Clark I reviews books and sometimes writes them!
Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Diary of a Chinese Garment Factory Girl on Saipan
AUTHOR: Chun Yu Wang, as told to Walt F.J. Goodridge
Hear the voice of a young girl as she makes a life changing decision to marry a man that is wrong for her. Finding her way in this world Chun Yu Wang decides to marry someone that she feels would care for her and allow her to grow. But, that is not the case. Violent, cruel, mean she finds her way inside sweatshops leaving her son and the man she should never have married. Wang decides to journey to Saipan and hopefully earn more money than she did in China. But, some choices although they seem for the better at first are not. Deciding that she was going to better herself at all costs Chun finds a way to get the money needed in order to leave her family, go to Saipan and hopefully make more than she did in China. But, her hopes and dreams would be shattered once in the employ of the Mirage Factory. Conditions deplorable, no air conditioning, food not fit to eat in the cafeteria, young girls that were not friendly and fights that broker out when someone cut in front of you in line for the shower or food as Chun and her best friend learn just what it means to work in a garment factory. Hours that were long and hard, friendships that formed in some cases, bosses that were only concerned about pushing these women to the brink, the inexperience of working there, the poor treatment by the factory owners and hopefully not lose their initial investments and fall prey to more than just immigration scams, poor food and deplorable conditions. Petty fights about nothing, which relates to the meaning of the title Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Fighting over nothing important. But, there is so much more and many more expressions that readers will come to learn. Although translated by Walt Goodridge, you near the voice of Chun and you feel the sadness in her heart when she leaves her family thinking her life will be better.
Things are not always what you predict or hope for. Imagine being in an airless room that is more than just filled with dust, mold and mildew. Imagine a room so hot that in order to sleep or survive you have to wet the mattress in order to be able to breathe. Imagine looking beneath the bamboo folds of the mattress of ants and worrying that rats would crawl up on you during the night. Imagine a work environment that you do not control, have little or no say over and having to meet unreasonable quotas on a daily basis. Welcome to Mirage and meet the staff as Chun Yu and her friend Da Mei begin what would be a long three years or more. Can you feel the heat and see the bosses hovering over you as the monitors try and get more out of you than they should? What happens will chill you to the bone if heat could chill? When things get too hard for some they bribe the monitors by paying them in order to get easier jobs or overtime. Speaking out gets you suspended, fired or worse. Supervisors that would remind some of the prison guards that are depicted in movies if not worse. Some lie about workers if they do not comply with their demands. Others make sure their contracts are not renewed. Chun is smart, brave, and outspoken and will not back down when confronted.
In China you are treated one way but in Saipan with deceit, cruelty and inhumane in many respects. The Chinese she thought would treat her with kindness and fairness but harsh realities about both places are presented. But, in China there is one difference in that the workers team up to help each other when necessary. Here in Saipan it is every person for themselves to make as much money as they can. Finding her way to Mirage, which is the factory that she works in, will enlighten readers as to the overall horrific conditions that these girls endured. Monitors that were cruel, bribes given to them in order to ease the amount of work or show some compassion, and one young woman that just wanted to provide for her son and family back in China. But Chun Yu Wang is tenacious, smart and not easily intimidated. She stands up for her rights and that of others when things get out of hand and situations become dangerous. Machine monitors that never seem to want to repair broken machines and others who enjoy the company of many women for their own pleasures we learn more about the social mores practiced by many of the young people, the fight for equality and the lack of respect shown to them. Added in I do not think many people realize but will after reading this telling book that the salaries paid to these young women would not cover more than one month if they earned that here in the United States.
Changing jobs was not easy as she and her friend were classified as TWA’s or given Transitional Worker’s Authorization making it more difficult to find another job. Filing charges against Mirage would prove futile in some respects. The Department of Labor did not move to handle their case and in the end after all was said and almost done she and her friend hire a lawyer. But, like everything else some things get swept under the rug and verdicts changed because money talks. Typhoons, tsunamis, court cases and intimidating circumstances would not deter Chun Yu from reaching the Yellow River: meaning attaining her goals.
Bribes given by the manger of Mirage to the US Labor Worker to make the case go away and then finding work in the Northern Mariana Islands a territory of the United States as a factory worker. But, things are not what are promised. Expectations that were high diminish. Marianas Fashion is next as she passes yet another test gets another job but this time she seems to have lucked out in many ways but not everyone does. Advanced Textiles is the name of the factory and her big monitor is named Gi. But let’s meet Old Turtle who is not what you might call feminine or anyone that really cares about the workers. What she does care about are the bribes she receives from them, meddling in the affairs of people and causing them stress and anguish. The bosses tend to side with these people and accidents happen but she does not care. Those that are sick are often told to go home and lose a days pay and more. As our author relates in the voice of Chun Yu: people are not made from iron. We are only humans and different people have different strengths and constitutions. Scared to a point, sick and chastised and disbelieved she does more than just lives an unbearable life. Will this Old Turtle ever be made accountable for her mistakes? What about the Machine Men and wait until you read about the showdown between two of them as described and vividly depicted in chapter 6. But, Advanced was moved to Rifu a new locations and things would change even more. Instead of being placed in the first set of girls she was placed in a different set going to this company. This company had tons of contracts to be filled and working long hours was no problem. The next company Hyunjin was to be the vest she hoped and its reputation she hoped was right. The owner was Korean not Chinese and seemed to be a good man. Things were more positive for her and her friend but not everyone was as fortunate to have a good monitor. What happens during the typhoon will really explain just how alone these girls were and the fact they had to fend for themselves.
Listen to her voice and you will feel the heat, the frustration and experience each job, each stitch sewn and each indignity she endures as author Walt Goodridge’s translation of this compelling true story should enlighten young people here in America and around the world as to what some have to endure in order to survive. The narrative comes straight from Chun Yu and the atrocities depicted are real. Then she goes home for a short time and we learn more about her family.
Going home brings to light how things have changed in China, how the economy seems to be flourishing and the sadness within her son’s heart that she will not remain there. Her family tries to support her and the urgency to return to Saipan is at the forefront. Leaving her family she learns some hard lessons as the factory she works in closed she is returning to one that she hates and the search is one for more changes. Connecting with an old friend while at home, returning and finding her way to another factory this story brings to light what is still happening today in Saipan and other factories where workers are mistreated and conditions less than humane.
Trust is a powerful word and naivety another one as Chun Yu learns what happens when she gives her money over to someone else in the hope of getting a Green Card. Lending money is unwise, not checking someone out not smart and the loss of her money would cost her the ability to return home. Sam Kwang is next. This would make the rest look like a palace. Fights that broke out. Standing up for herself, working in illegal factories and fighting for what was right. Labor laws that were changing, salaries going up but not in garment factories and an ending that you just won’t believe. Find out what she learned; learn about the factory facts and more reading the appendix written at the end plus the poem by Walt Goodridge. This is one story that will break your heart, have you cheering for Chun Yu and let you know that Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin are not as valuable and never will be as Reaching the Yellow River.
Where is she now? Find out for yourself. A definite must read for all college students that want to learn more about China, Saipan and the garment industry but more important to learn to appreciate life here in America. One powerful story expertly translated and beautifully told. Thank you for sending me this title to review.
Fran Lewis: reviewer