JG Ballard’s experience of living in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in WW2 is well known to many through the Steven Spielberg film ‘Empire of the Sun’. But to work out the true events of his childhood in Shanghai, and to separate the facts from the fiction is not easy because of the different versions—some of which overlap events with different narratives and some which tell different branches and ‘versions’ of the story.
It is not hard to get confused and even mythologise his Shanghai story because of the many versions:
‘Empire of the Sun’, the novel
‘Empire of the Sun’, the film
‘The Kindness of Women’, Ballard’s sequel to ‘Empire of the Sun’ whose first chapter is set in Shanghai at the end of the war.
‘Miracles of Life’, Balllard’s autobiography.
Various interviews with Ballard – particularly a BBC documentary following him returning to Shanghai for the first time since the war in the early nineteen-nineties.
My specific interest in retracing the young Ballard’s steps started several years ago when I found by chance that an old house I had walked by hundreds of times had been the Ballard family home.
It was just starting to be renovated and turned into a restaurant. Located on Panyu Rd near Xinhua Rd it is a typically out of place but perfectly fitting architecture for that part of Shanghai—a European-style house with its triangular awnings and faux-Tudor facade that was built in the former International Settlement in Shanghai’s then far-western city limit.
When looking at a pre-1949 map of Shanghai, it’s quite easy to see familiar layouts of roads that exist today. But one glaring difference soon becomes obvious—the names of the roads. After the Communists won the civil war and the country isolated itself, all the original, colonial names of Shanghai’s roads and avenues were replaced—either with the names of Chinese cities, provinces, mountains and ‘revolutionary’ names or, in the case of a small few, transliterated into Chinese characters. So the first thing you need to track down Ballard’s childhood home at 31A Amherst Avenue near Columbia Road is a pre-PRC map.
I remembered Ballard writing about the view from his bedroom window beyond the edge of the city where he could see burial mounds; today, this part of the city is considered central and is completely built up—the burial mounds long levelled and likely churned up for the foundations of tower blocks.
About 5 years ago the Ballard house was renovated again—this time completely tearing out the original fittings, window frames and even walls. Its grand garden where Ballard would have played has been cut in half with a large greenhouse-like structure which is used for weddings and other large parties.
The front of the building seems like it has always been the front, with its facade and driveway facing the modern Panyu Rd. But actually, for Ballard, the front door was on the the other side of the building—today accessible by a narrow tree-lined alley off Xinhua Rd; the original doorway is still there but completely filled in and with a wall built in front of it—it feels like a metaphor for the old Shanghai which is subtly preserved but not lived; neither destroyed but equally, not acknowledged. Incidentally, Xinhua Rd is the modern name for Amherst Avenue and means ‘New China Road’—a common road name and phrase used across the country post-1949. If you wander west along Xinhua Rd you’ll see, like in other parts of the old International Settlement and former French Concession, plaques stuck to the stuccoed walls of remaining old villas explaining the architectural styles and construction dates and occasional famous former residents of the buildings. Immediately it strikes the Ballardian that there is no such plaque outside his house, even today after it being well-known by fans that one of the 20th century’s greatest English writers had lived there as a child.
If there was no collective memory of Ballard living there then, I wondered, what about all the other places he described? Did those places remember JG Ballard?
In the next two parts I will be writing about the treasure hunt I embarked on to find the places of Ballard’s youth for myself—rom his home on Amherst Avenue to the prisoner of war camp and airport that fill most of the scenes of ‘Empire of The Sun’.
(This post was originally published in The Stele)