The Shanghai International Literary Festival returns to M on the Bund this month with 30-plus talks, discussions and workshops over 12 days. Every day this week we're introducing you to one of this year's featured authors.
Journalist Rob Schmitz is a former Peace
Corps volunteer and Marketplace reporter,
and his insightful book The Street of
follows the lives of
ordinary Shanghai residents along Xuhui’s
What inspired you to write this book?
'The inspiration for the book came
from a series of stories I had done as a
Marketplace reporter – I work for National
Public Radio now as their Shanghai
correspondent, but that job is relatively
new. For the previous six years I worked
for Marketplace, and my job was to cover
China’s economy from the
individual level, looking at how
the rapidly changing economy
of China was changing the
people of China. I thought it
would be interesting to profile
a single street in Shanghai.
'I chose Changle Lu for a few
reasons. I like the name,
‘long happiness road’, but I
also like it because quite a
bit of history happened on
this street. The Shanghai
Communiqué for example,
was signed here and
opened up trade between
Communist China and the
US for the first time. I also
live on this street, and it
made it a lot easier to get to know the
characters just from living here: I really
wanted to focus on everyday people.
'As I started doing more stories about
people I became friends with them and I
kept coming back and talking to them. I
heard these incredible, dramatic stories
and this was non-fiction – as anyone who’s
lived in China knows, you can’t make some
of this stuff up. If you talk to anyone in China
they will have been through an incredible
amount of change, and it led me to think this
was good material for a book.'
How open were people to talking?
'It wasn’t too difficult to get people to
open up. I speak Chinese and I lived
in China 20 years ago as a Peace
Corps volunteer, so I’d already had
a lot of experience in China. And the
main characters in my book had mostly
already been in my radio series, so when
I showed up on their doorstep with an
enormous microphone and a recorder,
they had a quick decision to make
whether to talk to a foreign journalist
or not. I’d explain that I wanted to do
a story about them, nothing to do with
politics, but about them and the changes
they’d seen. After I explained to them most said
it was ok, because it’s something they
could easily talk about.
'One of my first
questions was normally ‘how much do
you earn?’ because asking about money
is comfortable in China – how much do you spend on shopping, is it more than five
years ago and so on – and that leads into
other topics. They were normally asking
me how much I earned anyway, before the
words had even come out of my mouth.'
Did you omit any controversial things?
'Of course, that’s something I was very
conscious of. I was careful to take out things
I thought would be unfair or risky. But I also
included a lot that I thought was important
in order for the reader to understand this
person and have compassion for them.
Nobody is perfect; I needed to focus on
the flaws but also explain why those flaws
existed in the first place.
'Auntie Fu, for example, gets
caught up in a lot of really
sketchy pyramid schemes
and scams. I found that
fascinating, but I also tried
to understand who she is
and why she was making
these decisions. She had a
pretty difficult background;
she grew up hungry, she lost
her father who was more or
less starved to death by the
people in her village. She had
seen some horrible things.
She also grew up at a time
when people of her generation
were told what to do and had
never really made any career
decisions for themselves.
'She didn’t really know what to make of
Shanghai. She saw wealth all around her
and she wanted wealth too, but she didn’t
quite understand how to go about it. I think
in many ways she represents the rapidity
of society and how fast things have moved.
She didn’t really know how to operate in this
Were you ever tempted to give advice?
'Yes - for example, Auntie Fu doesn’t have access to the internet, so she can’t just put the names of these companies she's investing in into Baidu and check their backgrounds. So, one time I did just that and found out a lot about these companies that was very sketchy. I found that a couple of these companies had executives being thrown in jail, for example. So I printed these out, and I brought the evidence to her. Not surprisingly, she read through it and said, "That’s interesting, but...". It was extra information for her, but it didn’t influence her to change her mind. So I did my best…
'You can’t interfere too much, and you also can’t judge. I don’t like books where an author tends to judge people and I tried to be as compassionate as I could with these characters. They’re my friends, they opened their lives to me, so that’s the least I could do.'
What are your top three China books?
'I’m a little partial because I was in the Peace Corps with this guy and he’s a friend of mine, but River Town is one of my favourite books, by Peter Hessler. I would also say Factory Girls, from Leslie Chang - I’ve always been fascinated by the workers in China. Thirdly, this isn’t non-fiction, but Soul Mountain is one of my favourites, from Gao Xinjian. It’s just a beautiful piece of work, about mortality, and his writing style is gorgeous, just beautiful.'