JG Ballard in Shanghai

Time Out explores the author's old family home on Panyu Lu

This month marks the fourth anniversary of JG Ballard’s death. Time Out holds a walking tour of the author’s former home on Panyu Lu, and explores his relationship with the city

When James Graham Ballard died in 2009, there was barely a rumble of it in the Shanghai media. His former home, now a members’ club-cum-restaurant on Panyu Lu, bears no plaque acknowledging his memory, nor do the current proprietors take kindly to inquisitive historians stopping by. In a city that owes so much of its standing in the Western world’s imagination to Ballard, one of the 20th century’s greatest English-language novelists, his absence feels like a surreal error.

And yet, it’s probably just as Ballard would have wanted it. A man who once described nostalgia as ‘that most detestable of all emotions’, Ballard responded to the news of the changes at his childhood home by saying to aficionado Rick McGrath, who maintains the website www.jgballard.ca: ‘If it is a restaurant, let’s hope it’s a McDonald’s or a KFC.’ And, he added, ‘In an odd way it’s quite reassuring that everything has changed so much. The Shanghai I knew, along with 31 Amherst Avenue and Longhua Camp, only survive inside my head.’

But it also survived in the heads of his fans, immortalised by the 1984 novel, and then the Hollywood adaptation of the same name, Empire of the Sun. Perhaps Ballard’s most famous work – thanks to Steven Spielberg – the story was inspired by the sci-fi writer’s upbringing in 1930s Shanghai.

Jim’s father, a Manchester-based textile firm manager, moved to Shanghai with his wife Edna following his promotion to head of the new China Printing and Finishing Company. Born in 1930 at the General Hospital of the International Settlement (now demolished), young Jim attended Shanghai Cathedral School on Jiujiang Lu – still standing today as a Protestant church.

His seemingly typical expat childhood was interrupted when Japan invaded Shanghai during World World II. After the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the Japanese forces began interning Allied citizens and the Ballard family was sent to Longhua internment camp, in southern Xuhui district, where they spent more than two years.

Author Duncan Hewitt, Newsweek journalist and former BBC correspondent for China, knows more about Ballard’s relationship with the city than most. After becoming interested in Ballard 25 years ago following a chance stint as an extra on the set of Empire as a student here in 1986, he has recently researched and written about how Shanghai influenced the author’s work.

While most people remember Ballard for his dystopian novels about contemporary Western urbanism and futuristic landscapes, with a couple of semi-autobiographical tangents thrown in, Hewitt argues that the significance of Ballard’s Shanghai childhood actually permeates the oeuvre as a whole.

‘Superficially, much of his childhood might seem a long way away from the rather twisted dreamscapes of his fiction. He undoubtedly had a very privileged life in the city, as the son of an expatriate English family living a life of some luxury,’ he says.

‘But the young Ballard could not avoid the heightened level of violence which followed the Japanese takeover; not only did he see people who had been bayoneted in the street, but at weekends, his parents and their friends would take him with them when they drove out to inspect recently abandoned battlefields in the suburbs, where they saw blown up horses by the roadsides, and dead soldiers in the creeks.’

It was at this time that Ballard seems to have encountered much of the imagery which was to appear in his fiction throughout his literary career. Indeed, evocations of man’s brutality struggling at the surface pervade Ballard’s half-a-century of work, particularly in the later novels such as Super Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come.

Although the author tried to resist the notion that Shanghai had such a significant bearing on his writing, ‘eventually he had to accept it,’ says Hewitt. ‘As he put it in [his 2008 autobiography] Miracles of Life, “The memories of Shanghai that I had tried to repress had been knocking at the floorboards under my feet, and had slipped quietly into my fiction.”’

In late 2010, Hewitt was asked to show Ballard’s niece, Vicky Richardson, the house where her mother and uncle had grown up. ‘The restaurant would only let us up on the pretext that we wanted to book a room for dinner,’ he says. When Hewitt and Richardson asked if they could take a photo, the waitress flatly refused. ‘After I explained that Vicky’s mother had lived in the house, she simply replied, “Yes, a lot of people say things like that”. Shanghai has this great storied history but the authorities often don’t want to get too much into the actual stories.

‘Ballard’s relationship with Shanghai is an example of the city’s difficulty in relating to the period of partial foreign control which is still quite awkward,’ says Hewitt. ‘To me, they’re missing a trick in terms of promoting the city’s literary heritage.’

Duncan Hewitt will lead the Ballard Book Walk on Saturday 20 for Time Out readers. Places are limited. To sign up and for more information, please visit www.timeoutshanghai.com/bookwalk.