Hidden History

Ballardian Dystopias in Wartime Shanghai7 min read

How JG Ballard’s Shanghai childhood influenced his darkest fiction – Paul French

Ballardian (adj.):“Resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in JG Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments”

2020 has been one hell of a dystopian experience. A global pandemic, fake news run riot, floods, fires, typhoons, a plethora of conspiracy theories, and the looming climate change crisis. So perhaps JG Ballard’s novels and ideas resonate especially this year. But to understand where Ballard is coming from – where his imagery is rooted – we have to go back to late 30s and early 40s Shanghai. The deeper we dig into Shanghai’s history, the more we truly appreciate the adjective “Ballardian”.

JG (James Graham) Ballard died in 2009, but has never ceased being relevant. The urban high-rise nightmare; the encroachment of AI on middle class job security; the growth of McMansions and gated communities; floodplains destroying villages; raging conflagrations devastating California and Australia; vaccines that might save you but screw up your DNA (or so some say). Ballard nailed it all in multiple science fiction novels, such as The Drowned World (1962) and Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

Ballard was born a Shanghailander in 1930, in the now bulldozed Shanghai General Hospital, on the banks of Suzhou Creek. He was a child of ex-patriate English parents, living a lifestyle Ballard described as “American” in a mock-Tudor house, and attended the ultra-British Cathedral School on Kiukiang Road (Jiujiang Lu). Though privileged and protected, according to Ballard’s own autobiography (Miracles of Life) and his hyper-realized memoir (Empire of the Sun, which repeatedly switches from memoir to fiction) he was left largely to his own devices to explore the city. 

Yet being born in Shanghai only partially explains Ballard’s curious upbringing. Shanghai’s lesser known histories reveal his childhood to be even more Ballardian than we might think. He didn’t actually grow up in either the International Settlement or the French Concession, but rather in the semi-legitimate and liminal Western External Roads – the area the Chinese called huxi, that became the “Badlands” of Shanghai in tabloid headlines. The Western Roads initially had been where the wealthy lived, just beyond the borders of the Settlements but with all the amenities and a decent level of security. But by the late 30s all that had changed. The Japanese had invaded the Chinese portions of Shanghai (Baoshan, Zhabei) and the Western Roads – including the Ballard family home on Amherst Avenue (Xinhua Lu) – became a lawless no-man’s land. Gates went up where privileged foreigners once held garden parties, manned by armed guards to protect against the rising anarchy outside. Where once Shangailanders had lounged by the pool of the Columbia Country Club – an easy stroll from Ballard’s home – the place was now empty, the pool drained.

Being born in Shanghai only partially explains Ballard’s curious upbringing”

This is the genesis of those key Ballardian images so oft-repeated in his novels. Ballard’s own home had a pool that his parents never filled. On his cycling trips around war-torn Shanghai he encountered drained pool after drained pool. In Miracles of Life Ballard acknowledges the empty pools of Shanghai that struck him as “strangely significant in a way I have never fully grasped … In the coming years I would see a great many drained and half-drained pools, as British residents left … and they all seemed mysterious.” In Empire of the Sun, young Jim imagines Mr Maxted (the art deco architect who most symbolises carefree pre-war Shanghai to the boy) falling into an empty pool.

These adolescent experiences would all work out later. Consider the pool in High Rise (1975), a story of dystopia and anarchy in one luxury block of suburban London flats: “The water had long since drained away, but the sloping floor was covered with the skulls, bones and dismembered limbs of dozens of corpses. Tangled together where they had been flung, they lay about like the tenants of a crowded beach visited by a sudden holocaust.” Or the post-apocalyptic Hello America (1981): “Each evening they left the road and spent the night in one of the hundreds of empty motels and country clubs along the route, resting around the drained swimming-pools that seemed to cover the entire continent.” It’s the Columbia Country Club and all those Shanghai Western Roads pools over and over again.

And those skulls and bones and dismembered limbs in the pool? Perhaps Ballard is merging two images from his childhood Shanghai: those desolate swimming pools, and what he later saw on the streets and fields nearby. In Empire of the Sun, Ballard remembers his own youth through his alter-ego Jim: how he was “struck by the contrast between the impersonal bodies of the newly dead, whom he saw every day in Shanghai, and these sun-warmed skeletons, every one an individual. The skulls intrigued him, with their squinting eye-sockets and quirky teeth.” Jim has just stepped away from a party in a large house (the swimming pool drained of course) near the disused Hungjao Aerodrome, when he encounters the field of bones. In High Rise Robert Laing – once a contented resident of the all-amenities luxury tower block – similarly finds himself among his fellow tenants amid an orgy of anarchistic bacchanalia and violence, the drained pool filled with skulls.

Walking through chaos and surveying ruins is a Ballardian pastime. Ecological disasters, rampant dehumanizing urbanisation, technology gone wrong – the myriad dystopias of modernity. And all originally stemming from walks and bike rides through Shanghai, Asia’s then most modern city of neon shimmer, jazzy cacophonies, foreign movies, traffic jams, instant celebrity, endless swiftly passing trends and obsessive fads. This is all perhaps best encapsulated in The Drowned World, where the present is the ruined past of the future, with a desolated metropolis and abandoned skyscrapers patrolled by lurking carnivores. Perhaps we can read those carnivores as symbols of marauding Badlands gangsters, or the invading Japanese.

It is this borderline experience of Shanghai’s deracinated edgelands that informed Ballard’s dystopian visions”

Make no mistake: Ballard’s boyhood sanctuary of Amherst Avenue had become dangerous. Just near those Mock-Tudor houses, warring gambling den gangs bombed each other out on the Avenue Haig (Huashan Lu). The nearby Fa Hwa Village became a haven for drug dealers. A Danish neighbour of Ballard’s was shot in gangster shoot-out crossfire on leaving his Amherst Avenue home to go to work at 10am. Sometimes the young JG – still not quite in his teens, setting off on bicycle explorations through a besieged Western Roads district – would stumble across things he only half understood.

Writing my latest book about Shanghai, City of Devils, I researched the once famous Western Roads nightclub, the Del Monte. A regular visitor at the time, veteran Shanhai correspondent Peter Finch, recalled that the Del Monte was out on the western fringes of the city, with its wide lawns, Versailles-inspired statuary and naphtha-lit driveway. That “Versailles-inspired statuary” rang a bell. In Empire of the Sun, the 11-year-old Ballard recalls December 1941, when he ventured out alone from Amherst Avenue, past the desperate beggars and the hastily erected barbed wire barricades, to an abandoned structure. He dared himself to walk through the gutted building and recalled seeing the floor “strewn with busted-up roulette tables and toppled smashed statues that could have come from the gardens of Versailles.” That imagery of the former luxury and indulgence of Shanghai, now abandoned and in ruins, would remain an enduring and repeated image in Ballard’s dystopian fiction. Now we know exactly where he was.

Abandoned buildings, privileged communities barricading themselves, human remains slowly succumbing to nature, those drained and cracked swimming pools. These images from Ballard’s fiction came from his own youth in a war-torn, violence and crime-ridden Shanghai falling into anarchy. Ballard’s Shanghai was not the usual Shanghailander experience of the relative safety and security of the International Settlement or Frenchtown. Rather it was the far less stable and more dangerous outer district of the Western Roads. Not wholly colonial Shanghai, nor fully part of Nationalist China. Largely unpoliced, descending into the chaos and debauchery of the Badlands as the territory’s legal vacuum filled with vice and murder. It is surely this borderline experience of Shanghai’s deracinated edgelands that truly informed Ballard’s later dystopian visions. ∎

Header: JG Ballard (sid/Flickr)