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       Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography, p.1

           J. G. Ballard
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Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography

  Miracles of Life

  An Autobiography

  J.G. Ballard

  Miracles of Life

  Shanghai to Shepperton An Autobiography


  Fay, Bea and Jim



  Shanghai Arrival (1930) 3

  Japanese Invasion (1937) 25

  War in Europe (1939) 37

  My Parents 45

  The Attack on Pearl Harbor (1941) 53

  Lunghua Camp (1943) 63

  Chess, Boredom and a Certain Estrangement (1943) 77

  American Air Raids (1944) 89

  The Railway Station (1945) 101

  War’s End (1945) 111


  Take it on the Chin (1946) 121

  Cambridge Blues (1949) 139

  Screaming Popes (1951) 151

  Vital Discoveries (1953) 159

  Miracles of Life (1955) 171

  This is Tomorrow (1956) 187

  Wise Women (1964) 199

  The Atrocity Exhibition (1966) 207

  Healing Times (1967) 225

  New Sculpture (1969) 235

  Lunches and Films (1987) 247

  Return to Shanghai (1991) 265

  Homeward Bound (2007) 277


  Shanghai Arrival (1930)

  I was born in Shanghai General Hospital on 15 November 1930, after a difficult delivery that my mother, who was slightly built and slim-hipped, liked to describe to me in later years, as if this revealed something about the larger thoughtlessness of the world. Over dinner she would often tell me that my head was badly deformed during birth, and I feel that for her this partly explained my wayward character as a teenager and young man (doctor friends say that there is nothing remarkable about such a birth). My sister Margaret, born in September 1937, was delivered by Caesarean, but I never heard my mother reflect on its wider significance.

  We lived at 31 Amherst Avenue, in the western suburbs of Shanghai, about eight hundred yards beyond the boundary of the International Settlement, but within the larger area controlled by the Shanghai police. The house is still standing and in 1991, when I last visited Shanghai, was the library of the state electronics institute. The International Settlement, with the French Concession of nearly the same size lying along its southern border, extended from the Bund, the line of banks, hotels and trading houses facing the Whangpoo river, for about five miles to the west. Almost all the city’s department stores and restaurants, cinemas, radio stations and nightclubs were in the International Settlement, but there were large outlying areas of Shanghai where its industries were located. The five million Chinese inhabitants had free access to the Settlement, and most of the people I saw on its streets were Chinese. I think there were some fifty thousand non-Chinese – British, French, Americans, Germans, Italians, Swiss and Japanese, and a large number of White Russian and Jewish refugees.

  Shanghai was not a British colony, as most people imagine, and nothing like Hong Kong and Singapore, which I visited before and after the war and which seemed little more than gunboat anchorages, refuelling bases for the navy rather than vibrant commercial centres, and over-reliant on the pink gin and the loyal toast. Shanghai was one of the largest cities in the world, as it is now, 90 per cent Chinese and 100 per cent Americanised. Bizarre advertising displays – the honour guard of fifty Chinese hunchbacks outside the film premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame sticks in my mind – were part of the everyday reality of the city, though I sometimes wonder if everyday reality was the one element missing from the city.

  With its newspapers in every language and scores of radio stations, Shanghai was a media city before its time, celebrated as the Paris of the Orient and the ‘wickedest city in the world’, though as a child I knew nothing about the thousands of bars and brothels. Unlimited venture capitalism rode in gaudy style down streets lined with beggars showing off their sores and wounds. Shanghai was important commercially and politically, and for many years was the principal base of the Chinese Communist Party. There were fierce street battles in the 1920s between the Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces, followed in the 1930s by frequent terrorist bombings, barely audible, I suspect, against the background music of endless night-clubbing, daredevil air shows and ruthless money-making. Meanwhile, every day, the trucks of the Shanghai Municipal Council roamed the streets collecting the hundreds of bodies of destitute Chinese who had starved to death on Shanghai’s pavements, the hardest in the world. Partying, cholera and smallpox somehow coexisted with a small English boy’s excited trips in the family Buick to the Country Club swimming pool. Fierce earaches from the infected water were assuaged by unlimited Coca-Cola and ice cream, and the promise that the chauffeur would stop on the way back to Amherst Avenue to buy the latest American comics.

  Looking back, and thinking of my own children’s upbringing in Shepperton, I realise that I had a lot to take in and digest. Every drive through Shanghai, sitting with the White Russian nanny Vera (supposedly to guard against a kidnap attempt by the chauffeur, though how much of her body this touchy young woman would have laid down for me I can’t imagine), I would see something strange and mysterious, but treat it as normal. I think this was the only way in which I could view the bright but bloody kaleidoscope that was Shanghai – the prosperous Chinese businessmen pausing in the Bubbling Well Road to savour a thimble of blood tapped from the neck of a vicious goose tethered to a telephone pole; young Chinese gangsters in American suits beating up a shopkeeper; beggars fighting over their pitches; beautiful White Russian bar-girls smiling at passers-by (I used to wonder what they would be like as my nanny, compared with the morose Vera, who kept a sullen grip on my overactive mind).

  Nevertheless, Shanghai struck me as a magical place, a self-generating fantasy that left my own little mind far behind. There was always something odd and incongruous to see: a vast firework display celebrating a new nightclub while armoured cars of the Shanghai police drove into a screaming mob of rioting factory workers; the army of prostitutes in fur coats outside the Park Hotel, ‘waiting for friends’ as Vera told me. Open sewers fed into the stinking Whangpoo river, and the whole city reeked of dirt, disease and a miasma of cooking fat from the thousands of Chinese food vendors. In the French Concession the huge trams clanked at speed through the crowds, their bells tolling. Anything was possible, and everything could be bought and sold. In many ways, it seems like a stage set, but at the time

  Myself in Shanghai in 1934.

  it was real, and I think a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.

  At the same time there was a strictly formal side to Shanghai life – wedding receptions at the French Club, where I was a page and first tasted cheese canapés, so disgusting that I thought I had caught a terrible new disease. There were race meetings at the Shanghai Racecourse, for which everyone dressed up, and various patriotic gatherings at the British Embassy on the Bund, ultra-formal occasions that involved hours of waiting and nearly drove me mad. My parents held elaborately formal dinner parties, where all the guests were probably drunk and which usually ended for me when some cheerful colleague of my father’s found me hiding behind a sofa, feasting on conversations I hadn’t a hope of grasping. ‘Edna, there’s a stowaway on board…’

  My mother told me of one reception in the early 1930s when I was introduced to Madame Sun Yat-sen, widow of the man who overthrew the Manchus and became China’s first president. But I think my parents probably preferred her sister, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, close friend of America and American big business. My mothe
r was then a pretty young woman in her thirties, and a popular figure at the Country Club. She was once voted the best-dressed woman in Shanghai, but I’m not sure if she took that as a compliment, or whether she really enjoyed her years in Shanghai (roughly 1930 to 1948). Years later, in her sixties, she became a veteran long-haul air traveller, and visited Singapore, Bali and Hong Kong, but not Shanghai. ‘It’s an industrial city,’ she explained, as if that closed the matter.

  I suspect that my father, with his passion for H.G. Wells and his belief in modern science as mankind’s saviour, enjoyed Shanghai far more. He was always telling the chauffeur to slow down when we passed significant local landmarks – the Radium Institute, where cancer would be cured; the vast Hardoon estate in the centre of the International Settlement, created by an Iraqi property tycoon who was told by a fortune-teller that if he ever stopped building he would die, and who then went on constructing elaborate pavilions all over Shanghai, many of them structures with no doors or interiors. In the confusion of traffic on the Bund he pointed out ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen, the then famous bodyguard of Chinese warlords, and I gazed with all a small boy’s awe at a large American car with armed men standing on the running-boards, Chicago-style. Before the war my father often took me across the Whangpoo river to his company’s factory on the eastern bank – I remember still the fearsome noise of the spinning and weaving sheds, the hundreds of massive Lancashire looms each watched by a teenage Chinese girl, ready to stop her machine if a single thread was broken. These peasant girls had long been deafened by the din, but they were their families’ only support, and my father opened a school next to the mill where the illiterate girls could learn to read and write and have some hope of becoming office clerks.

  This rather impressed me, and I thought long and hard as we sailed back across the river, the China Printing ferry avoiding the dozens of corpses of Chinese whose impoverished relatives were unable to afford a coffin and instead launched them onto the sewage streams from the Nantao outfall. Decked with paper flowers, they drifted to and fro as the busy river traffic of motorised sampans cut through their bobbing regatta.

  Shanghai was extravagant but cruel. Even before the Japanese invasion in 1937 there were hundreds of thousands of uprooted Chinese peasants drawn to the city. Few found work, and none found charity. In this era before antibiotics, there were waves of cholera, typhoid and smallpox epidemics, but somehow we survived, partly because the ten servants lived on the premises (in servants’ quarters twice the size of my house in Shepperton). The huge consumption of alcohol may have played a prophylactic role; in later years my mother told me that several of my father’s English employees drank quietly and steadily through the office day, and then on into the evening. Even so, I caught amoebic dysentery and spent long weeks in Shanghai General Hospital.

  On the whole, I was well protected, given the fears of kidnapping. My father was involved in labour disputes with the Communist trade union leaders, and my mother believed that they had threatened to kill him. I assume that he reached some kind of compromise with them, but he kept an automatic pistol between his shirts in a bedroom cupboard, which in due course I found. I often sat on my mother’s bed with this small but loaded weapon, practising gunfighter draws and pointing it at my reflection in the full-length mirror. I was lucky enough not to shoot myself, and sensible enough not to boast to my friends at the Cathedral School.

  Summers were spent in the northern beach resort of Tsingtao, away from the ferocious heat and stench of Shanghai. Husbands were left behind, and the young wives had a great time with the Royal Navy officers on shore leave from their ships. There is a photograph of a dozen dressed-up wives each sitting in a wicker chair with a suntanned, handsomely smiling officer behind her. Who were the hunters, and who the trophies?

  Amherst Avenue was a road of large Western-style houses that ran for a mile or so beyond the perimeter of the International Settlement. From the roof of our house we looked across the open countryside, an endless terrain of paddy fields, small villages, canals and cultivated land that ran in the direction of what later became Lunghua internment camp, some five miles to the south. The house was a three-storey, half-timbered structure in the Surrey stockbroker style. Each foreign nationality in Shanghai built its houses in its own idiom – the French built Provençal villas and art deco mansions, the Germans Bauhaus white boxes, the English their half-timbered fantasies of golf-club elegance, exercises in a partly bogus nostalgia that I recognised decades later when I visited Beverly Hills. But all the houses, like 31 Amherst Avenue, tended to have American interiors – overly spacious kitchens, room-sized pantries with giant refrigerators, central heating and double glazing, and a bathroom for every bedroom. This meant a complete physical privacy. I never saw my parents naked or in bed together, and always used the bath and lavatory next to my own bedroom. By contrast, my own children shared almost every intimacy with my wife and me, the same taps, soap and towels, and I hope the same frankness about the body and its all too human functions.

  But physical privacy may have been more difficult for my parents to achieve in our Shanghai home than I could have imagined as a boy. There were ten Chinese servants – No. 1 Boy (in his thirties and the only fluent English speaker), his assistant No. 2 Boy, No. 1 Coolie, for the heavy housework, his assistant No. 2 Coolie, a cook, two amahs (hard-fisted women with tiny bound feet, who never smiled or showed the least signs of affability), a gardener, a chauffeur and a nightwatchman who patrolled the drive and garden while we slept. Lastly there was a European nanny, generally a White Russian young woman who lived in the main house with us.

  The cook’s son was a boy of my age, whose name my mother remembered until her nineties. I tried desperately to make friends with him, but never succeeded. He was not allowed into the main garden, and refused to follow me when I invited him to climb the trees with me. He spent his time in the alley between the main house and the servants’ quarters and his only toy was an empty Klim tin that had once held powdered milk. There were three holes in its lid, through which he would drop small stones, then remove the lid and peer inside. He would do this for hours, mystifying me completely and challenging my infinitely short attention span. Aware that I had a bedroom filled with expensive British and German toys (ordered every September from Hamleys in London), I made a selection of cars, aeroplanes, lead soldiers and model battleships and carried them down to him. He seemed bemused by these strange objects, so I left him to explore them. Two hours later I crept back and found him surrounded by the untouched toys, dropping stones into his tin. I realise now that this was probably a gambling game. The toys had been a genuine gift, but when I went to bed that night I found that they had all been returned. I hope that this shy and likeable Chinese boy survived the war, and often think of him with his tin and little pebbles, far away in a universe of his own.

  This large number of servants, entirely typical among the better-off Western families, was made possible by the extremely low wages paid. No. 1 Boy received about £30 a year (perhaps £1000 at today’s values) and the coolies and amahs about £10 a year. They lived rent-free but had to buy their own food. Periodically a delegation led by No. 1 Boy would approach my mother and father as they sipped their whisky sodas on the veranda and explain that the price of rice had risen again, and presumably my father increased their pay accordingly. Even after the Japanese seizure of the International Settlement in December 1941 my father employed the full complement of servants, though business activity had fallen sharply. After the war he explained to me that the servants had nowhere to go and would probably have perished if he had dismissed them.

  Curiously, this human concern ran hand in hand with social conventions that seem unthinkable today. We addressed the servants as ‘No. 1 Boy’ or ‘No. 2 Coolie’ and never by their real names. My mother might say, ‘Boy, tell No. 2 Coolie to sweep the drive…’ or ‘No. 2 Boy, switch on the hall lights…’ I did the same from a very early age. No. 1 Boy, answering my father, would say ‘Maste
r, I tell No. 2 Boy buy fillet steak from compradore’ – the lavishly stocked food emporium in the Avenue Joffre which supplied our kitchen.

  Given the harsh facts of existence on the streets of Shanghai, and the famine, floods and endless civil war that had ravaged their villages, the servants may have been reasonably content, aware that thousands of destitute Chinese roamed the streets of Shanghai, ready to do anything to find work. Every morning when I was driven to school I would notice fresh coffins left by the roadside, sometimes miniature coffins decked with paper flowers containing children of my own age. Bodies lay in the streets of downtown Shanghai, wept over by Chinese peasant women, ignored in the rush of passers-by. Once, when my father took me to his office in the Szechuan Road, near the Bund, a Chinese family had spent the night huddling against the steel grille at the top of the entrance steps. They had been driven away by the security guards, leaving a dead baby against the grille, its life ended by disease or the fierce cold. In the Bubbling Well Road our car had to halt when the rickshaw coolie in front of us suddenly stopped, lowered his cotton trousers and leant forward over his shafts, defecating a torrent of yellow liquid at the roadside, to be stepped in by the passing crowds and carried all over Shanghai, bearing dysentery or cholera into every factory, shop and office.

  As a small boy aged 5 or 6 I must have accepted all this without a thought, along with the backbreaking labour of the coolies unloading the ships along the Bund, middle-aged men with bursting calf veins, swaying and sighing under enormous loads slung from their shoulder-yokes, moving a slow step at a time towards the nearby godowns, the large warehouses of the Chinese merchants. Afterwards they would squat with a bowl of rice and a cabbage leaf that somehow gave them the energy to bear these monstrous loads. In the Nanking Road the Chinese begging boys ran after our car and tapped the windows, crying ‘No mama, no papa, no whisky soda…’ Had they picked up the cry thrown back at them ironically by Europeans who didn’t care?

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