Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road
Street of Eternal Happiness Author: Rob Schmitz Price: US $28 Hardcover, 336 pages Published by Crown Publishing Group
ROB Schmitz is the China correspondent for American Public Media’s radio program Marketplace. In 2010, he settled in Shanghai in a neighborhood named Summit in the former French Concession. The surroundings are always noisy due to the hustle and bustle of people in the vegetable market, long queues of customers waiting outside the baozi (steamed stuffed bun) house, and the old Chinese women, Chinese dama, dancing in the plaza accompanied by loud pop music. There are also three hospitals along the road, in front of which blaring ambulances go rushing by.
Two rows of London plane trees were planted every 15 feet or so in the 19th century by the French who occupied the area at that time. The green avenue provides shade for bystanders from the scorching summer sun. Every day, Rob Schmitz rode his bicycle through this area, passing in and out of vehicles and motorbikes.
For a book about China, Rob Schmitz looked no further than the people who live and work along the very street he lived on – Changle, the Street of Eternal Happiness. Just as he said, it is important to know about the common people of China: what they are doing; and what are most important for them.
For example, 30-year-old Chen Kai is a young entrepreneur who concurrently runs an accordion business and a sandwich shop. Chen was born in a middle-class family in Hunan Province and learned accordion as a child. After his graduation from a university in Guangdong, Chen worked in a state-owned accordion factory for three years and then quit to go work for an Italian accordion maker from whom he learned how to make these beautiful instruments. These skills helped him earn a large sum of money from selling handmade, Italian brand accordions. However, Chen Kai was not satisfied with his life, for his interests were neither playing nor making accordions. With accumulated funds and supports from friends, he instead opened a sandwich shop on the Street of Eternal Happiness.
Rob Schmitz gave Chen Kai’s generation the nickname “the sandwich generation,” because they must shoulder the burden of caring for both their elderly parents and nurturing small children. In the book, Rob Schmitz also makes a comparison between Chinese “Cultured Youth” and the “Hipster” as it’s known in Western pop culture.
Hipster refers to a postmodern subculture of young, urban middle-class adults and older teenagers; while Cultured Youth refers to the first generation of Chinese who have opportunities to learn about existentialism, logistics, movie, and archaeology in the past 50 years. The latter learned to integrate new thoughts into their lifestyle and are now searching for both a comfortable life and a rich spiritual world.
Living in China, Rob Schmitz inevitably noticed a popular saying: “The world is so big that I would like to have a look.” In his book, he narrates a story of a young couple named IKO and Worm, who became web celebrities after deciding to quit their jobs in Beijing and settle in Dali of frontier Yunnan Province.
“Dali is the opposite of Beijing and Shanghai, where life is slow. Low salaries cannot stop people from enjoying the clean air and water and safe food materials. More and more Chinese Cultured Youth travel there to look for a better life.”
Though the young couple was known for their tranquil life in Dali, and their book became a bestseller, the story eventually ended with their return to Beijing; an unexpected yet thought-provoking ending.
On the Street of Eternal Happiness, Rob Schmitz also discovers some hints of “Renaissance” – The Center for New Classical Studies is located in the alley, where young whitecollar workers drink tea, learn classical poems, and discuss Confucianism. They even wear traditional costumes from the Han Dynasty (206 BC- AD 220). The center’s creator Xu Yuanze observed a phenomenon of losing traditional culture after decades of economic reform and social transformation, and remarked, “The new-found interest is a reflection on our traditions and to rediscover who we are is of great significance.”
From the perspective of Rob Schmitz, Cultured Youth are a group of young people who hope to understand the current circumstances and search for the meaning of life. “They are doing the same thing as youngsters in any other place in the world – to pursue happiness.”
Beside these young people, Rob Schmitz chronicles multiple characters in his book. Each story is a window for readers to understand modern China and the real life of common people against the background of China’s contemporary development.
Peter Hessler, author of River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving, recommended Rob Schmitz’s new book, saying, “Street of Eternal Happiness is a marvel of place-based reporting. This single road illuminates the complexities, contradictions, and funny wonder of today’s China. This book is really about family – the most eternal force on any street in the country.”
While for Rob Schmitz, the setting in his book takes place in a distinctive era in which he describes some subtle feelings through telling stories of the common people. When chatting with others and listening to their stories, he discovered that they all have universal meanings, because they’re about human beings and occur not only in China, but also all around the world.
The author’s purpose is to convey to readers that you don’t have to travel a long distance to discover Chinese stories. All you have to do is wander around, have some patience, and chat with those around you. Sooner or later, good stories will arise; you just need some curiosity, diligence, and devotion.
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