Leslie T. Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China is a fascinating ethnography of the young women who labor in the factories of Guangdong, China's richest province, a land of boomtowns where wealth and scams and exploitation and warmth and courage all abound.
Chang is an American-born Chinese writer who won over the confidence of several remarkable young migrant women who came from the distant provinces to work in the factories and find independence, social mobility and status as cash earners. These women experience many setbacks and victories, undergo remarkable personal transformations, and come to lively life under Chang's studious eye.
But Factory Girls is also a memoir of Chang's own family, the Zhangs, migrants who fled China after WWII and the Maoist revolution. Chang and her family are also "migrants," who out-migrated beyond the coastal cities, reinventing themselves in distant America. Chang's camaraderie with the Factory Girls clearly stems in part from this fellow-feeling, this knowing what it means to be from a place but not of it anymore (I'm an immigrant who left the country of my birth, in which my family were also immigrants, so this had all kinds of resonances for me).
In Chang's journey back to her surviving Mainland relatives and her relationship to the Factory Girls of Guangdong we see the inkling of what a new normal might look like, what these remarkable young women might become after the dust settles and they stop reinventing themselves and simple are.
In the meantime, the Factory Girls and their adventures fill the pages of this remarkable book, which chronicles everything from the sleaze of karaoke bars and multi-level direct-sales cults to the heartbreak of romance and speed-dating to the small heroism of the many friendships and noble deeds of the girls of the book.
I must have read fifty books about China this year (I'm working on a novel set partly in China), but this stands out as one of the best.