Open this book and you cannot help but think of Great Leap Forward, the 2001 tome generated by Rem Koolhaas and his colleagues at the Harvard Design School Project on the City. Both books are university-based, research-driven, essay-enhanced, muddy-photography-filled studies of urbanism in the Pearl River Delta (PRD), the manufacturing center of China. The dozen years between Great Leap's “initial overview” and this “critical evaluation” have been filled with enormous progress (or, some say, regress). In Factory Towns of South China, editor Stefan Al provides an in-depth guide to the changed and changing landscape of the PRD, adding all-important detail to what many experience only through media sound bites.
The first part of Factory Towns includes texts on urbanization, demographics, economics, and infrastructure in south China. By fitting 12 essays and numerous charts into 60 pages, Al chose breadth over depth. This is not a bad thing, as it covers many key topics and contains writing of high quality. Works ranging from Claudia Juhre's data-filled essay on environmental degradation to Minnie Chan's journalistic take on worker strikes to Rex Wong's thoughtful discussion of the effects of governmental policy on design are much more than CliffsNotes to the PRD. I would have liked a detailed text on the factory towns that have been abandoned or converted to other uses, a new phase of development that Al and others only hint at. But this is a minor quibble with an otherwise thorough introduction.