Rob Schmitz is an American from Minnesota working as a financial journalist in China. During his stay in Shanghai, he has taken the time to get to know his neighbors, his neighborhood, and the street-level history of his adopted country. In Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road, he tells their stories, and in doing so tells the story of China in the 20th and 21st century.
Schmitz lives in the former French Concession, where European architecture mixes with traditional Chinese culture. In Shanghai, city dwellers mix with immigrants from rural areas. Some of Schmitz's friends are among those immigrants, and tell stories of life as hukou system. Under this system, Chinese were forever tied to their hometown. Their travel and employment opportunities were limited. Schmitz points out that "the hukou system may have treated millions of people like illegal immigrants in their own country," even comparing it to apartheid in South Africa.
Depending on the generation, Schmitz's friends have different memories of the Cultural Revolution. Some of his neighbors had their livelihoods taken away and their families split up due to Mao's policies. In hopes of making China a progressive economic force, the Chinese government implemented hukou, the one-child policy, and various propaganda campaigns to accomplish their goals. As a result, "the Chines had evolved into a people who had learned to detect the slightest ideological shifts in the ruling hierarchy so that they could quickly recalibrate their positions, protecting themselves and their families." I was surprised at the extent to which some of Schmitz's subjects wanted to avoid talking about the past. They thought all that was best forgotten.
One former neighbor he met, through a series of letters he found in an antique shop, had immigrated to the U.S. He moved to New York and tried to find work, get his GED, and enjoy life in the United States. "He has spent his childhood learning about the evils of capitalist America from his school textbooks, but when he arrived in New York, he discovered its capitalists treated their poor much better than the Communists did back home." I wonder how common this sentiment is among Chinese who come to America, realizing that however much they love their country, its culture, and its people, their government and its policies and propaganda are pretty messed up.
I will probably never have the opportunity to travel to China. Even if I do, I am sure I will not have the opportunity to build relationships over time with Chinese neighbors the way Schmitz has. I appreciate his story telling, the sense of culture and history he captures in these stories, and the street-level view of Chinese life and culture he portrays in Street of Eternal Happiness.
Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!
2016 Reading Challenge: A book about a country or city