Tuesday, March 6, 2012

From Nail Shop to Factory Life in China

When I was last in Shenyang, Liaoning province, I visited a large underground shopping mall popular with many youth. While there I had the opportunity to speak with this young woman working at a nail shop:

young woman in Shenyang sitting behind a table of numerous fake nails with a variety of designs
Selling fake nails with a variety of designs

As we talked I got to learn about some of her life. And I tried to understand some of the decisions she had recently made, including the choice of her mobile phone:

Hitel mobile phone on top of a display case of fake nails in China

However, it was another decision that I found most striking. When I asked about her hopes for the future she said without hesitation that she planned to the leave the nail shop and work at a factory in Yantai, Shandong province -- over 12 hours from Shenyang by road and ferry or longer without the ferry. She had already moved from her home in a village several hours away to work in Shenyang and was prepared to move even further to an unfamiliar city just based on the encouraging words of a friend who had done the same. In the young woman's eyes working in a factory would be an important step up in her life.

Her story in part resembled others I have heard when interviewing youth in China. It also seemed straight out of a book I had recently read - Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang. If you enjoyed reading my earlier posts about Xiaoxin's first payday or first vegetarian lunch in Shanghai, you may also enjoy Chang's book. The stories she shares help capture the realities for many in China as they strive to improve their own and their family's lives.

Recently, I came across a video excerpt capturing some similar issues regarding factory life in China (H/T to Tricia Wang) . In the excerpt workers' express their hopes and their impressions of life at Foxconn -- the company which is the focus of much Western media attention due to its important role manufacturing goods for Apple, Sony, and many other well-known companies. The video also includes scenes reminiscent of many others I have seen that are more a part of everyday life for many in China than modern architectural marvels or high speed trains. While what is shown in the video is just the surface of some very deep issues and I do not believe all is as clear as it may seem, it helps show a side of China that is often missed or glossed over in typical news reports.

One young man in the video mentions that he chose Foxconn because its conditions are much better than other factories in China. I would not be surprised to discover that Foxconn's conditions are also much better than the factory where the young woman above may now be working.

You can watch the video here:

        Dreamwork China from Cineresie.


  1. Another good post, Brian. Your measured approach is much appreciated.

  2. Also, your post reminded me of something I read by an anthropologist called Amy Hanser. Here is the reference: Hanser, A. (2005). The Gendered Rice Bowl: The Sexual Politics of Service Work in Urban China. Gender & Society, 19(5), 581-600. If you're interested, I can pass along a PDF.

  3. Thanks, yogi. I certainly would be interested to take a look at the article.

  4. RE "yogi" posts above, that is me. Email me at and I will send you the article.