Street Journal.
The daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, she soon found herself fascinated by the lives and experiences of the migrant women factory workers, particularly in the southern Chinese province of Guandong.
In 2004, she started working on her book "Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China", travelling frequently to the industrial city of Dongguan to follow the lives of two women there in particular.
"Factory Girls" was named one of The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2008, and also received the 2009 PEN USA Literary Award for Research Nonfiction and the Asian American Literary Award for nonfiction. Leslie will visit Macau in March for The Script Road – Macau Literary Festival.
When spending time with the ‘factory girls’, did you feel you were able to find commonalities with them, despite your very different backgrounds?
Even though our cultural, economic and personal backgrounds were so different, I connected with them. I was a young-ish woman on my own trying to figure out what I was doing, and they were also young women on their own. They talked about how their families gave them pressure and I understood that, even though my parents were fairly Americanised. And I also felt they were as curious about me as I was of them.
It seems you really developed an admiration for them too.
Definitely. From the very beginning I was talking with these young women and each of them would tell me this amazing story of what they had gone through to get to where they were, which always involved being cheated by older people, men usually, being yelled at, unfairly maligned, and they were just 16-year-old girls. I had a sense of amazement at what they were doing and the fact that they were so matter of fact about what they were going through. I couldn’t imagine myself in that situation because basically they were in a world without their parents. Their parents had never really been able to give them anything in terms of guidance or values to live in a modern world, because their parents lived in another world. Psychologically and emotionally they’d been on their own for a very long time.
In the West we tend to look at the situation of Chinese factory workers and see it as very exploitative, to the point that we might even feel guilty about using or wearing the products they make. But you seemed to have taken a different approach to telling this story.
From our point of view, their lives are terrible and we would not choose that life for ourselves, but when you look at where they’re coming from and what this migration experience means to them, it’s something very different. Even before I went in, that was my suspicion; if you were to ask them what their story was like, it would be different from the story that you or I were telling, which is very much focused on factory conditions and abuses and violations. So I wanted to see the world as they saw it, and it was very different from what we assume about them, and what the Western press had been writing about them.
What is your view of China’s economic development overall?
When you look back you can say, looking at these women, each one sacrificed a lot for the sake of the development of the country. But now when you look at China, it’s one of the strongest economies in the world, and not just on a macro sense, individual lives have been improved because the economy is growing so fast. It makes me feel that China did the right thing. Of course they also made a lot of mistakes, people went through real hardship, but in terms of the economic change, it was an incredible achievement that they accomplished that also brought up its people.
How do you see the situation for women in China today?
China, as a developing nation, not a wealthy first world nation yet, is doing remarkably well on women’s issues. Yes, there’s still discrimination in terms of pay, in terms of what jobs are appropriate for women and men, but this is also true in America and many countries in Europe; there is a gender pay gap and not that many women in the highest levels of business. One big reason is that China had a revolution, which went bad in a lot of ways, in terms of the economy and political radicalism, but did overturn stereotypes and traditional ideas of what women should do and what men should do.
You started working on your book nearly 15 years ago. What relevance do you think it still has now in 2018?
Even though the framework of the factory system in China is changing and moving to different places and the technology is improving, I feel like this incredible desire for progress and the modern world is still a very strong component in China. It’s obviously moved much further along and there are people who are more critical of that than they used to be, people who are saying ‘what are we losing, what have we bought our children if all we care about is progress and economic success?’ That’s obviously very healthy and very important, but I think the embrace of the modern world, progress, technology and self-improvement are still really strong in China. They want so much to improve their lives and I think that is still a defining characteristic of China.
For your current project, you spent five years in Egypt observing women working in factories there. How is that project different from the one you worked on in China?
The focus is generally similar in that I’m looking at women involved in garment and clothing factories, but the whole context - historical, geographical, religious and economic - is completely different, you might say the opposite.
Basically, these women are going to the factories, which are often very modern, with very progressive ideas about how women need to be assertive and take accountability. But then at night they are going home where their fathers are telling them what to wear and their brothers are abusing them for having a boyfriend and taking away their cell phones. So it’s actually a much more challenging thing in that they’re trying to deal with the modern world and still really forced to operate in this really traditional world.
What would you say is the most significant difference between the China situation and that in Egypt?
In China the religion is progress, everyone wants to change. And in Egypt there is a fear of change, and what these women want to show is that ‘I’m working in a factory, but I’m still the same person I was. Don’t worry, I haven’t changed’ because there’s this whole social pressure to be modest and traditional. So it’s like this deal they have to make with their husbands or fathers like, ‘I’m going to work in the factory, but it’s not going to change me at all’. Which kind of defeats the whole idea of being a part of the modern world. Some of the women I knew in the factories were doing really well, rising up to be supervisors, but their families had no idea.
Is writing about women in Egypt more challenging for you than writing about women in China?
The narrative you present for China, even if it’s one that’s surprising to people, they can immediately connect, like, ‘oh of course she wants to make her life better, everyone wants that. Of course she wants to pick her own husband”. It’s very recognizable to us in the West, it’s a story about individual progress.
But in Egypt, it’s a much more complicated and fraught story because these women are in many ways, what we would say, oppressed. And to some extent they buy into their oppression, which is obviously a very sensitive thing to say. And in some sense they oppose it, but they don’t have any power to make any change. So it’s a much more complicated thing that you want to describe in a way that’s sympathetic, but also critical, because I think the system needs to be criticized. You can’t just say, ‘This is their culture and we can’t pass judgement on it’.