A walk along the street where China resides
A Chinese friend once gave Rob Schmitz a box bought at a junk store. It contained letters between a wife and her husband, a Shanghai “capitalist” factory owner who was sent to a labor camp in the 1950s.
Decades later, Schmitz tracked down the couple’s son, who was living in New York’s Flushing with his mother.
The imprisoned factory owner once lived on Changle Street in the heart of Shanghai, where Schmitz now lives, with his wife Lenora Chu, a Houston native, and their two young children.
The factory owner’s son learned English, got a high school equivalency diploma (GED) at the age of 58 and now wants to pursue a college degree.
This is just one of the five stories told in Schmitz’s new book Street of Eternal Happiness, which grew out of his radio series Market Place.
“He’s a great inspiration to me,” said Schmitz at a book discussion on last Wednesday organized by the Asia Society Texas Center and Brazos Bookstore.
The son declined Schmitz’s offer to take back his parents’ letters. “Nobody cares about the letters,” he told Schmitz. “We already know what happened. We Chinese like to let bygones be bygones.”
“That reflects a lot of Chinese’s attitude toward their recent history,” said Schmitz, who had been a correspondent for Market Place in Shanghai for the past six years and will return in a week as NPR’s Shanghai correspondent.
Schmitz first went to China in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Sichuan. Since then he had been back to China a few times before becoming a correspondent in 2010.
Schmitz found reporting on China to be a bit overwhelming. “You basically could do 10 items a day with an economy of 1.3 billion people. I wanted to simplify my life a bit and focus on the basic units of society, that is, individuals,” said Schmitz.
He walked up and down the street where he lived for a year and tried to learn how much people’s lives had changed in the past 20 to 30 years as China was experiencing its astonishing economic growth.
“I wanted to look at their motivations and where they wanted to go,” he said.
Another theme of the book is the Chinese Dream.
“Before 2010, everyone in China had the same dream, everyone was on the same page: they wanted to make money,” he explained.
“Now that that was accomplished, they looked beyond money at other dreams — religion, travel, study abroad, justice and equality. They are all thought about now by Chinese individuals.”
By telling stories of people of different generations who live on a single street, Schmitz explored their contrasting versions of the Chinese dream, reflecting the realities of a rapidly changing China.
There is a young man named CK, who made money, felt lost and turned to Buddhism for spirituality. There is a woman, a flower shop owner, who was limited by the household registration system and dreamed of equality.
In another story, an older woman, left behind by China’s economic growth, was constantly fighting with her husband; she dreamed of getting rich and leaving him.
“I lived in Shanghai for six years, and it has definitely shaped how I see China,” the author said.
“Shanghai is, in many ways, an appropriate symbol for 21st century urban China,” said Schmitz, very much like New York of the 20th century.
Gordon Quan (right), vice-chairman of the Asia Society of Texas and former city council member of Houston, gets his book signed by author Rob Schmitz (left) after a discussion on Aug 3.