A book about a Shanghai street tells China’s story too

Street of Eternal Happiness w

It seems that every year a new book appears, penned by a journalist and written for those who know little or nothing about China. Publishers can perhaps be forgiven for their enthusiasm for such works – after all, WiC suspects several billion people would struggle to name more than three Chinese cities. That means there is a sizeable market for primer books about China.

Peter Hessler’s Rivertown was among the first of the genre, and it remains one of the best. His was a fond portrait, based on the time he spent teaching English in a small rural town in Sichuan in the nineties. Hessler did an excellent job of decoding an array of complex Chinese attitudes, partly through the vehicle of sounding out his students’ opinions and travelling by train around the country, quizzing his fellow passengers.

Now Rob Schmitz has entered the ‘China primer’ fray, and his Street of Eternal Happiness ranks as one of the best of the recent offerings. As the title suggests, he uses the street in question as the backdrop to his account – in his case the road in central Shanghai on which he lives.

Schmitz seeks to explain modern China by telling the life stories of his eclectic group of neighbours. Like Hessler, he experienced life in China in 1990s too, working as a Peace Corp Volunteer, also in Sichuan. Fifteen years later he returned (in 2010) to work as a correspondent for the US radio show Marketplace. He and his family moved into a high-rise apartment block on the poetically named Street of Eternal Happiness. But happiness isn’t always the characteristic he detects among his grittier neighbours. Among them he befriends a frustrated young entrepreneur, an argumentative elderly couple (who watch two separate televisions from the same bed, both at full volume) and a flower seller racked by guilt about how her job decisions may have blighted her son’s life.

This spectrum of characters helps Schmitz to engage with a huge variety of topics, drawing on real anecdotes and experiences. Thus there are fraudulent pyramid selling schemes, a search for meaning in religion (in this case, Buddhism), a review of the difficulties a mother experiences in finding a bride for her son, and a struggle with unscrupulous property developers engaged in forced demolitions.

In fact, the struggle with property barons has featured in several books of this type, but Schmitz uses it as part of his broader discussion about problems with the rule of law in China.

Although the book is about Shanghai, the paradox is that nearly all those featured in the story migrated to the city from elsewhere. The liveliest and most colourful character is Zhao Shiling, a florist on his street. She moved to Shanghai in 1995, quitting rural Shandong and escaping a failed marriage. She arrived as the archetypal country bumpkin. When she first rode the subway, she thought it was a very long tractor. “‘I had never seen a subway before and tractors were all I knew,’ she admitted to Schmitz.

Zhao initially got a job on a factory line – only to be fired when the boss decided he wanted to employ girls younger than 25 (she was 29). Through hard work she eventually started up her own flower business, and brought her two sons to Shanghai. She reveals to the author that her small enterprise generates a profit of around Rmb100,000 ($15,027) a year but says that neither of her offspring wants to take it over, not liking the long hours that florists work.

Her story depicts the generational divide between those like herself who grew up dirt poor, and the more financially comfortable, well-educated youth of today. “They’re just like all young people today, who don’t want to actually work,” she says of her sons. “They want jobs with freedom, rest, good pay, and a happy work environment. They ask for too much and they’ll never be satisfied. We asked for nothing.”

However, as dismissive as that sounds, she also feels enormous guilt over her decision to bring her elder son to Shanghai, where he studied at a local school. What follows is an insightful study into the human consequences of China’s household registration system, or hukou. It is a subject on which WiC has already spilled much ink, but in Zhao’s case her son’s chances of going to university were wrecked by it, because he lacked a Shanghai hukou. In fact, it meant he couldn’t get into a secondary school in the city, and was forced to return to his Shandong hometown Zaozhuang and enter a school there. Near the top of his class in Shanghai, he figured he would be far ahead of these less sophisticated country kids. But he was crestfallen to discover he was well below average in Zaozhuang. It soon dawns on him why: because there are far more ‘rural’ students, they have to take a much tougher college entrance exam. The upshot: classmates of the same age in Zaozhuang were already “years ahead of him” and other students like him from the bigger cities.

The school day was twice as long as in Shanghai, Zhao recalls, and soon her son began failing his exams and “lost interest in school”. As a 16 year-old he was told to repeat middle school. “The alternative was more attractive: he dropped out.”

“His classmates from his Shanghai middle school had graduated from the country’s best universities. That should have been him, Zhao told me, and it killed her to think about it. ‘Sometimes I feel like I have ruined my son.’”

In fact, Zhao’s son is one of the many victims of a system that makes it easier for children with urban hukou to get into university versus those from the countryside; and which likewise penalises the children of migrant workers by denying them a city hukou.

Schmitz is at pains to stress how this same system has led to decades of growth and raised hundreds of millions out of poverty by bringing millions of migrants to work in the country’s manufacturing heartlands. But he also make clear that it can be incredibly unfair, wrecking personal ambitions, like the situation experienced by Zhao’s son.

Zhao’s story culminates when she travels back from Shanghai to Zaozhuang to try and find her son a wife. The efforts prove unsuccessful. As she exasperatedly tells Schmitz: “It’s not difficult to find a wife here, but it’s so difficult for him. He’s just useless. He’s too innocent, too honest. He’s useless.”

There are countless other stories in this book, most of which make compelling reading. And while there is no such thing as a single book that ‘explains’ China – the country is far too big and complex for that – anyone who reads Street of Eternal Happiness will get a better grasp of a society that is changing at a rapid pace, and yet still deeply influenced by thousands of years of social and cultural traditions.

If you only take one book about China to the beach this summer holiday, this would be a very good choice.

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