Book review: Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz

by Linda Herrick / 19 May, 2017

Rob Schmitz. Photo/Julian de Hauteclocque Howe

A writer finds all the fascination of China just outside his Shanghai front door.

American journalist Rob Schmitz’s first encounter with China was in the late 1990s, when he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the countryside. He earned $120 a month and fell in love with the place.

In 2010, he returned with his wife and child to a much-changed China to work for American Public Media Marketplace; he is now the Shanghai correspondent for National Public Radio.

He lives in a high-rise apartment at one end of the main road, Changle Lu (the Street of Eternal Happiness that gives the book its title), which runs through the Former French Concession. It’s a street thundering with traffic and lined by plane trees, high-rise apartments, obscure lanes and tiny shops.

Over a period of six years, Schmitz, who speaks fluent Mandarin, made friends with a handful of residents who live and work along the road. This superb stranger-than-fiction book, which started life as a radio series, tells their stories. And what stories – and what characters – they are, shadowing the arc of China’s turbulent modern history and, now, the Communist Party’s full-throttle embrace of capitalism.

Some of his subjects are seemingly simple people with complex histories. Schmitz’s apartment, for example, overlooks a large vacant lot worth millions dotted with burnt-out traditional homes from which he could see people emerging from time to time.

That’s how he met Old Kang, a man who had stayed on in his wrecked family home. Three thousand people once lived in the lot, known as Maggie Lane. Some had been relocated, but those who’d dug in had been burnt or bulldozed out; two had even been murdered, all on the orders of local officials bribed by developers. It’s a practice, Schmitz reveals, that occurs across the country.

At the other end of the street, Schmitz has a good friend in Zhao Shiling, a stoic peasant who left her abusive husband and set up a tiny flower shop in Shanghai. Zhao’s story encompasses the complexities of “left-behind children” (61 million in today’s China), arranged marriages, the dowry system and the casual attitude towards suicide in China.

When Schmitz travels into the countryside with Zhao, he sees a town “filled with wild men, abused women and forgotten children … among the women here, Zhao was a pioneer; among the men, she inspired both fear and attraction. She was a woman with power.”

One of the many strengths of this book is its interwoven narrative: Schmitz returns again and again to his subjects, burrowing deeply into their past and their hopes for the future.

Not all crave more money – religions are on the rise – but many people do. Hence the explosion of pyramid schemes aimed at gullible pensioners and run by smooth operators with names like Mr Clean.

As a judge prepared to sentence one such con man, he looked out over the courtroom full of elderly investors who believed his “company” would still be listed and said: “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

That’s exactly the feeling evoked by this consummate piece of writing, which sings with clarity, astute observation and deep warmth. Schmitz also has a keen eye for the ridiculous and he has infinite material to work with.

STREET OF ETERNAL HAPPINESS, by Rob Schmitz (John Murray, $39.99)

Rob Schmitz will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival on May 20 and 21.

This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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