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.

Presented by

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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Elsewhere on the web


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Technology

From This Author

Just In