Shanghai: Background information when reading Street of Eternal Happiness

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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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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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This article relates to Street of Eternal Happiness

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The Street of Eternal Happiness, or Changle Lu, is the subject of Rob Schmitz's book and also his home. It is located in Shanghai, which means "City on the Sea" in Chinese. Shanghai is located on a delta of land on the country's eastern coast, where the Yangtze River empties into the East China Sea. Home to over 24 million people (2014), it is the most populous city in the world.

The 17th century walled Old Shanghai The site shows evidence of human habitation as early as the Neolithic Period, and was primarily a fishing village for much of its history. It grew in size and importance through the 17th and 18th centuries, but only really came to prominence during the First Opium War between China's Qing Empire and the United Kingdom (1839-1842), during which the British occupied the city. When the Treaty of Nanking was signed, ending the war, Shanghai was one of five cities that were opened to foreign trade. In later treaties the Britain, American and French governments were given sections of the city called "concessions" – autonomous areas run solely by their respective governments with their own culture, architecture and society - independent of Chinese law. (The Street of Eternal Happiness is located in what was once the French Concession.)

Shanghai became a center of trade, exporting tea, silk and porcelain and importing opium, and it grew into an important industrial center and trading post, becoming home to thousands of foreigners. The city also had a Chinese section which was physically walled off from the foreign sections, but many Chinese chose to live in the concessions regardless. The result was that Shanghai won renown as an exceptionally cosmopolitan city with a mix of cultures. It was considered "the place to be" – the "Paris of the West" – with the best art, architecture, music, and clubs. It had such features as a race track and expensive, high-class restaurants.

Shanghai also became known as a place of vice and indulgence. Impoverished Chinese supplied cheap labor, many barely making enough to live on. The city became rife with opium dens and brothels. In addition, no passport was required upon arrival in the city, and so it attracted international criminals and others eager to hide from the authorities. Lack of immigration laws made it an ideal haven for those seeking to escape repression; nearly 20,000 White Russians and Russian Jews arrived in the 1920s fleeing the newly created Soviet Union, and in the 1930s and 1940s another 20,000 Jewish refugees from Europe found safety in Shanghai's Hankou district.

Shanghai The Japanese began raiding Shanghai in the 1930s, eventually capturing the city and occupying it in 1937. Most non-Chinese fled the country as a Japanese victory seemed more certain, but those who remained were interred in camps outside the city. The exception was the Jewish population in Hankou; the Japanese did not share Nazi Germany's opinion about Jews, and although they turned the district into a ghetto in which Jews were required to reside, they inflicted no additional penalties on them.

After the end of WWII, Shanghai continued to be a center of hostilities - now internecine fighting between the Nationalist and Communist contingents. The victory of the People's Republic of China in 1949 closed Shanghai and the rest of the country to non-Chinese, and foreign influences were pruned away, sometimes violently. The city still remained the largest contributor of tax revenue to the government coffers, but industry suffered, particularly as hundreds of thousands of urbanized Shanghai locals were sent to perform manual labor in rural areas throughout the Chinese countryside.

Shanghai became the base of operations of the "Gang of Four" (an infamous Communist Party clique responsible for the persecution of millions of Chinese citizens) and the center of the Cultural Revolution. In 1967, the city was purged of any remaining Western influences. This trend was reversed a few years later, however, when a meeting was brokered by Henry Kissinger between Premier Zhou Enlai and U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972. The two signed the historic Shanghai Communique which normalized relations between the two countries and opened China to international talks. Foreign investment was further encouraged by the 14th Party Congress, which endorsed a socialist market economy in 1992 (a uniquely Chinese economic system that accommodates both state-owned businesses and open capitalism).

Today Shanghai hosts the nation's stock market and remains its most important industrial base. It has also become a popular tourist destination; Disney's sixth Disneyland Resort opened in Shanghai in June 2016.

Picture of the walled Old Shanghai in the 17th century from World Imaging
Picture of Shanghai skyline by Pontmarcheur

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to Street of Eternal Happiness. It originally ran in August 2016 and has been updated for the May 2017 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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