Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Street of Eternal Happiness

Title:  Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road
Author:  Rob Schmitz
Publication Information:  Crown. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0553418084 / 978-0553418088

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The Street of Eternal Happiness is two miles long."

Favorite Quote:  "Life here is loud, dirty, and raw."

A small street in modern day Shanghai becomes a microcosm for China itself. The title is ironic for little happiness seems to be found on this Street of Eternal Happiness. What is found is humanity - people living their lives through government, economic, and societal changes. The author Rob Schmitz is journalist, the China correspondent for the show Marketplace that airs on NPR. He lives in Shanghai and writes about his "home" street; he has made a career out of studying China and its role in the world.

The Street of Eternal Happiness is definitely a history more so than a story of individual families. The author uses this street as a microcosm to present a political, religious, and sociological history of Shanghai and China. It brings in the Cultural Revolution, life under Communism, re-introduction of religion, the one child rule, and the economic ups and downs. The book depicts the broader history through the lens of the community on this one street. With this broader focus, the individual stories sometimes take a back seat, particularly the emotional aspects of the individual stories. Because of the structure of the book around individuals though, the chronology of the broader history is a little muddled. A timeline would be helpful to correlate the broader history and place the stories of this community into context.

The author's perspective on this history is an interesting one because he is, at same time, part of and separate from this community. He calls this street home, but his outlook remains that of a foreigner and a foreign journalist at that. For example, as the book depicts the elderly woman who gets pulled into financial scams, the author witnesses the scam but does not describe any action to stop or prevent it. His viewpoint is an analytical one more so than an emotional attachment. This distance definitely comes through in the writing and creates that detachment for the reader as well. This is a journalist's history, not a personal story of a neighborhood.

The Street of Eternal Happiness is ultimately also a sad book. An elderly couple falls prey repeatedly to financial scams. A mother seeks a better future for her sons, but that future seems always just out of reach. Business ventures fail. Duty and dreams conflict. Government control hinders personal choice. I would like to think that in the midst of sorrow and hardship, some joy exists on this street of eternal happiness. Some ephemeral, if not eternal, joy. That does not seem to find a place in this book. Warranted the history itself is a harsh one, but some beauty or positive forces may hopefully exist and could have found its way into this book.

The author writes, “The longer I lived in China the more I realized that for every dreadful story that dragged my pessimism for the country's future to a new low, there was someone … who could restore my hope.” This books errs on the side of pessimism but is still a unique perspective on life and culture in China. I would definitely recommend the book to those with an interest in Chinese politics and economics.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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