Rob Schmitz’s Street of Eternal Happiness takes place on 长乐路, a small street in Shanghai. My Chinese reading is at the level where I’d translate that as Long Happy Road. Completely missing the poetry in the street name is a little frustrating, but I’m trying to remember when I would have read it as squiggle squiggle squiggle. So, there’s that.
Street of Eternal Happiness takes readers into the homes in this Shanghai alley, and tells the stories of the residents. Schmidt finds a cache of old letters between a man being “re-educated” in a distant province, and his family anxiously waiting for his return, and tracks down that family to find out if he was ever released and what happened next. Some of the stories about modest courtyard apartments torn down to make way for expensive, modern highrises, with all the related promises and corruption, felt familiar from Beijing in 2007-2008. The book is non-fiction, but it reads like a narrative, and there’s one passage about the tree-lined streets in Shanghai, and all the social and political changes since those lovely poplars were planted in what was then the foreign concession, that could even be poetry.
This book also has a clear explanation of the hukou registration system and the way state-issued rent-controlled apartments can be held by a family. I’m often confused by the Chinese housing system, not the least because “decorating” a newly purchased apartment seems to involve installing lighting and plumbing, or that certain apartment leases are purchased. Schmitz manages to be clear and to show how some of China’s political upheaval appears in the housing market, without getting bogged down in long exposition.
For me, one of the most interesting parts of the story was the arc about CK’s struggling restaurant, Your Sandwich. I’ve been in so many stylish yet empty cafes in China, with trendy decor and weird mei you when ordering from the random assortment of Western dishes. Even the half-hidden upstairs location reminded me of a UBC Coffee. I’ve had a lot of theories on these ghost cafes, guessing they were either state-run or had tuhao dilettante owners. It was amazing to look behind the scenes of one of these.