The individuals who live and work along Shanghai's Changle Road are the focus of a new book about modern China by Marketplace's Rob Schmitz.
The individuals who live and work along Shanghai's Changle Road are the focus of a new book about modern China by Marketplace's Rob Schmitz. - 
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In "Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road," Marketplace's Rob Schmitz follows the lives of people who dream, struggle and grow along a single street in China's largest city. The book's narrative focuses on a handful of characters from different generations and backgrounds to give a sense of the diverse array of people who make up 21st century China.

"We in the media tend to focus our China coverage on the country’s communist government or on its massive, dynamic economy," Schmitz told Marketplace host David Brancaccio, "but what’s often missing from those narratives are real Chinese people. I wanted to understand their motivations and their dreams for the future. Because if you can appreciate the people of China as individuals, you can have a better understanding of what is now the second-largest economy in the world, and arguably the most important country for Americans to understand in this day and age."

The youngest character in the book is a young man in his early 30s named CK.

"He grew up as a pretty miserable boy in an industrial part of China, an only child with an abusive father," Schmitz said. " After his parents divorced when he was 11, he slit his wrists. Later, he studied hard, got into a good school and got a good job as a manger of a state-owned enterprise that built accordions, an instrument he plays very well. But then after a few years, he just quit."

First and foremost, said Schmitz, CK wanted to live life on his own terms. CK moved to Shanghai for a job with an Italian accordion maker and learned how to build an accordion from scratch, making a good salary and saving enough to run his own café along Schmitz's street.

"Over the course of the book, he becomes restless and that leads him onto a spiritual path," Schmitz said. "I found his journey and how he traveled it to be fascinating, and I think hundreds of millions of young Chinese like him now have similar paths."

One of the oldest characters in Schmitz's book is nearly 60, a man Schmitz tracked down after reading his parents' letters from the 1950s and 60s.

"Friends of mine heard my radio series centered on the 'Street of Eternal Happiness,' and they’d come across a shoe box of old letters at an antique shop," Schmitz said. "They were written between a man thrown into a labor camp for being a capitalist, and his wife, who took care of their seven children in a house on my street."

After poring through more than a hundred letters, Schmitz found the couple's only son. The man now lives in Queens, New York, and he's studying for his high school diploma at the age of 58.

"He never got to know his father — his dad spent most of his life in prison — and when I asked the son if he blamed China’s government for what happened, he told me he was angry with his father for not understanding the rules of the day," said Schmitz, "and that surprised me a little. The revolutionary campaigns of the Mao years were absolute madness that put millions of innocent people into prison. But what I learned, and what his son already knew, is that China is a land of constant change, and the people who succeed are the ones who pay very close attention to those changes."

"Street of Eternal Happiness" is out Tuesday, and is published by Crown, a division of Random House.

Follow David Brancaccio at @DavidBrancaccio