Journalist Peter Hessler’s Account of Factory Life in China

Peter Hessler, an award-winning author and staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, came to talk at Hong Kong University on March 11, 2011.

Hessler hails from America and has been called “one of the Western world’s most thoughtful writers on modern China.”

During the session, which was organised by the JMSC, Hessler discussed his latest book, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. The book is billed as a travelogue of Hessler’s 7,000 mile journey by car through the north of China, following the Great Wall.

Peter Hessler talks to JMSC

In reality, the content is much more sociological than the word ‘travelogue’ implies, as much of the book’s content deals with personal stories of migration to Lishui, a factory town in Zhejiang Province in China.

Gene Mustain, Directorof the JMSC’s Reporting and Writing Programme, welcomed Hessler as a ‘long-time friend of the JMSC’ to talk about ‘the art of narrative non-fiction’ and how ‘research that is crucial to every great story’.

Hessler talked about how he went about writing this work of creative non-fiction.

“In non-fiction, you can’t create a plot like you can in fiction,” he said. “China’s one place where things happen very fast which is an asset to a non-fiction writer.”

Hessler’s book grew out of a road trip that took him through northern China, following the Great Wall. He homed in on the factory areas surrounding the city of Wenzhou, whose people are famed for producing particular products, such as shoes and cigarette lighters, in vast quantities yet at a very high quality.

As a result, this enterprising spirit has spread to the region surrounding Wenzhou. The successful business model has seen the area become one of the places that has made China famous as the factory of the world, the home to towns that make 70% of China’s buttons, 70% of the world’s drinking straws and 50% of all Chinese playing cards.

HKU Students listen to Hessler’s talk

Hessler picked the growing town of Lishui and focused on the growth of one particular factory, which makes underwires and buckle rings for bras. He returned there once a month over the course of two years to chart the factory’s progress and the stories of those who work there.

“People in China are not as forthcoming as people in America,” he said. “They won’t tell you something on first meeting….They’re not frightened of journalists; they just don’t talk about themselves in the same way as Americans, who will reveal details about a sticky divorce or the fact they’ve been in prison within a few minutes of meeting them.”

Country Driving charts the human face of Chinese urbanisation. Hessler described how every individual working in the factory, from the owner to the cleaner, had grown up on a farm.

Part of the reason for this mass growth and movement of people is down to the spread of infrastructure in China, primarily road building. Hessler said that his perspective as a reporter in China has been radically altered by gaining a driving license. It had opened up a whole new world to him and given him hugely increased freedom of access.

“Access is a characteristic problem of reporting in China,” he said, referring not just to physical access but also access due to political sensibilities. “There are many types of story where access is hard in China, but many where it’s easy.”

Hessler said that he wrote this book in order to give the American public a knowledge of what life is like for everyday people in China and to help them gain some context about this fast-changing country. However, he said that in the process of writing this book, he too had come to appreciate that his Western perspective on the country was not always right.

“In China, you have these incredible contrasts, and these contrasts are what define China. After writing this book, I wasn’t as inclined to see workers as victims as beforehand. They did have agency and ways to negotiate their situation.”