I really, really, really wanted to read Leslie Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China.
For a long time I was not very interested in the history or culture or history of China or Asia. Although I am largely a generalist, and a scatter-brained one at that, I definitely have clearly defined areas of interest where my history reading is concerned (likes: British history, ancient history, Vietnam War; dislikes: Asian history, Civil War, World War II, etc.). But lately I have been getting drawn into Chinese society and culture from a different viewpoint: journalistic books that discuss the conditions and exploitation of Chinese workers. Think Alexandra Harney's The China Price, or John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, which devoted a section to Asian workers in South Pacific island garment factories.
So when I saw the cover of Factory Girls and read its description, I really wanted to read it. For one thing, I find the cover completely arresting; I think the girl pictured is beautiful, and I don't know what she's thinking, but she has an interesting face. The jacket copy sounds fascinating: "Chang 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 pains 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."*
But when I started reading the book it made me so, so sad. To think of these millions of migrant workers (130 million of them, according to Chang), desperately wanting to get out of their small villages and farms, and getting into factories where they make very little money (but better than they were making on the farms) to make things for the rest of the world to buy, and where they're often cheated out of their earnings, all made me very uneasy. I'm normally a big fan of the idea that we should all buy less stuff (the news that Wal-Mart's numbers went up in January made me very, very angry), but when faced by these millions of people who are doing anything to get into factories to make stuff to be bought, I don't know what the answer is. So: I don't have the heart for this book right now but someday I hope to be up to it.
*Go to Powell's and read the excerpt, which is the first chapter. It's stunning.