Excerpt from Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Street of Eternal Happiness

Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road

by Rob Schmitz

Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz X
Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz
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  • First Published:
    May 2016, 336 pages

    May 2017, 336 pages


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THE STREET OF ETERNAL HAPPINESS is two miles long. In the winter when its tangled trees are naked of foliage, you can see past their branches and catch a view of the city's signature skyline in the distance: The Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, and Shanghai Tower. The three giants stand within blocks of one another, each of them taller than New York City's Empire State Building.

Below, people are too busy to take in the scenery. Today will be the first day of life for babies born at the Shanghai No. 1 Maternity Hospital along the street's midsection. For several souls at Huashan Hospital's emergency room at the street's western end, it will be their last. In between there is life, in all its facets: a bearded beggar sits on the sidewalk and plays the bamboo flute, lovers step around him hand in hand, cars honk and lurch around two men spitting and thrashing over whose car hit whose, a crowd of uniformed school children gathers and stares, an old woman with a cane yells at a vendor in disgust over the price of lychees, and the rest of the street pitches forward with a constant flow of people. Life here is loud, dirty, and raw. Every inch of the street pulses with it.

On a map, the street is a tiny squiggle to the southwest of People's Square, the center point of Shanghai. My home is at the western end of that squiggle. It looks out over a canopy of leaves that appears to hover two stories above the ground most of the year. Below, the trees are the only living beings standing still. I spend mornings zigzagging around their trunks from sidewalk to pavement and then back again among pedestrians vying for space in their shade.

Few streets in China are lined with trees like these, and on the weekends the bustle of local workers is replaced by groups of tourists from other parts of China, pointing telephoto lenses down the street at rows of limbs, admiring their exotic beauty.

The French had planted the trees in the mid-19th century when European and Americans carved up the city into foreign concessions. Nearly a century later, the French were gone, but the trees remained. The Japanese bombed Shanghai and took the city for a spell, but they eventually retreated, too, leaving the trees unharmed. Then came the Communists under Mao with revolution, class warfare, and the untimely deaths of millions. The trees endured. The street is now a capitalist one, lined with restaurants and shops. When I stroll along its sidewalk, I sometimes catch glimpses of rundown European-style homes through the cracks of closed gates, and I think about the relentless churn of history this street has witnessed. Here, an empire rose, fell and now rises again. The only constant were the trees.


I had lived on the street for nearly three years before I noticed Chen Kai's sandwich shop. It was less than a block away from my apartment, above a tiny boutique fashion store, and during the warm summer months, the leafy Plane trees obstructed the entire affair. A narrow spiral staircase took you upstairs to behold the café's floor-to-ceiling windows. On the other side of the glass, a wall of leaves swayed in the wind, hiding the bustle of Shanghai below. The place felt like a modernist glass tree house deep in the forest.

Inside, Chen – who goes by the nickname "CK" – sometimes stood hunched over a counter, his black mop of hair obscuring his eyes, skinny fingers putting the finishing touches on a sandwich or a dessert before he flipped his mane back and mechanically swiped a cup of piping hot coffee from the espresso machine for a customer. Usually, though, the shop was empty. That's okay, CK told himself, it's going to take time before business takes off. That's how dreams work. During those times, he'd slouch atop a barstool, his boyish, acne-covered face turned away from the glass wall of trees. He'd switch from one Chinese dialect to the next over the phone, making deals for his side business: selling accordions.

Excerpted from Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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