ROB SCHMITZ (China 1996-98) first arrived in China in 1996 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Sichuan province. He is now the China correspondent for American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” the largest business news program in the U.S. In 2012, he exposed fabrications in Mike Daisey’s account of Apple’s Chinese supply chain on “This American Life.” The work was a finalist for the 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award. He has won two national Edward R. Murrow Awards and an award from the Education Writers Association for his reporting on China.
Schmitz maintains a blog — Chinopoly— and in May, his first book, Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road, will be published.
In an interview with Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet, on his blog Shanghai Scrap, Rob talks about how the Peace Corps lead him into journalism.
Scrap: How does one go from Peace Corps volunteer to China Bureau Chief for Marketplace?
Schmitz: I’ve met journalists who always knew that this is what they wanted to do with their lives. They wrote for their college paper, they worked the police beat at a tiny newspaper and worked their way up to foreign correspondent. I lacked that sense of direction. I took a long, circuitous route to the profession, and the Peace Corps was a big part of that journey. I’ve always had a single-minded determination to see the world, learn languages, and learn about other cultures.
Scrap: You are one of three foreign correspondents for major news organizations to come out of your Peace Corps cohort. What’s up with that?
Schmitz: There were three of us from that group who became journalists: Pete Hessler, Craig Simons, and me. I think it was a combination of being part of a small, tight-knit group — there are only 13 of us, and we’re still good friends — and having an opportunity to live in rural Chinese cities that had seen few foreigners during a time when these places were finally opening up to the rest of the world. In many ways, each of us played a role in that “opening up” process, and I think that’s why the experience had such a profound impact on us. Those two years inspired me to start writing. And journalism was a natural culmination of that passion.
In writing Street of Eternal Happiness Rob engrossed himself in Shanghai that was in the midst of a renaissance. He immerses himself in his neighborhood, forges relationships with ordinary people who see in the city’s sleek skyline a brighter future. There is Zhao, whose path from factory floor to shopkeeper is sidetracked by her desperate measures to ensure a better future for her sons. Down the street lives Auntie Fu, a fervent capitalist forever trying to improve herself with religion and get-rich-quick schemes. Up a flight of stairs, musician and café owner CK sets up shop to attract young dreamers like himself. As Schmitz becomes more involved in their lives, “he makes surprising discoveries which untangle the complexities of modern China: A mysterious box of letters that serve as a portal to a family’s — and country’s — dark past, and an abandoned neighborhood where fates have been violently altered by unchecked power and greed.”
Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road
by Rob Schmitz (China 1996-98)
$22.96 (hardback), $13.99 (Kindle)