Obsessing Over JG Ballard and His Terrible City

All images by James H. Bollen. 

By Paul French

James H. Bollen is a British photographer, author, and translator based in Shanghai. Since arriving in the city half a dozen years ago, he has been searching for the traces left by JG Ballard, the cult author of post-apocalyptic, dystopian novels and short stories who died in 2009. Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930, attended the International Settlement’s Cathedral School, and was later interned for the duration of the Second World War with his parents in the nearby Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre. After this experience he eventually settled in England in 1945 and soon began writing avant garde fiction. From the start his short stories and novels were infused with leitmotifs and resonances from his Shanghai boyhood and teenage years in a Japanese internment camp.

In his new book (with an introduction by Fay Ballard, JG’s eldest daughter), Jim’s Terrible City: JG Ballard and Shanghai, Bollen explores contemporary Shanghai looking for images that encapsulate unmistakably Ballardian themes: time, violence, consumerism and surrealism. Paul French, longtime Shanghai resident, author, and Ballard fan, spoke to Bollen at his home in Shanghai about the impetus and inspiration for his new photographic tribute to the author and Shanghailander.

PF: What prompted your personal interest in JG Ballard and his relationship to Shanghai?

JB: I imagine like quite a few of his readers, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Empire of the Sun (1987) was my first introduction to JG Ballard and Shanghai. I saw the film as a teenager and it prompted my interest in his writing. However I didn’t pick up the Shanghai thread until many years later.

I moved there just before Ballard passed away. He was in my thoughts as I began to get to know and explore the city. At the same time I saw things that could have come out of one of his books — mannequins dumped on the streets and so on — and started photographing them.

I then reread Ballard’s works as well as some interviews, and came to realize that Shanghai is one of his biggest influences. In the introduction to Jim’s Terrible City, my book of photographs about Ballard and Shanghai, I quote him from an interview with ID magazine in 1991 in which he says, “I’ve tried to link together obsessions of mine — car crashes, time, hallucinatory states of mind which have always drawn me to the surrealists — and find their sources in my own past in Shanghai.”

This influence has been explored more extensively by Shanghai-based author and journalist Duncan Hewitt, who has given several lectures about and written on the connection between the city and Ballard’s literature.

PF: Your collection of photographs is inspired by the lietmotifs that proliferate throughout Ballard’s, invariably dystopian, fiction — what have you identified as the major leitmotifs of Shanghai that litter his later work?

JB: The leitmotif most associated with Ballard is probably a tie between that of a drained swimming pool, which appears in Empire of the Sun (1984) and he talks about seeing in his autobiography, Miracles of Life (2008), and mannequins. In the case of the latter, they crop up throughout his writing. In fact he wrote a short story called “The Smile” (1976) in which the narrator falls in love with a mannequin.

PF: Has that sense of the surreal been constant in the city, or do you think there are specific moments in its history — the late 1930s “Solitary Island” period and the recent economic boom perhaps — that provide a link across the decades?

JB: I imagine it’s been constant — certainly Shanghai is still surreal, to the point where not long ago a version of one of Dali’s melted clocks appeared outside a shopping mall on Nanjing West Road.

And the ongoing destruction of the Shanghai of Ballard’s childhood — which you’ve written about extensively on ChinaRhyming.com — sees surrealist juxtapositions of dilapidated buildings and gleaming tower blocks.

PF: As well as surrealism, it seems Ballard’s later fictional work, and his memoirs of his Shanghai boyhood, accentuate the absurdism of life, and of Shanghai (as did Malraux’s Man’s Estate [1934] before), as well as a poetic realist notion that things usually end badly and violently. Do you believe that Ballard’s early memories of Shanghai and his experiences in the Lunghua Internment Camp formed this lifelong obsession and never left him?

JB: Yes, I think they never did. While Ballard is on record as saying he actually rather enjoyed his time in the camp, he also said that he wanted to become a psychiatrist, “…and knew that I already had my first patient — myself.”

Combined with the brutality he witnessed as well as his own privations while interred in Lunghua, it must have been profoundly shocking for Ballard to go from his prosperous childhood home to a prisoner of war camp. And I wonder if Spielberg put in two scenes in Empire of the Sun to reflect this. One is of a Chinese beggar sitting outside the entrance to Jim’s house who bangs his empty begging tin on the ground while Jim watches him from his chauffeur-driven car. The other is of the westerners awaiting transportation to Japanese prisoner of war camps who also bang their empty lunch tins — a complete role reversal visually encapsulating what happened to Ballard and, given China’s rise and America and Europe’s economic stagnation, highly symbolic now.


PF: This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Empire of the Sun, Ballard’s novelized memoir of Lunghua. The opening chapters describe a Shanghai tipped into chaos by the Japanese invasion of the International Settlement after Pearl Harbor in December 1941. How important do you think this book is to understanding Ballard’s novels and their constant sense of impending social chaos and civilizational collapse that came later in a far less tumultuous England?

JB: In Empire of the Sun, the HMS Petrel is sunk by the Japanese cruiser Idzumo in front of the Bund. This episode in the book is a metaphor for the beginning of the end of British imperialism, as well as the narrator Jim’s childhood and his privileged existence. At the same time I agree it’s important to understanding Ballard’s novels.

In so many of his stories, the main protagonists find themselves in a state of profound upheaval, and each of them through their own imaginations and logic find ways to deal with, accept, and even embrace their changed circumstances — just as Jim does in Empire of the Sun. A psychoanalytic analysis of Ballard’s works, if one isn’t out already, is perhaps overdue.

PF: Perhaps, for new readers of Ballard, or readers who have not thought of him through a Shanghai prism before, you could suggest a few of his works that best illustrate these themes garnered from his early China experiences?

JB: This ties in with my last answer, and going through his work to find and analyze where Shanghai may have been an influence is also perhaps something that’s overdue.

Ballard wrote several short stories and novels directly about Shanghai. The first of these was his short story “The Dead Time” (1977), a precursor to Empire of the Sun, published in 1977. Before that he wrote a short story in 1961 called “Billennium”, which may have been inspired by Shanghai as it’s about living in an overcrowded city with a chronic lack of living space. It’s tempting to think that the source of the cramped living conditions described in the story came from those of the Chinese in Shanghai which Ballard must have seen as a boy when he went on one of his solo bike rides around the city. Indeed “The Illuminated Man” (1964), another short story written three years later, mentions the “crowded tenements of Shanghai.”

As for his novels, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) contains snippets of Shanghai-related material and Hello America (1981), while not about Shanghai, has been likened to American comic books of the kind Ballard read as a boy there.

One other novel, which starts off in Shanghai and tends to be overlooked, is The Kindness of Women (1991), the sequel to Empire of the Sun, which follows Jim from Shanghai to university in England and parenthood. Again like the prequel, it’s fiction based on fact. In my view it’s as stunning and powerful — if not more so — as the book which brought him mainstream success.