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Following in the footsteps of JG Ballard in Shanghai

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Novelist JG Ballard’s childhood experiences in China have inspired a photographic collection documenting the cityscape of modern Shanghai

Photographer James Bollen had read much of Ballard’s fiction before moving to Shanghai five years ago, and says that the stories by the late British author – who was born in Shanghai in 1930 and lived there till he was 15 – still seemed to echo aspects of the city today.

‘Shanghai had a profound effect on Ballard and may well be key to understanding his fiction,’ says Bollen. ‘The most important episode in his childhood was during the Second World War when he and his family were turfed out of their prosperous stockbroker belt style house in the suburbs into an internment camp by the Japanese army. This left him believing that “life is just a stage set: the whole cast and scenery can be cleared away at any moment”.’

Thames Town, a gated community in the western suburbs of Shanghai modeled on SP British architecture. Photo: James Bollen

Thames Town, a gated community in the western suburbs of Shanghai

Ballard’s Booker prize-nominated novel Empire of the Sun draws on his childhood in Shanghai during the war, while many of his works are known for their dystopian nature, influenced by his wartime experiences.

Bollen adds: ‘Another important factor in relation to Shanghai was that when Ballard was living there it was one of the most advanced multicultural media cities in the world. Ballard later said it became the template for other cities – London in the 1960s for instance. This future city of the 1920s and 1930s was an important factor in Ballard’s reputation for prescience.’

The Sincere Company, a department store which features in Empire of the Sun. Photo: James Bollen.

The Sincere Company, a department store which features in Empire of the Sun.

The avant-garde nature of Shanghai at the time was also reflected in the city’s eclectic architecture, an element which in turn found its way into the landscape of Ballard’s fiction.

‘Shanghai’s architecture has a number of structures which are a unique blend of Chinese, European and American features. Certainly a good deal of Ballard’s writing is about architecture and buildings are an important feature of his landscapes. His characters are also architects – for example Maitland, the protagonist of Concrete Island, while his novel High Rise is said to have been inspired by the Barbican.’

Entrance to a building site. Photo: James Bollen

Entrance to a Shanghai building site.

As for the post-apocalyptic novelists of the future, Shanghai’s cityscape still offers much to inspire them.

‘Old Shanghai looms large and it’s difficult to escape its shadow. For the next generation of novelists not to write about it would be a big challenge,’ says Bollen. ‘But buildings such as Adam Smith’s Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Centre completely overshadow the old structures, which look ghostly and incongruous in comparison. It’s likely this is intentional – done to symbolise both the rise of China and Shanghai’s re-emergence.’

‘This is where the next generation of novelists should set their stories, and not in the former French concession,’ adds Bollen. ‘They should – like Shanghai – try to leave the past behind and cross the river over to the 21st century.’

Jim’s Terrible City: J.G. Ballard and Shanghai
James Bollen, April 2014

 

 

 

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