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Class of 2016 First-Year Read: Factory Girls by Leslie Chang

The First-Year Read selection for the class of 2016 is Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang. Over the past decade the U.S. media has written extensively about scandalous working conditions in Chinese mega-factories that produce American products. Less examined are the reasons why Chinese workers pursue these factory jobs and why they stay. In Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, Chang goes beyond the headlines to discover the personalities and aspirations of dozens of young women in their teens and early 20s who are employed in mega-factories—the predominant demographic of the millions seeking work in booming new cities that have sprung up in China.

Chang, an American of Chinese descent and a former Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, spent three years living in the runaway industrial city of Dongguan in order to carefully examine the lives of young women who work on assembly lines. Without minimizing the physical trials of the 12-hour shifts, enforced overtime, meager wages, overcrowded living conditions and other hardships, Chang uncovers the lure of factory work for her subjects in its seductive promise of money, adventure, opportunity and social liberation. These enticements have caused an estimated 130 million Chinese to become migrant workers in today’s economic market.

Chang skillfully interweaves numerous profiles of “factory girls” into her book to make clear the differences and similarities between past Chinese migrations—including her own family’s—and this newest phenomenon. She especially focuses on the hopes and dreams of two teenagers, Min and Chunming, to supply the “why” behind the huge “floating population” that has inundated industrial cities in China since the 1970s, an overall movement that is estimated to be the largest migration in human history.

Factory Girls was named a New York Times Notable Book and recognized as one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, Time and BusinessWeek. It also received the PEN USA Literary Award for Research Nonfiction and the Asian American Literary Award for nonfiction.

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