Take a walk down Panyu (Fanyu) Lu from the Film Art Centre and you will soon pass by the SH508 restaurant. It occupies a
slaughtered renovated colonial mansion adorned with a huge neon sign. Unknown to the proprietors, reviewers and most of the customers, this is actually the former family home of British writer J.G. Ballard.
Ballard is famous in the mainstream for two works. Crash laid out a disturbingly explicit ‘psychoscape’ in which the car crash was a sexual symbol of a death worshipping society. More famous was Empire of the Sun, an autobiographical novel detailing his upbringing in colonial Shanghai and his internment during World War Two. Both have been made into films, the latter to great success by Steven Spielberg.
Ballard’s father ran a
sweatshop factory in Shanghai and enjoyed the highlife of villas, health clubs and horse racing. Born in 1930, Jim Ballard was left to the care of indifferent servants. He used his relative freedom to explore the city by bicycle, seeing local Chinese starving to death on the glitzy foreign streets. Once Japan invaded in full, his family was interned at the infamous Longhua Camp, now Shanghai Zhongxue.
Canadian Rick McGrath has the largest collection of Ballard first editions in the world. His brilliant online catalogue – The Terminal Collection – is one of the two best Ballard sites available, the other being Simon Sellars’ Ballardian.com. McGrath heard that the Shanghai house was still standing and obtained a letter from Ballard himself. The letter contained a map which allowed him to confirm the location using Google Earth. A pilgrimage was on the cards.
Shanghaiist met McGrath for a stroll around the lanes of old Amherst Road (Xinhua Lu) and finished with dinner at the house itself. McGrath’s stories are great, including the time he couldn’t pass up on visiting Ballard despite a general request for no visits at the time:
“They call it doorstepping. It’s probably stalking. My bad.”
Despite McGrath’s obvious elation at finally making it to the site, he admitted that the Chinese are under no obligation to preserve sites from bitter days of occupation and that all things pass. Ballard himself wrote in the letter that the places are gone in the old sense and commented of the house “a restaurant? Great, better make it a McDonald’s or a KFC.” He also sabotaged his own knighthood, calling it a ridiculous gesture to a non-existent empire.
Prior to heading back to his hotel, McGrath took a last look down Xinhua Lu and recalled the famous scene from the book: the Japanese tanks rolling past the lane on their way in from the Hongqiao airfield.
J.G. Ballard has since written three books on his Shanghai experience. They are “Empire of the Sun”, “The Kindness of Women” and his recently released memoirs “Miracles of Life”. The latter was accompanied with the sad announcement that Ballard, now 77, is losing a battle with cancer.
Photo shows Rick McGrath in front of the old Ballard house.