Starting in 2010, Aowen Jin worked undercover and spent two years living among factory girls in China. Aowen interviewed more than 800 of these 16-30 year olds to discover the faces of these remarkable women, who made the Chinese economic miracle possible.
Every year Aowen will invite 10-20 factory girls to collaborate on performance artworks until 2020, using body language as art to express the their personality, ambitions, dreams and concerns. All performances are captured on each girl's mobile phone.
By the year 2020 China’s economy is expected to become the biggest in the world. This ambitious project will document China's economic transition, the changes in contemporary Chinese culture, the changes in the factory girls themselves and the changes in the world of consumer technology.
This project explores the human stories behind the millions of workers who produce the "Made in China" goods we use every day. Looking beyond the faceless lines of hunched figures that make up the media headlines, this project brings to life a varied group of ambitious, dynamic and modern young people, whose personal aspirations are not too different from our own.
By sharing her life with factory girls for two years and working with leading academics, Aowen Jin discovered that the lives of these girls were very different to the perception portrayed in the press. Unlike the media representation that has been prevalent since the 1990’s, the younger generations of factory girls are no longer deprived villagers. They are not driven to the city by poverty, but by idealism and life-changing opportunities. They are educated, ambitious and focused. They are working hard to seek social acceptance and fairness in urban China, where they are discriminated against and their rights are severely restricted because of Chinese family registration system (Hukou).
Brixton East Gallery, London, April 2014
The inspirational girls who performed for the 2014 Factory Girls project.
Brick Lane Gallery, London, September 2013
"The mobile phone is the only way factory girls can stay connect to the world outside factory walls. It is so crucially important that they see their mobile phones as an extension of themselves, a part of their identity."
"After sharing two years of my life with these factory girls, I feel a strong responsibility to tell the untold story of these incredibly strong and resilient girls who have made the Chinese economic boom possible."
"Through art, I attempt to offer Chinese factory girls the opportunity to showcase their individuality and creativity, and via an open minded audience raise their profile to improve their social equality."
"By using their mobile phones as a part of the artworks, I hope to create a strong presence of these factory girls within the gallery."
The inspirational girls who performed for this project. Click on a girl to see her story.
Twenty-one-year-old Han Yongxin is from Hubei. She has one older brother and one younger sister.
Yongxin had studied one year in high school before starting work in factories when she was eighteen. Currently, she works in Foxconn making iPhones.
Yongxin spends her wage on clothes and make-up. She rarely has enough money left at the end of each month to send any home.
Yongxin’s idol is her previous boss – a lady who set up her own clothes workshop after years of factory work.
Yongxin’s dream destination is Hong Kong and she loves Hong Kong fashion. Her dream is to become a fashion designer, and her biggest wish right now is to buy a smartphone.
Twenty-one-year-old Kang Jiali is from Henan. She has one older sister and one older brother.
Jiali came to live in the city with her parents at six, and they worked in a factory making computer monitors. When she was nineteen she finished high school and made stuffed toys in a factory. She quit after six months and is currently doing a computing course.
She spends all her money on fashion, and visits shopping malls with her friends every weekend.
Jiali’s idol is her older sister, who started on the factory floor but has had the drive and determination to climb the career ladder.
Jiali’s dream destination is Hong Kong. Her dream is to become a successful career woman. Her biggest wish right now is to complete her course and find an office job in factories.
Twenty-five-year-old He Meijiao is from Sichuan. She has two older brothers.
Meijiao finished junior school and started to work in the factories when she was sixteen. She currently works in a factory making shoes.
Meijiao spends her wages on clubbing, drinking with friends, and going out for meals. She sends money home every month to save up for her future.
Meijiao’s idols are the owners of her current factory. She admires their business and social skills. She admires all successful business people.
Meijiao’s dream destination is Taiwan as she heard that Taiwan has very special street food. Her dream is to run a photo shoot studio, and her biggest wish is to buy her parents nice things and provide them with a high standard of living.
Twenty-two-year-old Li Hongmei is from Yunan. She has two younger sisters.
Hongmei finished junior school and started to work in factories when she was sixteen. She currently works in a factory making Chinese brand mobiles.
Hongmei sends most of her money home. She wants to study English but worries that she is not good enough to complete the course.
Hongmei’s idol is her mother, who is working in a factory to support her family.
Hongmei’s dream destination is Hong Kong. She would like to go there with her family. She wants to run a pre-school in her hometown. Her biggest wish is to make good money so her sisters don’t have to quit school to work in factories.
"Despite its growing legitimacy, Performance art remains one of the most challenging forms of artistic expression in China today."
Eighteen-year-old Lin Ya is from Guangxi. She has one older sister and one younger sister.
This year Lin Ya finished junior school and started to work in the same factory as her mother. They work in a clothes factory.
Lin Ya spends most of her wages on snacks and food. She loves supermarkets, where the endless choices of snacks foods from national and international brands tempt her everyday.
Lin Ya’s idol is her mother – a lady who works tirelessly to raise money for her family.
Lin Ya’s dream destination is Beijing, as she wants to see to the capital of China. Her biggest wish right now is to control her eating and lose some weight.
Twenty-four-year-old Tong Jimei is from Guizhou. She has one older sister and one younger sister.
Jimei finished junior school and started to work in factories when she was sixteen. She currently works in a factory making travel luggage.
Jimei spends her wages on shoes and clothes. She looks after her own savings and doesn’t send any money home.
Jimei’s idols are owners of the Chinese Maotai liquor factories in her hometown, who were once farmers but made their fortunes since the economic boom by producing the most exclusive beverages.
Jimei’s dream destination is Hangzhou – she wants to see the famous scenery. Her dream is to open a liquor factory one day and her biggest wish right now is to buy a smartphone.
Twenty-year-old Lu Qiaoying is from Fujian. She has one older sister and a brother who is the same age as her.
Qiaoying studied two years in junior school. She liked school but had to work in factories from the age of sixteen, so her brother can continue his studies. She now works in a factory making sofas.
Qiaoying loves cute and pretty clothes but she sent most of her money home to contribute to her brother’s school fees.
Qiaoying’s idol is a famous Chinese presenter who also built a media empire. Qiaoying thinks she is an amazing lady making headlines in a man’s world.
Qiaoying’s dream is to run a local shop back in her hometown, where she could be close to her family. Her biggest wish is for her brother to do well after completing his studies at a technical college.
Twenty-two-year-old Wang Guanying is from Yunnan. She has two younger brothers.
Guanying finished primary school and started to work in factories when she was fifteen. She just quit her job in Foxconn after 6 months making iPhones. She has worked very hard in factories for her brothers. Now she is looking for a job that is more interesting, even if it has a lower salary.
Guanying spends her wages on fashion and food. She sends money home every month to support her parents.
Guanying’s idol is her best friend, who quit her job and started to sell goods as a street vendor.
Guanying’s dream destination is Sanya (a Chinese tourist destination). She always sees it on TV. Her dream is to run a little business back home.
"By using performance art, I position factory girls at the forefront of the artistic debates: Art is not just for privileged Chinese, but It can also be a powerful tool for factory girls to engage others and challenge their social status in the cities."
Twenty-five-year-old Xiao Hongyan is from Guizhou. She has one older sister and one older brother.
Hongyan finished junior school and started to work in the factories when she was sixteen. She currently works in a factory making small electrical appliances.
Hongyan spends her wages on taking makeup lessons.
Hongyan’s idol is her makeup teacher, who was once a factory girl but has become a professional.
Hongyan’s dream destination is Shanghai, for her, it is the capital of China’s fashion and makeup trendsetters. Her dream is to open her own makeup parlour one day, either in the city or back in her hometown. Her biggest wish right now is to buy an expensive makeup brush set.
Twenty-two-year-old Yuan Li is from Tibet. She has two older sisters and one older brother.
Yuan Li finished junior school and started to work in the factories when she was sixteen. Currently she works in a factory making sofas.
Yuan Li spends most of her wage on clothes and street dance classes. She doesn’t send any money home. Sometimes her parents have to send money to her to cover her expenses.
Yuan Li’s idol is her mother, who worked in factories before setting up her own business back home.
Yuan Li’s dream destination is Hong Kong, where she wants to try her luck in the film industry. Her dream is to become an actress, and her biggest wish right now is to get a new smartphone.
Twenty-year-old Yang Haiyan is from Guangxi. She has one younger sister.
Haiyan studied one year of high school and started to work in factories when she was eighteen. She currently works in a factory making shoes.
Haiyan spends all her time on the Internet. She saved most of her money and is studying a photo-editing course.
Haiyan’s idol is her friend, who left factory to work in photo editing in a photo shoot studio. Her friend inspired and encouraged her to attend photo-editing course.
Haiyan’s dream destination is Europe. She wants to run her own photo studio one day. Her biggest wish right now is to get a high quality smartphone.
Twenty-four-year-old Zhang Qianqian is from Jiangxi. She has one younger brother and one younger sister.
Qianqian finished high school and started to work in factories when she was seventeen. She currently works in a factory making jeans.
Qianqian spends her wages on food and clothes. She sends a small amount of money home every month, which her parents save up for her.
Qianqian’s idol is her aunt, who now runs nail bars after quitting her factory job seven years ago.
Qianqian’s dream destination is Tokyo, where she wants to see all the newest nail fashion. Her dream is to save enough money and open her own nail bar in the city. Her biggest wish right now is to do a nail art design course.
Xinran - Journalist, Broadcaster & Writer
China's Economic Reform has triggered the biggest rural worker migration in world history. These rural workers have injected new emotional and physical energy into China, which was once closed off from the rest of world for thousand of years.
Over the past 30 years, these Chinese rural workers fill China's new towns and cities like ocean waves; they are changing their own fate as well as changing the destiny of China. These 'Chinese-on-the-Move' account for 10% of China's population. They exhausted a few generations of their family, with cheap labour, heavy shoulders and zero social benefit in order to create China's economic miracle which was once only inward and backward looking. They use their bodies as coordinates in order to found an era of progress which is unparalleled in the world.
Thirty years later, the migration of Chinese rural workers is gathering an even faster pace with new diversities and new excitements. They are the founders of the wealth of new China today.
However, no one has raised the importance of these workers above the ever faster economic growth in China. This exhibition is the first of its kind to give them a platform on an International stage where they can be heard.
Martin Jacques - Author, Broadcaster & Speaker
The Chinese urban young in the cities have changed so much, and very very quickly - the way they dress, the way they act and so on. They’re more self confident, more fashionable, and much freer. Those are the things that have struck me. A certain sort of self-confidence strikes me about them. Of course their horizons have hugely changed, especially migrant workers, because of where they’ve come from, and what they’ve had to contend with, and what they’ve had to learn, and what they’ve had to understand to deal with a world they’re completely unfamiliar with. It's a very interesting phenomenon and an impressive one.
Dr Reza Hasmath - University of Oxford
There are differences between the young generation and older generation of migrant workers.
The differences are that this younger generation has gone through the standardized education system; they have been socialized in a very similar way as other parts of China. As a consequence it will be difficult to find differences within this younger generation. But the older generation did not have an institutional mechanism and the same education. They did not have the same textbooks and so forth.
The younger generation tends to be more socially aware. I do think the younger generation in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are more educated and more aware of their options and so forth. When I looked at the younger generation, what I found was that they came for opportunities in those cities, but they were not facing dire circumstances. They were pretty much like an everyday young person. They have the same aspirations, the same goals.
The reality for the older generation is to send money back home. The younger generation wants to stay in bigger cities, that is where they want to be. They are creating a livelihood there. Many are able to find work in their home provinces and many are returning or staying there. The economic situation has changed reality, for instance; if you were coming from a really poor village you would have to go to the big city and send money back home. The poor villages are not longer so poor so there is an opportunity in that village, that city or town for locals to make a living. So the reality for migrant workers is very different now than for ten years ago.
Dr Kent G. Deng - London School of Economics
China has class systems, but it is also very open to how the system is defined. Everyone can move from one class to another class easily as long as they are high achievers. Social mobility has existed in China for over 2000 years and Confucianism encourages social mobility. As a result Chinese migrant workers are high risk takers. Chinese society is full of stories of how successful entrepreneurs started with humble beginnings, many of them born as farmers but made their fortune in the cities and became the new social elite.
Chinese migrant workers are self-reliant; there is no social culture in China to rely on government support. It is still regarded as a disgrace in China to rely on charity alone. Chinese migrant workers work exceptionally hard because they only rely on themselves.
Chinese migrant workers are often better educated than we assume. They also keep up with current affairs, particularly government policies and social issues, because any changes in politics might affect their ambitions. They seek freedom of movement. They want to study and go to cities, and then they don't want to come back. Chinese people view people who return to their humble beginnings as failures.
Leslie T. Chang - Author of Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China (Updated, 2010)
Migrants are the rural elite. They are young, better educated and more enterprising than the people they leave behind… And most of today's young migrants don't come from the farm: They come from school. Farming is something they have watched their parents do.
Newer migrants have looser ties to their villages. Their trips home are no longer dictated by the farming calendar.
"If I only go to school, come out and do migrant work for a few years, then go home, marry and have children," Min said, "I might as well not have lived this whole life."
To come out from home and work in a factory is … also an adventure. What keeps them in the city is not fear but pride.
Migrants increasingly look and act like city people. Today's migrants spend money freely on themselves – on clothes, hairstyles, and mobile phones – and may send home cash only in instances of need. The newer migrants are more ambitious and less content than their elders were… Their basis of comparison is already the city.
Prof. Lakshmi Iyer - Harvard Business School
2012, China attained a historic development milestone with more Chinese citizens living in cities than in the countryside. China's rapid urbanization, and the accompanying conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural uses, raised a number of economic, social, and political concerns. Could China maintain its food security in view of the sharply rising demand for land for urban development? How could it ensure the sustainability of local government finances? Was the growing number of land protests the harbinger of major changes in China's political institutions? How would the challenges of urbanization affect the business environment for private firms? The success and viability of China's overall growth strategy depended crucially on managing a successful urban transition.