For most people in the West, the relationship with China is one based on products—clothes, shoes, mobile phones—or, should the rumbling trade war materialize, the lack of them. But the people who toil away making these products are hardly ever brought into focus.
In 2008, Leslie T Chang’s non-fiction narrative, Factory Girls, introduced the workers—mainly young women—who flock to Chinese factory towns in search of jobs. But over the last eight years, Chinese factory workers have rarely, if ever, figured as protagonists in English-language general market books—until this year. Two debut novelists have written works in which they do. Although these books are targeted toward different audiences, they both have a central story to tell that revolves around the girls and women who work in factories and the difficulties they face in this grueling work.
Spencer Wise’s debut novel, The Emperor of Shoes, out in June, is told from the viewpoint of Alex Cohen, a Jewish American recent college graduate who travels to China to visit his father, the proprietor of a shoe factory in Foshan, Guangdong province. Alex’s father, Feodor, has lived in China for decades and expects his son to take over the family’s multi-generational business. Alex has other ideas. For one, he falls in love with Ivy, a young Chinese factory worker who is also a pro-democracy activist. And second, Alex grapples with the ethics behind the factories that pay low wages in China. Shoe factors are integral to his family’s business, but at what cost? He and his father disagree about the rights of the workers and the tenets of capitalism. But conveying all this to his curmudgeonly father is another matter.
Jennie Liu’s debut young adult novel, Girls on the Line, which will be released in November, is told through the alternating voices of Yun and Luli, two teenaged orphans who find work at an electronics factory in Shanxi province. Yun and Luli aged out of their orphanage at sixteen and could either work for the orphanage and end up staying there forever, or forge out on their own and find work in a local factory, joining thousands of other young women from around China.
What links these books is not just the factory setting, but stories that show the workers’ as rather more than one-dimensional characters they are sometimes portrayed as being, faceless people who simply show up to work and toil for twelve or sixteen hours in monotonous jobs so the affluent can own the latest iPhone at the click of a mouse.
In The Emperor of Shoes, Ivy cannot find another type of job because of her past participation in the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. Her background disqualifies her for other jobs. Although she and Alex become romantically involved, she is mainly focused on planning a big protest against the working conditions at Alex’s father’s factory. While the father-son story is central to this book, the story of Ivy’s determination to stand up for workers’ rights is compelling.
And in Girls on the Line, Yun and Luli are much younger and don’t have Ivy’s life experience, but they encounter problems to rival that of the democracy activists. Yun gets duped into dating Yong, a human trafficker. When she finds out she’s pregnant, she accepts Yong’s suggestion to stay with his mother in their village two or three hours from the electronics factory. Yun has a feeling Yong will sell their baby if she has a girl, but she has no family and not nearly enough money to pay the family planning commission’s fines for babies born out of wedlock. Luli vows to work extra shifts to help Yun take care of her baby, but Yun is so beaten down from years at the orphanage that she can’t think about anything other than unburdening herself from further responsibility.
Although the characters in these two books are based on the authors’ imaginations, they nonetheless give voice to Chinese factory workers and show how girls and women have fewer employment choices than men, and how they are the ones sweating over the factory lines making our goods. In The Emperor of Shoes, as much as Ivy plays a central role in the pro-democracy protests, she still experiences betrayal by her male co-organizers. And while the two female characters in Girls on the Line don’t have the same ethical dilemmas as Alex or Ivy, they also learn to question the value of the factory and, in their case, choose factory work as the only option that will provide freedom and choices.
Over the last twenty years, Chinese manufacturing has dominated the electronics and apparel manufacturing for export, yet it seems this is the first time the women and girls holding up these businesses have been featured in English-language novels. Thanks to Spencer Wise and Jennie Liu, these workers now have more of a voice.