With so much of Shanghai’s historical architecture disappearing day by day, you might think that most Shanghailanders, ourselves included, have become desensitized to the frequent reports of demolition and destruction. Looks like that isn’t true, as we are still heartbroken over Malcolm Moore’s recent story on the latest casualty of Shanghai’s relentless urban development, British author J.G. Ballard’s childhood home.
Ballard, who passed away last year, was born in Shanghai in 1930 and is best known for “Empire of the Sun” – a work of autobiographical fiction that draws extensively on his childhood in the city’s colonial era and his experiences during World War II. His old home at 31a Amherst Avenue (now 508 Panyu Lu, now a concrete block) was a mock Tudor mansion built by English architects in 1925, and featured prominently in his memories of Shanghai. It was a “magical” place where his family enjoyed the glamorous life of club receptions and horse-racing before the 1937 Japanese invasion led to their internment at Longhua Camp in the south of the city (now Shanghai Zhongxue).
Ballard’s house has been a sort-of pilgrimage site for historians and fans. In 2008, Shanghaiist accompanied Canadian Rick McGrath on his search for Ballard’s home and other places related to the author’s boyhood experience in the city. This wasn’t some impulsive, hurried trip on McGrath’s part, but an extensively planned journey that involved years of correspondence with other Ballardians, and hard work compiling maps and satellite views of Ballard’s Shanghai. The story of McGrath’s trip, and photos of the house, are meticulously recorded on his website.
James Fallows also took a tour of Ballard’s childhood home, which he recounts here.
The house that McGrath and Fallows both visited was, at that point, an upscale restaurant called SH508. The original structure of the house had been left intact, and the property listed as a heritage building. But when the restaurant’s lease on the property expired by October last year, the house fell into the hands of rabid developers. While the house has not been torn down, it is now unrecognizable – according to Moore, it has been stripped down to its beams and rebuilt in concrete, while plans are afoot to add a fake front and increase floorspace. You can watch a video tour of the current cemented-over monstrosity on The Telegraph.
Photo by Dan Butterfield, November 2009. From www.jgballard.ca
And so the battle between preservation and development continues, the former seeming on the losing side. With every small victory, tens of cemented-over former architectural glories appear.
But what would J.G. Ballard himself have thought of the gutting of his former home? Judging from his letters to Rick McGrath, he might have been a little desensitized himself, and accepted it as the inevitable. While he was excited and immensely curious about his fans’ journeys to his old Shanghai haunts, he wrote that “one would expect any city in the world to have changed virtually out of recognition in 40 years, and know that the emotional pickings from the nostalgia dish to be pretty meager”. In response to McGrath’s news that his home had become a restaurant, his seemingly flippant reply was “if it’s a restaurant, let’s hope it’s a McDonald’s or KFC”. He also revealed that these trips into nostalgia felt a little “intrusive” due to the length of time gone by; “In an odd way it’s quite reassuring that everything has changed so much — the Shanghai I knew, along with 31 Amherst Avenue and Lunghua camp, only survive inside my head.”
Reassuring it may have been to Ballard, but not to us. Perversely, perhaps his home should have been a McDonald’s or KFC – maybe if it had been a hopping commercial fast food establishment, the house would have been spared its fate as a cement block.