BookBrowse Reviews Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz

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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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About this Book



A portrait of a few everyday Chinese citizens provides a compelling glimpse of the country as a whole.

Rob Schmitz, award-winning correspondent for American Public Media's Marketplace, employs his skill as a journalist and investigative reporter in his book Street of Eternal Happiness. The titular street is translated from the Chinese "Changle Lu," where Schmitz lives. This debut is a collection of essays about the men and women living and working near his Shanghai residence, and through it, the author paints a portrait of everyday life in modern-day China.

Schmitz worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in China in 1996, returning in 2010 with his wife and 18-month-old son in his role as business reporter. In getting to know his neighbors he realized that while each person's life story was unique and interesting, it was probably quite typical of the experience of millions of other Chinese citizens. These people's accounts don't provide a complete picture of life in China by any means, but give just enough of a glimpse to help us gain a better understanding of the people and their rapidly changing culture. The end result is like the collages children create in grade school: fragmentary, overlapping and abstract, yet conveying an important message.

The subjects for the portraits vary, and include individuals such as Feng Jianguo, a man who has a small walk-up restaurant in the front of his apartment; Chen Kai, a younger man who has opened an unsuccessful western-style café but who makes his money by selling accordions; Zhang Naisun, who makes his living begging; and Zhao Shiling, a woman who left her rural home and abusive husband to open a flower shop in the big city.

Many of the individuals highlighted are about the same age – what Americans would refer to as "Baby Boomers" – and have a few shared experiences. For example several speak about the horrors of the Great Famine (1959-1961, still referred to by the Communist Government as the "Three Years of Natural Disasters"). Each person's story also highlights an aspect of Chinese society today. One narrative expounds on the Chinese policy that requires children to attend school in the district in which they're registered (preventing rural children from being able to go to school in the city); Another woman's church attendance becomes a larger discussion about how the State views religion.

The author's writing is stellar from start to finish, vividly describing the sights and frenetic activity of Shanghai.

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 playing the bamboo flute, lovers pass him hand-in-hand, cars honk and lurch around two men spitting at each other and thrashing over whose car hit whose, a crowd of uniformed schoolchildren 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, cutting through bursts of savory-scented steam from port bun stands and the sweet benzene exhaust of traffic. Life here is loud, dirty and raw.

Schmitz conveys his neighbors with compassion; these people are his friends, not just interview subjects, and he deftly achieves just the right balance between writing about the social situation in the country as a whole and describing the people with whom he spends time. There's an intimacy about the work that draws readers into the stories; like the author, we come to know these people as friends, with all their complexities and foibles. It's a truly remarkable narrative and I can't recall many authors who are able to work that kind of magic.

I can't recommend Street of Eternal Happiness highly enough—the book is flawless and will appeal to a broad audience. Those who enjoy excellent writing, learning about other cultures, or simply reading about interesting people will certainly want to pick up a copy.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2016, and has been updated for the May 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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