There are two terms that come up to my mind while starting this review: mess and potential.
For "Factory Girls" has potential but is a mess.
Don't take me wrong, I do believe that it's better reading this book than ignoring its existence, but I suppose that whereas most readers can be satisfied with the menu offered by Leslie Chang, many of them could complain about the way this story is delivered.
Oh well, let's begin with the menu. There is an appetizer of tasty introduction followed by two main courses: the personal stories of two young female workers Min and Chongming on a bed of Dongguan-Guangdong metropolitan salad. These two stories are often and quite abruptly interrupted by a soup of Leslie Chang's personal family history: a non-requested extra served in large portions.
Let's have a look at this. Around 100 pages over 400 here are dedicated to Leslie Chang looking for her Chinese family history, seeking for those who were left behind in motherland Chinese Manchuria rather than escaping to Taiwan and then to the US when the Communists took the power.
Was this family soup necessary in a book dealing with the conditions, aspirations and disillusions of Chinese migrant industrial workers in one of the most vibrant and cruel new-metropolis of South China?
In my humble opinion, there is absolutely nothing in common between the stories of Min and Chonming in Dongguan 2000-2005 and the family Chang/Zhang saga in the last century or something.
And I think that any editor on Earth should have been able to notice this lack of cohesion. Perhaps Leslie Chang asked for a separate book talking about her family history to be published but having no room (and not enough interesting material) for it, she decided to include this stuff right here watering way too much the soup, but not the mouth of her readers.
Then there is the frame, the structure of the book which is pretty confusing. I confess how I lost track of whom Chang was writing about a lot of times mainly because to my Western eyes, Min and Chonming were easily mistaken into the same character or mixed up (choosing two pseudonyms would have helped, I think).
Not to mention the fact that the author has this tendency of jumping forth and back in years and events without any apparent logic with the first meeting with Chonming (or it was Min?) portrayed around page 250 or something after dozens and dozens of pages spent on this girl.
Plus, there are a few parallel stories breaking the rhythm of the book like the chapter dedicated to the big shoe factory-town which - according to Chang herself in the interview published at the end of the book - was an aborted story. Oh really? It's good to know it. So why including it here? I mean we're talking about a quite brilliant chapter, but perhaps it had to be placed at the very beginning or at the very end of the book.
But I don't want to be too harsh with Leslie T. Chang. "Factory Girls" has many unforgettable moments and plenty of interesting information and lively details on the crazy crazy life of Dongguan from the way a dodgy industry-line English school work, to the hustle and bustle of the job "talent market" passing through a dive into the karaoke-brothel underground.
It's just not clear what part the author decided to play here. At some point Leslie Chang behaves like a friend of the girls she's writing about (even living with their families in the villages), while in other moments she chooses to look at them in cold blood from a reporter point of view, but then she suddenly switches into a nosey and quite critical observer.
This is what I meant when I talked about mess.
All in all "Factory Girls" is a book which found the right topic but chose the wrong focus and sometimes the wrong angles to look at it.
And in doing this, Leslie Chang printed out a blurry but still interesting view over several aspects of the new Chinese over competitive way of life in the heydays of its economic boom.