China Correspondent Rob Schmitz continues his year-long report on China’s economic change through the stories of people who make their living on a single street in Shanghai. It’s the Street of Eternal Happiness.
It’s late afternoon on the Street of Eternal Happiness, number 109. A customer at Zhao Silin’s tiny flower shop has come looking for a zhaocai shu.
A money tree.
It’s a miniature chestnut tree that’s supposed to bring good fortune. Mrs. Zhao shakes her head. She’s out of money trees. She says she could certainly use some.
“Three years ago, I would be sitting on $10,000 to $15,000 of profit at the year’s end,” she explains. “But the last two years have been really tough.”
Zhao’s profits have been cut in half thanks to increased competition and the rising price of everything in China. Zhao says she’ll survive. She’s been through worse. Her journey to the Street of Eternal Happiness started in 1992. It was a crucial year for China — and the world.
The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe’s socialist bloc had just collapsed. Capitalism it seemed, was winning the world over. Zhao was a young mother in a poor village in Northern China at the time; her husband, a coal miner. Their life there — much like China’s economy — was stagnant. China was at a crucial crossroads: go further down the socialist path? Or embrace capitalism?
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping announced that China would do both.
That year, Deng took a month-long train ride through Southern China; a trip chronicled in state news reel. The footage shows the short, elderly leader making speech after speech encouraging workers to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make money. He repeats the term “gaige kaifang” — reform China’s economy and open itself up to the outside world. This was called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Deng’s speeches that year moved Mrs. Zhao so much that she decided to leave her family to make money as a worker at an electronics factory hundreds of miles away in Shanghai.
“Before I left town for Shanghai, the women in my village stopped talking to me. They looked at me in a sort of sarcastic way – why on earth would a woman move so far away from home?” Zhao said. “All of them stayed at home, knitting, and most of them were laid off. They thought I was leaving to take part in some immoral business.”
In fact, Zhao was playing a crucial role in China’s economic history, joining hundreds of millions of other workers heeding Deng’s call to change their — and their country’s — destiny.
The movement was considered the largest human migration in history.
At the time, the popular song “Migrants from the Same Hometown” captured the feelings of homesickness and sacrifice of Zhao’s generation. “When migrants from the same hometown meet,” the song goes, “tears fill their eyes.”
When Zhao turned 30, her Shanghai factory laid her off for being “too old.” She then spent her savings to start her flower shop on the Street of Eternal Happiness. That was 12 years ago.
“Since then, I’ve made enough money to build a couple of new homes back in my village,” she said. “Whenever I return home, the same women who criticized me for leaving are now very nice to me.”
Zhao’s two young sons moved to Shanghai to join her. Her oldest son finished junior high with some of the best grades in his class. But because he was a migrant, he wasn’t allowed to attend high school in Shanghai—only legal residents of the city are allowed to do that. It’s like this throughout much of China. By law, migrants are typically treated like illegal immigrants inside their own country. In the cities they move to, many of them aren’t eligible for social benefits like health care and schooling.
“This makes me so angry,” Zhao said. “How can it be that all of us are under the same leadership… We live in the same country… yet we’re not treated the same?”
Zhao was forced to send her son back to her home village. Without his mother’s supervision, his grades slipped, and he started skipping school to stay at home to play video games. Now he lives with her. And he’s still playing video games, when he’s not working a part time job at a golf course. I ask her if either of her sons will take over her business when she retires.
“They make less than me, but they’re happy this way. Just yesterday, they told me that running my business would take them away from their friends and their hobbies,” she explains. “They’re just like all young people today. All of them want a job that gives them free time for leisure, but that pays well and has a happy working environment. They ask for too much. We asked for nothing.”
That touchstone song from Zhao’s generation asks: “How much bitterness have you eaten?” Eating bitter is a popular Chinese expression for working hard. Zhao says her sons haven’t even tasted bitterness. They don’t have to. Here on the Street of Eternal Happiness, she eats it for them every day.