Leslie T. Chang, author of Factory Girls, writes about how transient relationships can be in China's migrant community.October 13, 2008
Sometimes it is the failed stories that stay with you. The first time I went to Dongguan, the Chinese factory city where my book is set, I met two young women, Tian Yongxia and Zhang Dali. They were sixteen years old, from a Henan farming village, and only twenty days out from home. They complained that their factory paid badly; they wanted better jobs with more overtime. In passing, they mentioned that they had stayed up until 1:30 in the morning gossiping with roommates--my first glimpse that factory life, for all its hardships, might be an adventure too.
By the time we sat down in a nearby noodle shop and ordered Cokes, I had decided I would write about them. I would document their first year in the city, as they switched jobs and made friends and saved money and went on dates. Maybe I would even write a book.
Suddenly the girls spotted someone they knew on the street outside and took off in a hurry; they were so new to the city that they didn't know their dormitory phone number and did not have mobile phone numbers to give me. We agreed to meet two weeks later, in the same public square where we had first met. I flew down from Beijing at the appointed time and waited for two hours, but they never came. I had no way of finding them again.
In the four years during which I researched and wrote Factory Girls, whenever I went to Dongguan, I scrutinized the faces of the young women on the street, hoping to find Yongxia and Dali again. If an unfamiliar number showed up on my mobile phone, I thought immediately of them. And whenever I met someone new, I always asked for multiple ways to contact them--mobile phones, factory phones, the numbers of friends and relatives, and even the names of their farming villages. Eventually I found two young women, Min and Chunming, who became the book's main characters. Even now that the book is done, I continue to call them regularly. I know how quickly I will lose them if I stop calling.
To lose someone for all time, I discovered, is the central experience of factory life. Min lost her mobile phone--and with it, any way to find her two best friends or her boyfriend. Chunming lost touch with countless acquaintances over thirteen years in the city; during that time, she had switched residences seventeen times. Occasionally there were stories of people found. A young man struck up a conversation at a bus stop with Chunming and then mentioned her to a young woman he knew; the woman turned out to be a good friend with whom Chunming had lost contact eight years before, and so they were reunited. "This is the meaning of fate," Chunming told me.
The fear of losing people lent urgency to my reporting--I came to realize you could just as easily lose a place, even one as vivid and specific as Dongguan. To spend time in China today is to know that this historical moment will not last. People will not be forever experiencing the city for the first time; owning a mobile phone, dating someone from another province, and living among strangers will lose their novelty. I suppose this same conviction drives many writers: I must tell this story, or it will be lost for good.
These days I find myself thinking of all the people I left out of the book. They come before me, bright-hued and unchanged from the day we met. There is Li Wenfang, the young woman with a "stifling" job as an elevator operator, who dreamed of attending beauty school; when I called the number she had given me, she had already left. And Ding Xia, the prostitute who vowed to save another one hundred thousand yuan and quit the karaoke clubs forever--did she? And the two girls I met on a Dongguan street who could not have been more than twelve or thirteen, with no evident source of income. "We are just in the city to have fun, not to work. We want to have fun all day long," one of the girls said, her too-insistent young voice telling me that what she said could not be true.
Seven months after my first visit to Dongguan, my phone rang. "Guess who I am?"
I named several migrant women I had recently met.
"This is Yongxia," she said, sounding peeved that I had not guessed. "We met on the square, remember?"
She was now working at the Aigao electronics factory, which paid better than her old job. "We work until eleven or twelve every night and never have a day off," Yongxia told me, cheerful and matter-of-fact. "But we have three days off for the National Day holiday. Will you be around?"
I told her I wouldn't but that I hoped to see her on my next trip to Dongguan. "Is there a number where I can reach you?" I asked.
"Do you ever have a day off so we could meet?"
Finally I told her that we should keep in touch and hung up. I had found Yongxia, only to lose her again.
How was she doing? Was she happy? And what had possessed her to keep my number and to phone me, after all this time? I'll never know, because she never called again.