JG Ballard in Shanghai

J.G. Ballard's death this past weekend is sad news for many reasons, among them that the most lasting image he will have left of himself was as a child. I was never that interested in his bleak, "Ballardian" speculative fiction, but Empire of the Sun, based on his life as a boy captive of the Japanese in Shanghai, was a beautiful and heartbreaking book, converted by Steven Spielberg into an appropriately beautiful movie.

I read the book just before my first visit to Shanghai in 1986, and saw the movie the following year after another trip to the city. In those days the foreign "concession" mansions of Shanghai, in which expat families like the Ballards had lived before the Japanese arrived in 1937, were mainly derelict. Some stood vacant; some were occupied by numerous families, one per room; some had been converted to Party or government offices. Now, two decades later, some have been razed to make way for apartments or office blocks, some have been spiffed up and gentrified into high-rent lodging, some have been converted into shops or restaurants.

In the 1980s my wife and I were not able to figure out which house had been Ballard's -- nor the one where Nien Cheng lived during the Cultural Revolution horrors described in Life and Death in Shanghai. But we know now, thanks to a tour guided by Shanghai history expert Patrick Cranley, that Ballard's childhood home at 31A Amherst Avenue has reappeared, on Pan Yu Road, as the fancy "SH 508 Restaurant." This is how it looked, inside and out, last month (note high-rise in the background, on site of former mansion):


The attic where he played as a boy, now a private dining room:

A main dining room. Note big-screen TV on the wall, de rigeur for high-end Chinese dining parties. In rear of room, clothed in unplanned conformance with room's color scheme, is my wife.

For an extensive and fascinating account of one Ballard fan's search for the author's boyhood home, complete with maps, satellite views, and much better pictures of the way it looks today, check here. RIP.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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