China’s economy continues to grow and change. That can be seen in Shanghai, the country’s financial hub. Rob Schmitz, Marketplace’s China correspondent and a former KPCC reporter, collected stories of individuals directly impacted by China’s economy in his new book, “Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road.” He shared some of those stories in a conversation with his former editor Nick Roman at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum.
Schmitz said his most reliable icebreaker in Shanghai is asking, “How much do you make?” It’s a question he often heard when he first moved there, and he has grown to adopt the expression. Schmitz explained, “At the time I was approaching them to talk about the economy and their role in the economy. If there’s one thing that most Chinese don’t mind talking about, it’s money.”
Pyramid Schemes and Broken Dreams
While Schmitz has met many people on their way to becoming financially successful, not everyone he has encountered was so fortunate. At the event, he spoke of meeting a couple living pension to pension, referring to them as Uncle Feng and Auntie Fu. Schmitz explained they were part of China’s “Lost Generation,” a group of people who were born at the beginning of Communist China and grew up during the time of the Cultural Revolution. He continued, “They were robbed of education, robbed of any sort of opportunities they might have had in a normal system. By the time capitalism started to seep into the economic fabric of China, a lot of them were in their middle age. They didn’t know how to handle the economic opportunities that were suddenly in front of them.”
As such, Schmitz found himself accompanying Auntie Fu to many pyramid scheme meetings that appeared to offer opportunities for quick wealth and promises of being listed on the NASDAQ or other foreign exchanges. When questioning the model of these opportunities at one such meeting, Schmitz recalled the presenter drawing out a diagram on the dry-erase board and matter-of-factly stating, “This is a pyramid.”
The Box of Letters
One of Schmitz’s reports for Marketplace was about a box of found letters he received. The correspondence—some spanning 50 years—included letters written by a man imprisoned for charges of capitalism at a time that contrasted modern China’s embrace of the economic system. Schmitz tracked down the original address for the letters to the street where he lived, only to find the man’s wife and son had long moved to Flushing, Queens, New York. Schmitz followed them to New York and met with the son, who spent his time taking care of his mother and studying to finally finish high school at the age of 58.
For more information about Rob Schmitz’s book:
For more of the stories about Chang Le street in Shanghai and Schmitz’s coverage:
Photo credit: Quincy Surasmith/SCPR