LitFest 2017: Rob Schmitz on The Street of Eternal Happiness

The author tells us how Changle Lu can represent China as a whole

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 Eternal Happiness follows the lives of ordinary Shanghai residents along Xuhui’s Changle Lu.

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.'

Street of Eternal Happiness

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 new world.'

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.'

Rob Schmitz is speaking on Monday 13 at 6pm. Street of Eternal Happiness (Crown) is available at Garden Books, priced 300RMB. Find full details here for LitFest 2017.

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