On Sunday, Schmitz is launching his nonfiction book, Street of Eternal Happiness, at Glam. The story expands upon a series he did for Marketplace, showcasing the lives and histories of several people who were living on Changle Lu between 2012-2015. The response to Eternal has been overwhelmingly positive, with praise from both The New York Times and The Economist.
I sat down with Schmitz in his office on Xinzha Lu to discuss the book, the street, and the city.
SmSh: What was your main motivation writing Street of Eternal Happiness?
Rob Schmitz: My main motivation was pretty simple. I found a group of characters that I thought had amazing stories. And all along a single street. And I thought it would be a shame not to write it.
There are a few [good Shanghai books] out there, but nothing really about the people. They are just sweeping histories of the city and the foreigners. This isn't a foreign city, this is a Chinese city. I think this is in many ways the symbol of China's future.
It reminds me of New York city in the turn of the 20th century. Shanghai in the turn of the 21st century is very similar. You've got a mix of people right off the farm who speak many different languages and come from completely different backgrounds. The diversity of China is probably in many ways more diverse than the diversity of Europe. So when you look at the languages of Italian, French, German that were spoken by immigrants in 20th century New York, they are just as different as the dialects of Sichuanese, Fujianese, and Shanghainese.
SmSh: Is there any one character you really identified with?
Rob Schmitz: The character I came closest to was Zhao Shiling. Zhao owns a flower shop on the eastern end of the street. I've known her for about five years now. She's a good friend of mine. I think we both feel like we're foreigners in the city -- she's from Shandong and I'm from a small town in the United States. Of course it's completely different, but we both feel like we're bumpkins in the city. And I really admire her as a person. The work she's done to get where she's gotten in her lifetime -- she's basically jumped three social economic levels just because of her. This is something that would be difficult to do over three and four generations and she's done [it] herself with no help from her husband. And she's done it because of her sons.
SmSh: Does she still own that flower shop?
Rob Schmitz: Oh yeah. Changle Lu and Chengdu Lu.
SmSh: I feel like I've been there. So a lot of the characters in your book are still on Changle Lu? Another character of yours owned a sandwich shop.
Rob Schmitz: Yeah yeah. The sandwich shop is still there. You can go to these places, you can meet them, you can talk to them.
SmSh: What were you able to tackle in the book that you couldn't in the radio series?
Rob Schmitz: Every person that I profile -- they have a certain dream. And some of these dreams are pretty straightforward: make money. I think that was kind of the dream for most Chinese for the last 20-30 years. But I think there are characters in the book that have gone beyond that, and are starting to looking at things like religion, spirituality, justice, equality, bigger things that really have nothing to do with materialism, and I wanted to explore that too, and I think a book gave me the space to do that.
[The religion in this book] wasn't intended, that just happened organically. Auntie Fu drags me to an underground church service in my first chapter about her, where it's sort of presided over by a scam artist. And there's no coincidence the first character in the book ends up [in] the end following his own path to spirituality through a buddhist master, [who also has] some seedy elements. I wanted to capture this time when people are thinking about things that have nothing to do with materialism. They're trying to search for meaning and values. And in that search, inevitably, since religion is going through a renaissance in China, it's very natural that many of these religious movements have a scam element to them.
SmSh: Where do you think Shanghai is headed?
Rob Schmitz: I think Shanghai is definitely the future of China. It's the first city in China where you have this mix of Eastern and Western ideas competing with each other all under the auspices of capitalism. There's a more Chinese element to Shanghai than ever before, but I still think this is a city where big ideas come to compete with each other under the pressure of making as much money as you can.
It's basically the city in China where China looks outward. It looks towards the rest of the world through Shanghai. It's also kind of China on display for the rest of the world as well. It's where China and the rest of the world meet.
The Street of Eternal Happiness book launch starts at 4pm at Glam. Cover is 75rmb with a drink. Copies of the book will be available at the event, or you can pick up the Kindle version on Amazon.