An unforgettable portrait of individuals who hope, struggle, and grow along a single street cutting through the heart of China’s most exhilarating metropolis, from one of the most acclaimed broadcast journalists reporting on China today.
Modern Shanghai: a global city in the midst of a renaissance, where dreamers arrive each day to partake in a mad torrent of capital, ideas, and opportunity. Rob Schmitz is one of them. He immerses himself in his neighborhood, forging deep relationships with ordinary people who see in the city’s sleek skyline a brighter future, and a chance to rewrite their destinies. There’s Zhao, whose path from factory floor to shopkeeper is sidetracked by her desperate measures to ensure a better future for her sons. Down the street lives Auntie Fu, a fervent capitalist forever trying to improve herself with religion and get-rich-quick schemes while keeping her skeptical husband at bay. Up a flight of stairs, musician and café owner CK sets up shop to attract young dreamers like himself, but learns he’s searching for something more. As Schmitz becomes more involved in their lives, he makes surprising discoveries which untangle the complexities of modern China: A mysterious box of letters that serve as a portal to a family’s – and country’s – dark past, and an abandoned neighborhood where fates have been violently altered by unchecked power and greed.
A tale of 21st century China, Street of Eternal Happiness profiles China’s distinct generations through multifaceted characters who illuminate an enlightening, humorous, and at times heartrending journey along the winding road to the Chinese Dream. Each story adds another layer of humanity and texture to modern China, a tapestry also woven with Schmitz’s insight as a foreign correspondent. The result is an intimate and surprising portrait that dispenses with the tired stereotypes of a country we think we know, immersing us instead in the vivid stories of the people who make up one of the world’s most captivating cities.
A Conversation with Rob Schmitz
Author of Street of Eternal Happiness
What were your impressions of Shanghai the first time you visited there as a Peace Corps volunteer?When you moved there in 2010 as a foreign correspondent, did you feel that it changed noticeably in the years since your first visit?
I first visited Shanghai in 1998. I’d just finished a two-year Peace Corps service in rural China, and Shanghai was my last stop before heading home to the U.S. I remember having a drink with another volunteer on the roof of the historic Peace Hotel and gazing across the river at what looked like a giant tinker toy: the newly-built Oriental Pearl Tower, and behind it, a skyline filled with cranes. It seemed the entire city was a construction site. We had just spent two years working in the impoverished countryside, and that final trip to Shanghai showed us a preview of things to come, a new side to a country that was on the verge of becoming the fastest growing economy in the world. Returning in 2010 with my wife and young son, modern Shanghai had been completed: towering skyscrapers as far as the eye could see, bullet trains arriving from all over China, one of the world’s most extensive metro systems. The enormity of 21st century Shanghai almost made New York City seem quaint.
What led you to start collecting the stories of your neighbors on the Street of Eternal Happiness?
It started as a series of radio stories that I reported over the span of a year for Marketplace. My aim was to break away from China’s rapid-fire news cycle so that I could control the pace and focus on the lives of everyday people – their hopes, dreams, fears, and how they navigated this incredible change that was happening all around them. They told me fascinating stories full of joy,heartbreak, and drama – all the elements of a great book were right in front of me, and it started with a simple walk outside my door to talk to my neighbors. After a while, I realized these weren’t just local stories. They were universal narratives that went far beyond Shanghai. I learned you can write about the people along a single street in a single city, but sooner or later, their stories will take you further afield. Everyday Chinese in the 21st century are part of a larger global community, just like Shanghai has returned to its status as a global city.
What’s one of the most surprising discoveries you made while writing this book?
Friends lent me a shoe box of letters dating back to the 1950s that they’d discovered at an old junk shop in our neighborhood. The letters were written between a husband, a man who had been arrested as a capitalist and sent to a labor camp on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, and his wife, who took care of the couple’s seven children in a crowded lane home along the Street of Eternal Happiness. I’d spent years reading historical accounts of the Mao years by both Western and Chinese authors, and it was invigorating to suddenly have my hands on untainted evidence of raw history from that era. Each time I opened one of the brittle envelopes, I thought about where they had been written, and the sights, sounds, and smells that surrounded them before they were folded up and mailed to a loved one across the country. They told a heartbreaking story of hardship and loss through the worst of the Mao years, and perhaps their most surprising element was that they led me to living, breathing descendants (residing in an unexpected place),whom I came to know personally after reading so much about them as children.
Your book highlights some of the ways that modern Shanghai resembles New York City at the turn of the 20th century—a global city in the midst of a renaissance. Can you talk about those similarities?
One of the most popular literary genres in New York City at the turn of the 20th century was the etiquette guide. Sure enough, more than a century later, the Shanghai local government published its own version in the run-up to Shanghai’s 2010 World’s Fair. It was full of amusing words of advice to local residents about how to properly behave in social situations: “Close your mouth when you chew your food and don’t make any licking or smacking sounds. It’s not polite to blow your nose or belch during a meal,” and other useful suggestions, such as warning readers not to cut in line, spit, or wear pajamas in public, all fairly common habits among city residents at the time. The authors were Shanghai city officials and their advice was, for the most part, directed at the city’s migrant workers, a population that makes up nearly half of Shanghai and hail from all over China. Their cultural and linguistic differences reminded me of how historians describe the melting pot of New York City at the turn of the 20th century. In both the Gilded Age in America and China’s Golden Age a century later, outsiders were working hard to assimilate to their new urban surroundings.
What are the characters in the book—CK, Auntie Fu, Zhao Shiling, etc.—up to now?
CK has given up day-to-day management of his sandwich shop, preferring to focus on his accordion business and finding spiritual enlightenment. He continues to study under his Buddhist master, and he’s thrown himself back into his music – he recently played a concert at a music festival down in Shenzhen. Auntie Fu has continued down the get-rich-quick path, attending investment meetings just as frequently as before. Zhao Shiling’s life has probably taken the biggest turn: late last year, her husband retired from the coal mine and decided to join her in Shanghai. Zhao wasn’t thrilled about this, as he used to beat her when the two lived together back in her hometown. But the power shift brought on by Zhao’s success in Shanghai became immediately evident; when her husband arrived in the city, Zhao wouldn’t allow him to live in her apartment. Instead, he sleeps in a bunk inside the restaurant worker’s dormitory at a hotpot restaurant near her flower shop. When he’s not logging hours there, he works inside Zhao’s flower shop. Last week, I visited the shop, and Zhao ordered him to sweep the floor and openly criticized his work as he cut flowers. It had been thirty years since the two had last been together, and everything had changed.
“This beautifully conceived and written book conveys the joys, the tragedies, the comedy, and the vivid humanity of modern China. No one will talk about ‘China’s rise’ or ‘the China model’ in the same way after reading it, and years from now people will turn to this book to understand the China of this era.”
—James Fallows, author of China Airborne and Postcards from Tomorrow Square
“Street of Eternal Happiness is a marvel of place-based reporting. This single road illuminates the complexities, contradictions, and funny wonder of today’s China. This book is really about family—the most eternal force on any street in the country.”
—Peter Hessler, author of River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving
“Rob Schmitz has given us a treasure: a patient portrait of an impatient country, a China that is utterly true to life in its beauty and heartache, tenderness and greed. His story is told in real lives that are, like Shanghai itself, modern and imperfect, romantic and ruthlessly practical. Reading this is as close as most people will come to living there.”
—Evan Osnos, National Book Award winning author of Age of Ambition
“Schmitz peels back the layers of a single street to discover ambition, reinvention, faith, corruption, murder, and heartbreak. In this intimate and revealing book, a two-mile stretch of road embodies the dreams and dramas of modern China.”
—Leslie T. Chang, author of Factory Girls
“Rob Schmitz is a master storyteller who leads his readers into the heart and history of modern China. Street of Eternal Happiness is, in turn, funny, moving, tragic and—ultimately—emotionally satisfying. Nobody can pretend to understand Shanghai and contemporary China without reading it.”
—Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet
“At last, an intimate look at daily life in contemporary, convivial Shanghai. All great cities have a great book that captures their rise or fall; Street of Eternal Happiness is Shanghai’s.”
—Michael Meyer, author of In Manchuria and The Last Days of Old Beijing
“A kaleidoscope of Chinese history, from famine and Cultural Revolution to one-child policy. Above all, these tales illustrate the perils and hopes of living the Chinese Dream, written with penetrating insight and charming fluidity. A delight.”
—Mei Fong, Pulitzer Prize winner for International Reporting and author of One Child
“For nearly two centuries Shanghai has been a city that offered both Chinese and foreigners the possibility of success, wealth, and status. Rob Schmitz paints a vivid canvas of the city from the perspective of one big city street that neatly encapsulates the myriad aspirations of one country and its people. The Street of Eternal Happiness: a thoroughfare of aspirations and dreams, hard earned successes and sadly thwarted hopes where Schmitz encounters the ghosts of China’s troubled past, the hard working yet wistful dreamers of today, and those whose sights and visions are firmly fixed on China’s, and their own, future.”
—Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking and Fat China
“Rob Schmitz has crafted a deeply empathetic marvel of a book. Alternately poignant and humorous, it has much to offer anyone who has been to Shanghai, thought about going there but not made it yet, or simply wants to get a better feel for the rhythms of life in twenty-first century China.”
—Jeffrey Wasserstrom, editor of the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China and author of China in the 21st Century
“Authentic, boisterous, convincing, dynamic, energizing, the street stretching on, each window a non-fictional tale more fantastic than the fictional in the dramatic, almost unbelievable transformation of the Chinese society in its contemporary history, narrating with an Ezra Pound-like multiple cultural perspectives and linguistic sensibilities, and leading, eventually, to overwhelming questions. The reading of Street of Eternal Happiness cannot but compel a Shanghai-born Shanghainese like me into another trip back to the city in this global age.”
—Qiu Xiaolong, author of Death of a Red Heroine and Shanghai Redemption
“What a treat to follow Rob Schmitz’s journey into the epic lives of people living in the shadow of China’s most storied city. Their heartache and hope spill from this small corner of Shanghai to the far reaches of modern Chinese history and geography. I’ve walked down this street a hundred times. I’ll never see it the same way again. Schmitz has found a brilliant way to illuminate the big price little people pay for the profound changes reshaping the world’s most populous country.”
—Ching-Ching Ni, former Los Angeles Times Shanghai Bureau Chief, current editor-in-chief of The New York Times Chinese website
“In his deliberative, observant journalistic style, Schmitz, the China correspondent for Marketplace, chronicles his interviews and friendships with several of the shop owners on the street where he has lived for some years, plumbing their dreams and capitalist motivations… With each chapter, Schmitz delves deeply into the families’ endurance through the Cultural Revolution and famine and current drive to better themselves. Probing human-interest stories that mine the heart of today’s China.”
“[Schmitz] gives his portraits a financial underpinning, which reveals both the sparkle of a dynamic economy and the longtime corruption and ineptitude by China’s central government that have ruined so many millions of lives…A brutally revealing, yet unexpectedly tender, slice of Shanghai life.”