Factory Girl brings to light the situation of the minority Uyghur Muslims in an area of northern China called Xinjiang. The Uyghurs have contested this area for centuries, having a history that dates back almost four thousand years. In 1940 the Soviet Union helped the Uyghurs create their own state called East Turkestan. But in 1949, East Turkestan became part of the People's Republic of China. Since that time the Uyghur's culture has been suppressed; their language has been repressed and replaced with Mandarin as a requirement for employment, certain Muslim names are banned. Another way has been to send young Uyghur girls away from their families to work in factories in Chinese cities. Away from their families, these girls are left vulnerable to human trafficking. The story in Factory Girl is fictional but based on personal accounts the author heard while traveling in Hotan, China.
On the last day of school,sixteen-year-old Roshen learns from her teacher that she will be sent to work in a factory in southern China. Roshen asks her teacher to have the local cadre delay his visit to her father until after the wedding of her friend Meryam. On the third day of Meryam's wedding, Roshen is one of four attendants taking her to the house of her new family. Roshen's sister Aygul teases her that she will be next but Roshen knows her future is clouded. She hasn't told her family yet about being sent away.
The next day Roshen is deeply distraught. She hopes to finish school and marry Ahmat. It is the day that Ahmat's mother is to visit Roshen's family, bringing a golden ring and to discuss her possible engagement to Ahmat. But Roshen tells her mother she must tell Ahmat's family today is not a good day to visit. Instead, her family receives the local government cadre and a Chinese man who is to be their new cadre. Although Roshen's father attempts to diplomatically refuse the "honor" of Roshen being chosen to work in a factory, the old cadre is insistent. Their new Chinese cadre tells Roshen's father that the only way she will be allowed to refuse is if he is willing to sell his land. At this Roshen agrees to go. Her father tries to comfort Roshen with the prospect that he might be able to bribe the Chinese cadre but Roshen warns him that they might lose everything.
In the end the bribe does not work and Roshen accepts her fate: she will be gone for a year. Ahmat warns Roshen to be careful, warning her to trust no one. He and Roshen work out a secret language so they can communicate over the internet. Roshen travels with her family to the bus yards at the edge of Hotan. She meets Ushi, the matron in charge of the girls who include those in traditional headscarves and three girls dressed in short skirts without scarves. The girls are crammed into a bus for their journey to the factory. They face a two or three day bus ride before they travel by train.
The nine girls wearing scarves introduce themselves; Roshen meets Zuwida a very young girl, Mikray, Gulnar who likes to embroider, Jemile also very young, Adile, sisters Patime and Letipe and Nurbiya. The three scarfless girl are Hawa, Rayida and Nadia.The group is almost killed in an accident when the bus blows a tire. They travel to Cherchen where they spend the night in a seedy motel. This is followed by a harrowing drive over the mountains, a trip past an open asbestos mine, and a lengthy train trip. During the train ride, Zuwida becomes ill, running a fever and feeling nauseous. the Chinese women on the train help Zuwida by making her tea. The girls arrive in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province where they are taken to the Hubei Work Wear Company which is run by the main boss, Mr. Lee.
At the factory, the are taken to dingy rooms with three bunk beds which consist of a slab of plywood. They are told they must speak Mandarin and if caught speaking Uyghur they will be given points that deduct their pay. They are also not allowed to wear their head scarves at any time in the factory. The room where they will work is huge, windowless and therefore very stuffy. Cutting, sewing and finishing are the main jobs where coveralls and other clothing are made. Zuwida who is still very ill is made to lie down and when Rosen and the other girls return from their tour of the factory they find she has a pillow, thin mattress.
Roshen is assigned to the cutting section along with Nadia and Jemile. The work is terribly hard, the hours long and the food meagre. Roshen and her friends face an increasingly difficult time, as they are not paid, work double shifts and are abused by the bosses. It eventually becomes apparent to Roshen that the hash working conditions are the least of her problems as she struggles to preserve herself and the other Uyghur girls from a terrible fate.
Factory Girl is an eye-opening novel about the abusive conditions the minority Uyghurs face in China. While most people are now aware of the dreadful working conditions in factories in China, India and other Asian countries, it's doubtful many know about the situation of the Muslim Uyghur minority in China. Their struggle to keep their traditional lands and resist the Chinese government's systematic attempt to assimilate the community into Chinese society, destroying their unique culture are not well known. Factory Girl exposes both in this gritty story about a Uyghur girl's struggle to remain true to her culture and beliefs while trying to survive as a virtual slave in a Chinese factory.
LaValley vividly chronicles a litany of abuses the minority Uyghur girls experience; long work hours, little or no pay, skipped meals and bathroom breaks, poor food, beatings, surveillance cameras, and the rape and sex trafficking of girls. It is the latter that Roshen is faced with when she is caught speaking English to two Australian business men who tour the factory. Her punishment is to be offered to one of the Australian men in an attempt to secure a business deal. With the help of another Uyghur girl, Roshen escapes this fate. Not so lucky is the girl who helped her, Hawa who has been made into a prostitute. Her purity ruined, Hawa has lost everything and feels she cannot return home.
LaValley has crafted a resilient, courageous character in Roshen who is determined to stay true to her beliefs despite the degrading conditions and the intense efforts to destroy her body and soul. In fact, Roshen is so determined that she decides to starve herself instead of being forced into prostitution for Mr. Lee. In this way, LaValley shows how desperate the situation can become for some Uyghur girls.
Roshen and Ahmat's quiet love for one another contrasts with the harsh reality of their lives and adds a sweetness to the story. It is her love for Ahmat that partly motivates Roshen to resist further attempts to degrade her. She understands her experience in the Wubei factory will forever change her but Roshen refuses to allow the changes to be so drastic that like Hawa, she will feel like she can never return home.
Josanne LaValley has traveled to northwest China, to East Turkestan which is now known as Xinjiiang. This area was once populated by mostly Muslim Uyghurs but is now predominantly Han Chinese. The Uyghurs live next to the nearby Taklamakan Desert, outside the city of Hotan. They are very different in the culture, language and appearance from the Chinese people. In this regard they are more similar to the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. Village life is simple and pastoral where they weave silk rugs, carve wooden bowls, sell farm produce and raise chickens and sheep. Her experiences there moved her to give voice to the situation of the Uyghur people through her writing. My only suggestion is that readers would have greatly benefited from a map showing the location of East Turkestan in relation to the rest of China and a second map tracing in a general way, Roshen’s journey to the factory.
Those interested can learn more about this topic from the following resources:
Globe and Mail article titled "Blame China For The Tragic Uyghur Situation."
The Radio Free Asia website has much information on recent events in East Turkestan.
Factory Girls by Josanne LaValley
New York: Clarion Books 2017