There’s no preface or introduction to Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams along a Shanghai Road. Rob Schmitz, a National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent based in Shanghai, thrusts the reader right into one of the modern, prototypical stories of China that he so ably portrays in the book.
Birthed out of the author’s radio series for NPR’s Marketplace, the book tells the stories of several families, and that of their neighbors, living along one road in the former French Concession of Shanghai. 长乐路—Changle Lu, literally “long happiness road” but translated by the author as “street of eternal happiness” (p. 6), boasts a rich history in a city, and country, replete with history.
Schmitz presents the stories of the residents along this street as a microcosm of today’s Chinese society—its progress as well as its struggles. Schmitz cycles through the stories, returning to each family in two or three chapters apiece.
We first meet young CK, who makes and sells enough accordions that he is able to own a restaurant which consumes most of his time and the money not otherwise spent providing for his ailing father and grandmother. He wrestles with his own sense of individualism in the maze that is the Chinese system (Chapters 1, 8, and 13).
Old Kang and “Mayor” Chen, residents of what used to be tiny Maggie Lane just south of Changle Lu, live in what would seem to be uninhabitable homes. They refuse to leave despite constant pressure from the government and bullying from construction firms. They must decide whether to accept buy-offs from the powers that be or continue to fight their righteous cause, hoping that China will be guided by its written laws and constitution. They strive to simply exist in a city that can casually dismiss those whom it displaces (Chapters 2 and 9).
Zhao started her own flower shop decades ago, having left her family and home in rural Shandong province in hope of providing more opportunities for her two sons. Upon moving to Shanghai, she broke the cultural mores of Chinese women at a time when doing so could have spelled ruin for a woman, not to mention for her marriage and family. Zhao faces the long journey of discovering whether or not her decision proves best for her boys, as well as their future families (Chapters 3, 7, and 12).
Elderly Uncle Feng and Auntie Fu own a hole-in-the-wall restaurant which only serves 葱油饼 (scallion oil cake). Feng’s delicious treats cost 1 RMB (about 15 cents) more than his neighborhood competitors, whose products he deems only worth the cheaper cost. Auntie Fu, however, is constantly looking for ways to capitalize on fast, no-strings-attached, money-making schemes despite not having business acumen. The couple’s internment at a labor camp decades earlier is never far from their seemingly simple life on Changle Lu. Their lives are anything but simple (Chapters 4, 6, and 11).
Finally, a family’s story is told from a box of letters found on Changle Lu by Schmitz’s friends, who invited him to read through the letters on the eve of Chinese New Year in 2013. The letters date from the 1950s to the 1990s and tell the story of a family living through Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution: a family of six children whose father, Wang, is sent to a labor camp for 15 years, leaving the mother, Liu, to care for the family while Wang is re-educated (Chapters 5 and 10).
Chapters 14 and 15 bring muted closure to the reader while the families’ stories continue to this day.
Important themes connect what would otherwise be disconnected families living on the same iconic street, a street now unrecognizable by those who have witnessed Shanghai’s decades of unparalleled transformation.
CK and Zhao struggle to fulfill filial piety, uphold family values, and simultaneously pursue economic interests meant to provide for family. These are not simply business endeavors; these trailblazers envision better lives in a burgeoning municipality. CK’s story touches on a prevalent theme in China—caring for sick family members. He and Zhao are both dutiful even as they break several molds normative to Chinese culture.
The devastating and lingering effects of unjust eminent domain consume Old Kang, Chen, and his wife Xie, to the point that the author and the characters ponder the value of pushing against a seemingly immoveable machine of bureaucracy, laden with civil cases that are regularly ignored. Although it is CK, and formerly his father, who often talks about the “system” in terms of social mobility, Kang, Chen, and Xie daily battle this system, playing a dangerous game against the government, trying to be immoveable.
Mired in the memories of labor camps, the stories of Uncle Feng and Auntie Fu, and the Wang family are indicative of the extreme difficulties so many Chinese faced transitioning from the old guard to the China of today. Uncle Feng and Auntie Fu suffer from an inability to heal from the past, as well as a lack of technological savvy, job skills, and financial means to adjust to, let alone thrive in, a new China. An entrepreneurial spirit and keen capitalist eye brought about Wang’s internment; his lack of effective “self-criticism” cripples his family for decades. Their stories provide a window into the breakdown of some families during the Cultural Revolution, with the need to distance oneself from those judged politically dangerous, namely capitalists.
Schmitz gives some attention to the religious landscape that has been booming in China in recent years. Auntie Fu’s experiences is partially influenced by the prosperity gospel that has begun to take root in China. In chapter 13, Schmitz showcases China’s growing interest in religion and its renewed national focus on morality, a morality that ultimately favors the interests of social stability in a Communist state. It is in this chapter that we learn of CK’s conversion to Tibetan Buddhism. Although it is mentioned only as an aside, we learn also in this chapter that Zhao, Auntie Fu, Chen, and Xie are all Christians (p. 259). Their faith must certainly have played a part in their pursuit of freedom (Zhao and Auntie Fu) and justice (Mayor Chen and Xie); nevertheless, the author does not investigate this as a potential reason for such radical persistence in the face of great hardship.
Stating that now is “the era of big dreams in China” (p. 160), Schmitz links the end of chapter 8, “Cultured Youth,” with a provocative follow-up title for chapter 9, “Dreams, Seized,” effectively laying out the inherent battle between citizen and state in China.
The book ends with a chapter called “Chinese Dreams,” highlighting the theme that most prevalently weaves its way through each story. About four years ago, Xi Jinping began his presidency with a speech emphasizing a new pursuit of “the Chinese dream” (p. 107). The reader, then, can frame much of the book, including multiple sub-themes, using the framework of China’s people, as well as the government, playing out their parts in competing dreams. The mantra, Better City, Better Life, was plastered around Shanghai during the 2010 Shanghai World Fair. Since around 2015, a new mantra has proliferated in the neighborhoods of Shanghai, including Maggie Lane near Changle Lu: Fulfill Our Chinese Dream, and Vitality Will Fill China (p. 290). The powers that be continue to recast the vision of a new China, appearing to dream past the people comprising that China.
Schmitz has written a well-researched account of real people and the issues facing China today, all within the context of an area spanning only a few kilometers. He provides a list of sources at the back of the book for each chapter. The author, however, mostly based this work of non-fiction on his innumerable conversations with family members, neighbors, and friends of the families whose stories are told in the book.
The narratives are lively and informative for anyone interested in, or living in, China. The surprisingly hopeful outlook of the families described in Street of Eternal Happiness should encourage the reader to view China through such eyes.
Having lived in Shanghai the past two years, I have often walked the Street of Eternal Happiness, Rich People Road, Long Peace Road, and many other streets intersecting this microcosm of modern Chinese society. You can, and should, walk the places described in Street of Eternal Happiness. You can ascend the spiral staircase and have a meal at CK’s 2nd Floor Natural Flavor, which I did. (As things move quickly in China, the signage outside has changed to “2nd Floor Natural Flavor” but the business cards still read “2nd Floor Your Sandwich.”)
You can still see the rubble resulting from eminent domain’s destruction where Maggie Lane used to be. I took this picture from within the enclosed construction site—nobody seemed to care.
And while I reflected upon the many themes of Street of Eternal Happiness, I had to wonder how many “boxes of letters” must still exist around China, telling the stories of families kept secret for so long due to fear, or simply, due to the passing of time.
My own Shanghainese friends have told me their stories, too. A friend told me of her family’s loss of their home in Shanghai years ago as a result of eminent domain. Another friend recently told me of his dreams: owning his own restaurant and moving to America to provide opportunities to his young boy. He often thinks about money and how best to educate his son to give him an advantage among millions of other Chinese children. Several friends have opined over the difficulties of buying, or simply renting, an apartment in a city where prices have skyrocketed. You don’t have to be a correspondent for NPR to discover the realities of life in Shanghai, or any urban center in China for that matter; you need only talk with your neighbors and colleagues—the stories are as plentiful as the nearly 30 million souls living in Shanghai.
Over the past few months, I’ve purposefully walked more, finding new streets to get me to the same destination. I’ve asked people more questions. I’ve become more aware of China’s economic and social issues so that I can better understand my colleagues and friends in China. Simply put, I’ve heard more stories of life in China than I can keep track of. Some of these stories are painful to hear because of the prevalence of social inequities and injustices. But still I walk and ask questions and constantly learn more about the China where I’ve lived the past eight years. I am finding that long happiness, so elusive in this fast-changing society, lies somewhere on the road of knowing more about the people with whom I cross paths every day.
The Street of Eternal Happiness, Changle Lu
All images courtesy of the author.
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