JG Ballard’s Shanghai

JG Ballard is the author of Empire Of The Sun, a quasi-autobiographical novel about growing up in 1930s Shanghai and then living in an internment camp after the Japanese invaded during World War II. Rick McGrath discovered that Ballard’s childhood home still exists amongst the never-ending reconstruction of Shanghai and recently travelled halfway around the world to see it for himself

I’ve written before about my fondness for the work of JG Ballard, the UK’s most important post-war writer. His many novels cover a huge range of topics but he is most famous for Empire Of The Sun, his autobiographical novel about his couple of years spent in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two as a young boy, which was subsequently adapted for the 1983 movie of the same name directed by Steven Spielberg (and starring a very young Christian Bale).

Rick McGrath is a huge Ballard fan and over the last couple of years has been trying to figure out if the house in which JG Ballard grew up in 1930s Shanghai still existed using maps, internet sleuthing and Google Earth. Rick discovered that it was not only still there, but also had some correspondence with Ballard himself as to its location. Rick also received word from another JGB fan called Andy who lives in Shanghai that the house was now an upscale restaurant. So Rick did what anyone would do – got on a plane in Canada and flew halfway round the world to see it for himself. The whole fascinating story is documented – with lots of great pictures – on Rick’s website, which also has a vast collection of JG Ballard book covers too.

The thing I love about this story, besides its endearing obsessiveness, is that it highlights something that I think is a really important part of travelling – the notion of a quest or goal beyond simply going to see a country in the usual tourist fashion (not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with that). My point is that when you are on a mission like Rick, it provides a great thread through your travels, a certain purpose and coherence that isn’t otherwise there – and leads to you tripping over all sorts of other stuff along the way.

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