In front of The Ballard Home in 2007. Pix by Andy Best
Empire Of The Son:
Exploring JG Ballard's Shanghai Home & Haunts
It all started in January, 2006. That was when I met Canadian Englit Professor Peter Brigg. We hit it off -- one Ballardian to another -- and at that first meeting he kindly gave me five pictures he had taken of the Shanghai Ballard home, and photocopies of three letters from JGB about his Shanghai roots.
Intrigued, I asked Peter how he came to have taken these photos. His explanation set me off on a new area of JGB research which culminated in my visiting his childhood home and other Ballardian areas of Shanghai on September 18, 2007.
What follows is the history of all the zany steps that journey took, complete with photos, graphics, a short video and a number of maps. As well as a number of letters Ballard wrote about his home.
I've divided the story into four parts. You can read it in order, or jump around.
Part One: The JGB Letters To Peter Brigg
Part Two: JG's Shanghai Home is Visible From Space
Part Three: Contacting Andy Best in Shanghai
Part Four: I Visit the Ballard Home and JG's Childhood Haunts
JANUARY, 2006: THE JGB LETTERS TO PETER BRIGG
Here's how Peter Brigg came to take the pictures: in the early 1980s he had decided to write a critical analysis of JGB's work for use in American university courses. By 1984 Peter had the book nearly finished, and he was living in Shanghai, teaching at the Shanghai Institute of International Economic Management. In 1984 Empire Of The Sun was published, and Peter sent JGB a congratulatory postcard, as well as adding a brief note on the novel as the last chapter of his book.
On December 29, 1984, JGB replied:
Many thanks for your postcard and the kind comments on Empire Of The Sun -- it's an odd coincidence that you should be reading it in Shanghai. I've been interested to see your letters in David Pringle's JGB News, and it occurred to me that I ought to write to you while you were still in Shanghai to get some kind of first-hand information about how easy or difficult it might be for me to visit the sites of the novel, and my own childhood, if I ever travelled to China -- or whether, in fact, these sites still exist at all.
The only map I have of present-day Shanghai is that in the Encyclopedia Brittanica where the street and place names are in Chinese. The road scheme doesn't altogether follow that of the 1940s layout -- Keswick Road, which then marked the western perimeter of Shanghai, ran a few yards from the Shanghai Hangchow railway line, but on the eastern side of the line, whereas in the Britannica what seems to be a huge ring road, Chung Shan Pei Street, lies on the western side of the track. Amherst Avenue ran into Keswick Road, and was roughly half a mile or so to the north of Siccawei Cathedral. If one set off east alomg Amherst Avenue one eventually joined the Avenue Joffre, which now seems to be called Huai Hai Chung Street.
I don't know if you ever visit the the former western suburbs of Shanghai. Keswick Road and Siccawei marked the urban limits of Shanghai to the west and south-west, but presumably the open fields and long since been covered by the sprawl of of Metropolitan Shanghai. Does Lunghua Airfield still exist? The camp lay a mile or so to the south of the airfield, and was a former teacher training college. Many of the buildings were substantial cement structures and may still be standing. I think Hungjao aerodrome is now the site of Shanghai International Airport.
What are the chances of a private visitor, without any kind of official assistance, actually being able to travel to these sites? Presumably most western visitors get little further than Nanking Road, the People's Park (ex-Shanghai Race-course), and the Old City, plus an assortment of approved tourist locations. Would I be able to travel more freely? I speak no Chinese, and it would be almost impossible to explain to a taxi-driver where I wanted to go. What are the chances of entering the former Country Club (in the Bubbling Well Road) or the French Club? And what about Pootung and Hongkew?
I'd be extremely interested to hear your views on all this. People have told me that the Shanghai of the 1940s has enormously expanded, but the central core may well be intact -- the Bund, judging by newsreels, seems hardly to have changed at all.
Lunghua Pagoda is well worth a visit, if it still stands, as I imagine it does. As I describe it in the book, it was a flak tower during the war. A picnic there would be rather fun...
Peter wrote back that he would indeed venture out, and on February 3rd, 1985, JGB wrote back to Peter:
Very many thanks for your letter and all the fascinating information, and for the map -- it was kind of you to go to the trouble of marking it up. The last thing I want to do is put you to any trouble, by the way -- the notion of going back to Shanghai is a bit of a pipe-dream, an ambition for the long term which I mean to fulfill one day, but not yet. A certain amount of mental preparation is needed -- for some reason the whole thing is a bit of a daunting prospect. But I'm grateful to you for any scraps of information.
You're right about the siting of Siccawei and Keswick Road. Amherst Avenue is in fact just to the north of Huai Hai Street. It is about two inches to the north-west of Siccawei oval, and is number 48 on the bus map. The house I lived in (then 31A Amherst Avenue) stood very close to the junction of roads 48 and 76 (the former Columbia Road).
Lunghhua Airfield must be four or five miles south of the Pagoda, and I imagine is the green area enclosing the red numeral 6 at the bottom of the map. The camp was due south of the airfield -- both a a vast distance from where you are. Your institute seems to be on the site, or very close to, the former Hongkew Park. I would guess that where you live was not an urban area in the 1940s. It's interesting that the built-up areas around Shanghai don't seem to extend all that far beyond the 1945 perimeter, which means that the city is still a manageable proposition to a tourist, as is Paris but not London. If I'm absolutely truthful the three places I most want to visit are Amherst Avenue, the airfield and the camp.
Though I'm curious about many other places -- it's fascinating to hear about the French Club and the Country Club, where I suppose I spent the happiest days of my childhood, and to know that I could actually swim in the same pool. But what about Shanghai Cathedral, which I vaguely remember as a red-stone or red-brick edifice somewhere behind the Bund. I think it stood in the former Szechwan Road (the Wall Street of Shanghai), where the main commercial buildings were, and which the Encyclo. Brit. calls Szu Chuan Pei Street. It crosses the Soochow Creek and runs due north to the Hongkew Park area. The architect of the Cathedral was someone eminent like Gilbert Scott.
I imagine the big cinemas are still standing, and in fact in a recent TV programme about the Chinese cinema I saw the interior of the former Grand Theatre facing the racecourse on the north side of Nanking Road, almost next door to the Chicago style skyscraper hotel, in the 1940s called the Park Hotel. It was curious to see Chinese sitting in the front row of the immense circle in the seats where I sat.
Actually, all this sounds like an exercise in that most detestable of all emotions, nostalgia, which it is not. Usually 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 meagre. What is so interesting about Shanghai, and probably makes it unique among the great cities of the world, is that it may have changed hardly at all, so that people like myself who were born and brought up there can actually step into the time machine. It's that chance of being 11 years old again that's so unnerving...
The letter included this map:
Peter used the map to find the house, took pictures and, upon returning to the University of Guelph in Ontario, had prints made which he mailed off to JGB.
Here's Peter's story of how he found the Ballard House:
We had taken the bus out -- around four or five miles from The Bund -- and happily found Amherst Avenue right away after taking a fork from the main road (I believe it was Bubbling Well Road) and going two short blocks to Amherst. Amherst itself was more like a paved path wide enough for an automobile and heavily tree-lined. We walked down to the end to 31A and we could see a big house behind a high wall, but the door in the wall was locked and we couldn't get onto the property.
What to do? Was there a back door? We went back to the main road, turned right, and then found a parallel street, and this took us to the side of the house, where there was a door and reception office. We were met by several Chinese, none of whom spoke any English, but my partner Susan spoke some Chinese, and she was able to explain why we were there. They let us go around the outside of the house and I took pictures of the house from the back garden, but our glances inside revealled the ground floor was in use as offices and storage for boxes. The house was being used as a warehouse... a book depository. And the kinds of books? Technical manuals for industrial machinery! They showed us one but it was all Chinese to me. I thought that was an appropriate legacy for JGB.
The Briggs Pix: Click for a larger version.
The laneway to JG's house in 1985. Compare this to 2007 Shanghai below. JGB: That is the lane in from Amherst Avenue; there were no trees in 1945.
The main entrance. JGB: I remember the front door vividly. In 2007 it was filled in.
House from the rear garden. This pix was not in good shape, and I found more detail emerged by converting it to black and white. JGB: The upstairs awnings look as if they might be the 1930s originals, and presumably the bamboo structure replaces the perished awnings below.
House from the west.
House from the southwest corner of the rear garden. Peter's wife can just be seen in the lower right corner, standing at the west end of the covered verandah. JGB: there were no trees that close to the house [in 1945].
On October 14, 1985, JG replied to Peter's package pf photos:
Very many thanks for the remarkable photographs, which I've been gazing at with all sorts of strange feelings, as you can imagine -- it's generous of you to have the prints made and, of course, to have set off on the original expedition in the first place, or expeditions plural -- the last thing I wanted was to burden you and your wife with the task of trundling miles across the city, whether to Lunghua or Amherst Avenue.
However, I'm glad you did -- that is certainly the house, though it looks almost ramshackle (the Chinese, as I remember, were never very good at property maintenance, a trait I must have picked up from them). That is the lane in from Amherst Avenue, though as you surmise there were no trees in 1945, and I remember the front door vividly -- as I do the house from the garden, though again there were no trees that close to the house. The upstairs awnings look as if they might be the 1930s originals, and presumably the bamboo structure replaces the perished awnings below. I'm not sure where the new entrance to the house can be -- in 1945, as one stood facing the front door, there was a brick 2-car garage attached to the house on the left, with the tradesman's doorway to the left of that. The latter led to the servant's quarters and the kitchen. Perhaps the garages have been removed and there is an entrance into the side wall of the house.
Still, this is of little interest to anyone but myself, and I'm grateful to you for the fascinating details about the present occupants. I will keep your letter carefully, and take it around with me if and when I visit Shanghai. Complex emotions surge around, the while thing could be a complete let-down, leaving me with an unfillable void in place of my present nostalgia...
Fascinating, too, to see Lunghua pagoda. This I walked to from the camp in August, 1945, and I remember it as a large and massive stone structure -- the Japanese mounted anti-aircraft guns on its decks and it was virtually a flak tower covering the airfield two miles to the south. Apart from a very small village at its foot of shabby earth hovels, the pagoda was surrounded on all rides by open country. Lunghua airfield had no fixed perimeter -- we stepped through the wire of the camp and walked through long grass until we reached the runways. Sadly, neither of the Lunghua photos is of the former camp buildings but they weren't too dissimilar.
Curiously, I had a phone call a couple of afternoons ago directly from Shanghai, from the American producer at Warner Bros who hopes to film Empire Of The Sun, and was there for a week with the director, Harold Becker, and the British playwright Tom Stoppard, who is writing the script. They werre very excited by it all, and said that it was like travelling 50 years back in time, this 30s city more or less perfectly preserved. They had identified most of the down-town locations -- the Bund, Nanking road etc -- and had been to Lunghua pagoda, but said they had been refused permission to enter the airfield or the remains of the camp -- I asume the concrete buildings are still standing and are now part of some military installation. A pity. They had not yet tracked down the Amherst Avenue house, though I may have misled them by saying 31A was the second house on the left down the lane -- as it was in 1945; there was then a plot of about one-half acre between the first house, on the corner of Amherst and Columbia, and 31A, and presumably this has now been built on. (An ironic touch: I asked Shapiro, the producer, if they were planning to film there, and he said, "Oh no -- the camp scenes we will film in England." I thought, oh my God, Shepperton studios, my neighbours will be recruited to play the internees, the wheel will have come full circle....)
FEBRUARY, 2007: JGB'S HOUSE IS VISIBLE FROM SPACE
A year has gone by and really nothing new has happened. My wife wants to take a trip in the Fall, and suggests China. Hey, Shanghai is in China. Why not? She calls China Travel. It's on. In anticipation of the trip, now scheduled for September of 2007, I tried to find the JGB home using Google Earth. After zeroing in on the city, I found the area JGB indicates on his map from 1985:
I printed the google map page and sent it to JGB, requesting his opinion on my geographic skills. He wrote back:
Yes, I think you've found it -- it's absolutely amazing what computers /satellites can do. Next time, feed in Atlantis, El Dorado and the Promised Land and see what Google comes up with.
When I was last in Shanghai in 1991 the building boom had just begun, but already I feared that my oId family home would soon be replaced by a high-rise block of flats. It's good to see that it's still there. I've marked Amherst Avenue and Columbia Road, and the narrow lane that ran from Amherst Avenue to our house, 31A Amherst Avenue. The original front door opened onto the lane, but in 1991 was disused. A new entrance to the property had been constructed off the former Columbia Road, at what is now 508 Pan Yu Road. Assuming you take a taxi, that is the address you should give the driver. A recent visitor to the house tells me that the entire property has been refurbished. In 1991 it was in a very shabby state.
Since my own visit in 1991 the chemical factory in the triangle of roads to the right has been demolished and replaced by a park. One thing you will notice is the huge number of trees, planted as a conservation measure during the 1970s, I believe. Lunghua Camp, as it were, is filled with them, though there can't have been more than half a dozen in all during the war.
JG drew the new info over my map and sent it back. Click on the map for a large version:
Here's a close-up of where he says the house is:
MAY, 2007: AIN'T THE WEB WONDERFUL?
And then... like a laser shot from a spy sattelite, an email arrives from Simon Sellars at Ballardian. The text reads:
Rick, this was sent to ballardian.com...
I have been living in Shanghai for 6 years now. I saw an old blog showing maps and a satellite image of Ballard's house in Shanghai and got a shock. It's round the corner from my house here and I have passed it every day for three years without knowing. It has been turned into a restaurant called SH508. Probably you're aware of all of this? If not, would you like me to send photos or something?
Hot Damn. A willing local intimately familiar with the area. I email him directly, point him to this page, and after the usual intro banter he agrees to take some pix. These were the first he sent:
View from Pan Yu Road showing part of the restaurant and the garden
The old front of the house -- now the back. The original door would have been where the dark grey plaster is, above left.
The change from Peter Brigg's pictures is unbelievable... then Andy remembered he had a friend who lived in the highrise beside the property (see yellow hi-rise building in the second photo up), so he went there and got this amazing shot:
In this photo the old front door is on the left side of the house. Pan Yu Road is on the right, where the driveway exits, and the shot is basically looking north.
By this time I had finalized the trip's dates and places, and Andy had agreed to spend a day with me, having lunch at the restaurant and then checking out the neighbourhood. I wondered: which one of us was on deep assignment?
I was curious as to the layout of the house -- how much had they changed it? -- so I wrote to JG, informing him of my impending trip to Shanghai, and that his house was now a restaurant. I also asked him if he could draw me a floorplan map to compare with the house when I visited it.
JG replied on June 6, 2007:
What next? I wonder if your Shanghai contact has the right house -- when I was there in 1991 the house was in a state of some dilapidation, but I suppose someone may have felt it was worth restoring. If it is a restaurant, let's hope it's a McDonalds or KFC.
At the same time I can't help feeling that there's something a little intrusive about all this -- an immense amount of time has gone by, and the Lunghua you visit will not be Lunghua camp. A fair number of new buildings had gone up by 1991, and all the ruins and wooden huts had beemn cleared away -- I'm not sure it matters any more --
But I wish you all the best for your trip -- visit the Cathay/Peace Hotel on the Bund -- a crumbling art deco palace.
And he did draw me a fantastic map of the main floor. To help with your navigation, here's Andy's pix again.
Next stop, Shanghai itself. It was time to see the landscape in person, up close. I arrived in the city and met with Andy on September 18, 2007.
SEPTEMBER, 2007: I VISIT THE BALLARD HOME IN PERSON
It was 9:30 in the morning when I stepped out of the cool confines of the Portman hotel lobby and onto the streets of sultry Shanghai. The sudden humidity was a hot kiss of wet tropical love, but I quickly cocooned into a cool cab and smoothly called out my destination to the driver. Sure, I did. In actuality, I handed over my written destination to the driver: 508 Pan Yu Road, SH508 Restaurant. (above)
Off we sped, swerving through the chaotic traffic as I relaxed and tried to imagine this “terrible city” without all the skyscrapers, cars and freeways flashing by. I was told a new high-rise is completed every day in Shanghai. That explained the lack of dogs.
We were heading north and east to what used to be the rural International Settlement, but I wanted to travel back in time as well, back to the 1930s when Pan Yu Road was called Columbia Road, and it was just another cross street on Amherst Avenue, the then-main drag for an enclave of rich Europeans who lived the cozy crazy expatriate life on the outskirts of a death-filled, dangerous city once crammed with capitalists, crooks, and hot & cold running coolies.
Amherst Avenue is now called Xin Hua Road, and the cabbie made a vicious turn off it onto Pan Yu Road and came to a screeching halt in front of an impressive iron gate, just opening for the day’s trade in front of a huge, rambling building garishly adorned with an italic neon sign that read SH508.
This was it. The house at 31A Amherst Avenue. J.G. Ballard’s childhood home. Now, a fancy upscale Shanghai restaurant, with its own parking lot and expensive garden view. It certainly was not, as JG had perversely hoped for, “a McDonalds or KFC.”
My host for the day, Andy Best, was already there. I paid the fare and tumbled back into the heat. I introduced myself, gratefully shook his hand, and gazed at the sight before me. Sure, I had seen many pictures of the place. From Peter Brigg’s 1985 shots to Andy’s more recent pictures, but it was still an amazing feeling to be standing so close to such an evocative area.
I was itching to enter, but Andy suggested we take in the surrounding neighbourhood before going in for lunch. OK, I agreed, and we set out north to Amherst, turned east, walked for a minute and then came across the long, narrow alleyway that once led to the Ballard house front door.
Barren in the 1930s, pleasantly lined with tall trees in the 1980s, the alley had changed again with the infill of progress: large, branchy trees, long sheds covering lineups of Shanghai’s ubiquitous motorbikes, new power-driven iron gates, barbed wire atop high brick walls, and an army of white-faced air conditioners, hanging on walls and trailing power cords like some heat-seeking jellyfish lost on a reef of some new electric sea.
The Ballard house is at the very end of the lane, and as we approached the terminus the city’s air raid sirens suddenly began to sound. The humidity shook with a series of long, anxious blasts. I searched the skies, unsure whether to look for Japanese or American bombers.
“Do you believe in synchronicity?” Andy asked. “That’s the 10 o’clock signal for today’s national anniversary. Sirens are blowing all over the country right now.” He leaned in, conspiratorially. “It was precisely 70 years ago today the Japanese attacked China and bombed the crap outta Shanghia. Tuesday, September 18, 1937. The beginning of the end for everyone living around here. And Jim’s childhood.”
I was dumbfounded. No, gobsmacked. What were the odds of this happening on the one day I was here? It was like some temporal shift was taking place, and I was being swept along in a sort of dual timeline. The walls were coming together to form an angle.
Aircraft had always interested Jim, and especially the Japanese bombers that had devastated the Nantao and Hongkew districts of Shanghai in 1937. Street after street of Chinese tenements had been leveled to the dust, and in the Avenue Edward VII a single bomb had killed a thousand people, more than any other bomb in the history of warfare.
Clockwise from top: the original front of the house; the filled-in remains of the original front door; west end of the house over the brick wall. The old servant's quarters were in the building to the left
The three-storey original façade of the Ballard manse towered above me. The bricked- and mortared-over front door I had seen in pictures, but I was surprised to note the brick wall was also mortared over in an uneven gray, and the new undoor was capped by a tile and wood peaked roof. Oddly, the house seemed a lot closer to the wall and door than I had imagined perhaps a twist of visual perception and for the first time I noticed just how nondescript this side of the building was, given its prior role as the front of the house. Looking out were just three windows one on the third floor and two on the second and I couldn’t help but flash on how this secretive face has the same introspective look as its once-youthful occupant. On the other hand, fewer streetside windows are a good defense against midnight ramblers.
With the ebbing echo of the nostalgic sirens fading into the past, Andy and I retraced our steps and began exploring the alleys up and down Amherst. Noting that most of the grand old houses had long since been converted into an anthill of small flats, I realized that by renovating the Ballard house into a restaurant, it had avoided the fate of these other mansions, and had retained its rooms and garden as a complete whole.
And the insight occurred it was now most fitting that 31A was dispensing food. For food was the most precious substance (save the imagination) in the obsessive hunger of Empire Of The Sun surely a novel dictated from a starving stomach and an imagination of death.
At the same time, Jim would have liked to eat the ship. He imagined himself nibbling the masts, sinking his teeth into the marzipan bows and devouring the entire forward section of the hull. After that he would gobble down the Palace Hotel, the Shell Building, the whole of Shanghai… feasting on the magazines….Usually Jim devoured the newsreels…
Andy pointed out many of the homes now had plaques designating them as Heritage Architecture. Apparently the local officials decided to identify these old houses as symbols of the city’s quickly-disappearing decadent colonial past, and began erecting these signs in 1999. We stopped beside a large gate and Andy pointed to the wall: “Check it out. This plaque says: ‘English garden residence on Amherst Road. Built in 1925’. Note they got the “road” wrong. And this one? ‘English country style garden residence on Amherst Road. Completed in 1930. Brick-and-concrete composite structure’.” He looked up appreciatively at the faint remains of the mock-Tudor structure. “These places are now worth a lot of money.”
I wondered if this was the house belonging to the Belgian dentist, and if the rows of teeth still ornamented the glass cases in its study.
We still had over an hour to burn, so I suggested we keep moving and check out Lunghua Civilian Assembly Camp. He agreed, and added he had done more research and had found other sites of Ballard temporal archaeology.
We hailed another cab, and Andy spoke to him in Mandarin. “Are we going to the camp?” I asked. “You’ll see.”
After driving for about 15 minutes along a confusing network of twisting roads, past Shanghai’s new 80,000 seat stadium (you can see it from space!) suddenly a tall pagoda appeared over the rooftops to the cab’s left. Was this the pagoda at the end of Lunghua Aerodrome that once bristled with anti-aircraft guns?
The concrete runway moved diagonally across its grassy table to the foot of the pagoda. Jim could see the barrels of the anti-aircraft guns mounted on its ancient stone decks, and the powerful landing lights and radio antennae fixed to the tiled roof.
“Yes. But don’t believe your eyes. The tourist guides say it’s 10th century Buddhist, but Shanghai was the centre of the Cultural Revolution and everything was ripped down and destroyed in the 1960s. All the temples you see in Shanghai have been rebuilt. They call it renovation. This is the Lunghua pagoda, all right, but they rebuilt it two kilometers from its original site.”
I laughed. Crazy commies. But at least I knew we were going to the airport.
A short distance away from the ersatz pagoda we came across a railway line. Hah. What else but the Shanghai-Hangchow Railway, the same line that hosted the death march to Nantao when the Japanese cleared out Lunghua at war’s end.
Lit by the sunset, the prisoners stood on the embankment of the railway line that ran to the warehouses of Nantao…. Jim balanced on the steel rail… [and] steered Mr Maxted between the rails, as the prisoners followed the railway embankment to the riverside causeway.
It still looks evil. An ancient guardhouse stands on the road beside the tracks, and it was easy to imagine a Japanese Corporal lounging on the tiny verandah while a Chinese coolie sang himself to death lashed to a telephone pole.
Another five minutes and the airfield arrives. No longer the grass aerodrome that young Jamie almost donated his bones to, but a concrete strip that stretches north/south beside the Huangpu River.
They approached the military airfield, the largest glass aerodrome that he had seen near Shanghai…. these starving men were laying their own bones in a carpet for the Japanese bombers who would land upon them.
Today, access is not allowed, so I had to be content with looking at it from the north end, and only later did I notice three old aircraft of unknown make sitting forlornly in the baking sun behind chain link fencing on the other side of the road. They weren’t WWII vintage, but they were a welcome addition to the day’s ongoing timeshifts through the Ballardian end of the last century.
Back into a cab and off to the Lunghua Camp. Andy owns a local private school and thought he could pull some strings to get us past the gates of what is now Shanghai High School, but classes were running and this is a repressive society, capitalism or no. Casually we walked up to the big padlocked gate and Andy began pleading in Mandarin to a roomful of workers, lounging in a small guardhouse. Basically he was explaining how the school was a famous site in a famous novel and this odd foreign devil had come all the way from Canada to photograph just the headquarters building and the school map. For some reason the number one man bought it, and he whipped out a massive keychain and deftly fingered the proper key, opening the lock.
I got the two shots and that was it… no exploring of the premises. As the gates clanged behind us I remembered what JG had told me in his last letter: “…I can’t help feeling that there’s something a little intrusive about all this an immense amount of time has gone by and the Lunghua you visit will not be Lunghua Camp.”
Prescient as always, JG was right: the real Camp only exists in the minds of a diminishing few, its mundane history recounted in rewrites of amateur postwar diaries like A Curious Cage and Life In A Japanese Internment Camp. I suspect he felt that twinge of disappointment when he visited the grounds in 1991. You can’t go back.
Outwardly, there was little about this new school and its manicured grounds that gave any indication of the psychohistory of the area, yet the Main Building was the same as it was during the war, and it was interesting to finally grasp a sense of the size of the camp it and the original buildings are much larger than you’d imagine from the book, which, of course, is kid size in perception.
By now it’s just noon, and only Andy, myself, mad dogs and Englishmen are subjecting themselves to the empire of this merciless sun, which has now cooked the air to the consistency of hot jello. We hail another cab and point northeast, back to the house/restaurant.
It was, I’ll admit, a thrill to finally enter the house. I had JG’s hand drawn floor plan, a hardcover copy of Empire Of The Sun, and a desire to explore all, not just the main floor. We were seated in what was the home’s enclosed verandah, and we decided to eat first, cajole later. Lunch was excellent, and by the time we finished dessert the manageress was talking with us at the table.
Ballardians at brunch: Andy and I in the covered verandah.
Andy explained to her the historical significance of the house, and I pulled out my copy of Empire and JG’s floor plan drawing as the ultimate proof. She was still a little vague, so I decided to try a Richard Pearson on her, and suggested she could pull more business if she advertised the place as an historical artifact with great food. This struck her Chinese pragmatism, and Andy, bless him, actually started writing her an ad, recommending she run it in English media and attract euro tourists. Now she’s beaming. While Andy’s scribbling away, I start exploring, aided by two waiters who dance out of range like crazed contortionists as I swung the camera around.
Above: Dining room. Below, clockwise from left: Study fireplace; Drawing Room; Study, with french doors that open south onto the terrace.
The rooms, apparently, are just like the original well, except for a huge brick monolith that extends from the first to second floors, about 10 feet in from the west wall. The dining room, drawing room, enclosed verandah, terrace and study are all the same, and the old kitchen and pantry are still there. I couldn’t check out the garage to see if it still contained an old Packard, with Yang polishing the chrome, but the drawing room and dining room run beside a long east/west hallway, which I assume is original, although it's not shown on JG’s drawing. An easy oversight after so many years. This hallway runs the length of the house, and has steps to the second floor at each end. So, the main floor is seemingly untouched no doubt because all the walls are supporting.
Above: second floor "long room", with brick monolith at the west end. Below, clockwise from top left: middle door bedroom; west door bedroom; west stairs second floor landing.
Upstairs is dominated by one huge, long room, running east/west with three smaller rooms opening off it, each facing south to the back garden by looking out over the roof of the verandah. The long room has also been modified by a huge brick column which now stands like a feng shui cipher, sealing off the window and acting as a backdrop to the murmur of digestion. To the north of the monolith is a landing with two small rooms (above) no doubt a bathroom and storage area, with staircase going down to the main floor. At the other end of the long room is a doorway that leads to a wide hallway with another room over the first floor study that overlooks the garden. Off the hall are steps going down to the main, and up to the third floor.
Clockwise from top: third floor hallway with doorway to south bedroom overlooking the garden; top floor long bedroom that points west; tudor ceilings.
Climbing again to the third floor I find a T-shaped room that leads off to a large room to the west, and a smaller room to the south, that also overlooks the garden. The ceilings are all renovated, done Tudor-style, with open edgewise planks over white plaster, and the crossbeams look old enough to have had model airplanes dangling from them. But they're new. From the video "Shanghai Jim" it appears JG's "blue" room is the east/west room, but it's not easy to tell as the room in the video doesn't have an end window.
Left to right: east stairs from the first floor; west stairs from the first floor; funky bannister.
Down the stairs and I’m out through the old study’s French doors (after pausing to admire a rather fancy fireplace), and I’m onto the terrace, which leads down to the garden. There’s no swimming pool any more, drained or otherwise, and all has obviously been feng shui redesigned to allow for the luckiest playing of scenic events like weddings and other contract signing celebrations. The original wall is still there, and walking around the perimeter I got the feeling of just how big this estate was… half an acre? Fifth of a hectare? Big.
I wandered the yard, thinking back on all the times JG had mentioned his imaginative games acted out on this selfsame turf. I could almost hear the rat-a-tat of youthful heroics, until I realized a waiter was clearing off one of the terrace tables. Spell broken, I wandered back in the house to find Andy ready to explore. I tell him I’ve already taken the tour, and ask about the bill. Turns out he’s already paid it. Hey, does it get any better? Well, yes it does, as this time I get to show Andy around the place a second time.
Just before we leave I have the presence of mind to ask if any promotional literature has been prepared for the restaurant, and am pleasantly surprised when I’m handed a slick glossy brochure. “May I have two?”. Yes, I may. What a day!
Here's a short, three-minute vid of the house interior:
JGB Responds To My Journey
When I returned from China I put together a package of stuff which I mailed to JGB:
1. glossy brochure from the SH508 Restaurant
2. collection of 58 colour photographs showing the Ballard house, surrounding neighbourhoods, lunghua camp, airfield and pagoda
3. field report of the day's activities (the one posted above)
JGB wrote back, clearly indicating the house had been altered much more than I originally thought:
Many thanks for taking the trouble to send me the remarkable photos of your Shanghai trip -- I much appreciate it -- I've already spent hours studying every detail, a kind of long-range reconnaissance, though I'm not sure what I'm really looking for -- some trace, probably, of a previous existence -- as you say in your very interesting report, everything has changed, and there's now scarcely a trace of the old Ballard home -- the SH508 management should adopt as their slogan -- "Forget about Shanghai Jim -- just enjoy the dim sum!"
The curious thing is that all these changes have taken place in the very recent past -- in 1991 the house was a near ruin, but was still recognizably its 1945 self -- the new owners have extended it in various ways -- the original upstairs floor plan more or less duplicated the ground floor arrangement -- there were three bedrooms, each with a bathroom, off a corridor that ran east-west -- the long room you mention didn't exist -- the open verandah on the garden side, directly above the enclosed verandah below, has also been enclosed -- the former bedrooms and bathrooms have been torn out and formed into your long room -- the small bedrooms you mention occupy the former open verandah. There was originally only one staircase, which you photograph, rather touchingly -- it's virtually unchanged -- and no corridor on the ground floor -- they probably used part of the large pantry (larger than the kitchen).
All this is of no interest to anyone, I fear, and I don't know why I've gone on at length, like some demented estate agent -- houses are constantly being altered -- many of the world-famous houses, by architects of the Richard Neutra/Shindler 1920s generation, in Los Angeles, have been enlarged and reshaped, like many of Corbusier's houses in France, some even fitted with pitched roofs!
I'm glad you made it to Lunghua -- in 1991 the children were on holiday, and the BBC had arranged our visit to the site with Shanghai TV management -- we were able to move all over the camp site, though again there had been enormous changes -- not just to the former camp, but to the surrounding terrain -- it's hard to believe that in 1945 there was nothing but open fields between our house and Lunghua Camp five miles to the south.
It was interesting to hear from Andy Best (please thank him for me) about Lunghua Pagoda -- the war-time pagoda was a large structure that carried anti-aircraft guns, and when they filmed around the pagoda in 1991 it seemed to me to be a much smaller and slimmer structure.
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.
Thank you again, and for the photos of the neighbourhood houses (none of which I recognized).
Where all these sites are in relation to each other:
Lunghua Civilian Assembly Camp, lower left. Lunghua Airport, top right.
Shanghai-Hangchow Railway Guardhouse, left. Lunghua Airport, right.
1. Amherst Avenue 2. Lunghua Airport 3. Lunghua Camp 4. Shanghai-Hangchow Railway guardhouse 5. Lunghua Pagoda (not at its 1940s location)
Top: Google Earth scan of Lunghua Camp. Above: drawing of Lunghua Camp made in 1946. Click on it for a large pdf version. It also matches the School map (above) perfectly.
The misplaced, rebuilt Pagoda (top left) and its new, more distant relationship to Lunghua Airport. As JG said in 1985: Fascinating, too, to see Lunghua pagoda. This I walked to from the camp in August, 1945, and I remember it as a large and massive stone structure -- the Japanese mounted anti-aircraft guns on its decks and it was virtually a flak tower covering the airfield two miles to the south. Apart from a very small village at its foot of shabby earth hovels, the pagoda was surrounded on all rides by open country.
Close inspection reveals the two are completely different buildings, although they look similar to the untrained eye. Modern photograph of Lunghua Pagoda by Andy Best