Empire of the Sun, p.1J. G. Ballard
The Perennial Collection
Empire of the Sun
J. G. Ballard
London, New York, Toronto and Sydney
Empire of the Sun draws on my experiences in Shanghai, China, during the Second World War, and in Lunghua C.A.C. (Civilian Assembly Centre) where I was interned from 1942-45. For the most part this novel is based on events I observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within the camp at Lunghua.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor took place on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, but as a result of time differences across the Pacific Date Line it was then already the morning of Monday, 8 December in Shanghai.
J. G. Ballard
Table of Contents
1 The Eve of Pearl Harbor
2 Beggars and Acrobats
3 The Abandoned Aerodrome
4 The Attack on the Petrel
5 Escape from the Hospital
6 The Youth with the Knife
7 The Drained Swimming-Pool
8 Picnic Time
9 An End to Kindness
10 The Stranded Freighter
11 Frank and Basie
12 Dance Music
13 The Open-Air Cinema
14 American Aircraft
15 On their Way to the Camps
16 The Water Ration
17 A Landscape of Airfields
19 The Runway
20 Lunghua Camp
21 The Cubicle
22 The University of Life
23 The Air Raid
24 The Hospital
25 The Cemetery Garden
26 The Lunghua Sophomores
27 The Execution
28 An Escape
29 The March to Nantao
30 The Olympic Stadium
31 The Empire of the Sun
32 The Eurasian
33 The Kamikaze Pilot
34 The Refrigerator in the Sky
35 Lieutenant Price
36 The Flies
37 A Reserved Room
38 The Road to Shanghai
39 The Bandits
40 The Fallen Airmen
41 Rescue Mission
42 The Terrible City
About the author
An Investigative Spirit
LIFE at a Glance
A Writing Life
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The Eve of Pearl Harbor
Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund.
Jim had begun to dream of wars. At night the same silent films seemed to flicker against the wall of his bedroom in Amherst Avenue, and transformed his sleeping mind into a deserted newsreel theatre. During the winter of 1941 everyone in Shanghai was showing war films. Fragments of his dreams followed Jim around the city; in the foyers of department stores and hotels the images of Dunkirk and Tobruk, Barbarossa and the Rape of Nanking sprang loose from his crowded head.
To Jim’s dismay, even the Dean of Shanghai Cathedral had equipped himself with an antique projector. After morning service on Sunday, 7 December, the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the choirboys were stopped before they could leave for home and were marched down to the crypt. Still wearing their cassocks, they sat in a row of deck-chairs requisitioned from the Shanghai Yacht Club and watched a year-old March of Time.
Thinking of his unsettled dreams, and puzzled by their missing sound-track, Jim tugged at his ruffed collar. The organ voluntary drummed like a headache through the cement roof and the screen trembled with the familiar images of tank battles and aerial dogfights. Jim was eager to prepare for the fancy-dress Christmas party being held that afternoon by Dr Lockwood, the vice-chairman of the British Residents’ Association. There would be the drive through the Japanese lines to Hungjao, and then Chinese conjurors, fireworks and yet more newsreels, but Jim had his own reasons for wanting to go to Dr Lockwood’s party.
Outside the vestry doors the Chinese chauffeurs waited by their Packards and Buicks, arguing in a fretful way with each other. Bored by the film, which he had seen a dozen times, Jim listened as Yang, his father’s driver, badgered the Australian verger. However, watching the newsreels had become every expatriate Briton’s patriotic duty, like the fund-raising raffles at the country club. The dances and garden parties, the countless bottles of Scotch consumed in aid of the war effort (like all children, Jim was intrigued by alcohol but vaguely disapproved of it) had soon produced enough money to buy a Spitfire – probably one of those, Jim speculated, that had been shot down on its first flight, the pilot fainting in the reek of Johnnie Walker.
Usually Jim devoured the newsreels, part of the propaganda effort mounted by the British Embassy to counter the German and Italian war films being screened in the public theatres and Axis clubs of Shanghai. Sometimes the Pathé newsreels from England gave him the impression that, despite their unbroken series of defeats, the British people were thoroughly enjoying the war. The March of Time films were more sombre, in a way that appealed to Jim. Suffocating in his tight cassock, he watched a burning Hurricane fall from a sky of Dornier bombers towards a children’s book landscape of English meadows that he had never known. The Graf Spee lay scuttled in the River Plate, a river as melancholy as the Yangtze, and smoke clouds rose from a shabby city in eastern Europe, that black planet from which Vera Frankel, his seventeen-year-old governess, had escaped on a refugee ship six months earlier.
Jim was glad when the newsreel was over. He and his fellow-choristers tottered into the strange daylight towards their chauffeurs. His closest friend, Patrick Maxted, had sailed with his mother from Shanghai for the safety of the British fortress at Singapore, and Jim felt that he had to watch the films for Patrick, and even for the White Russian women selling their jewellery on the cathedral steps and the Chinese beggars resting among the gravestones.
The commentator’s voice still boomed inside his head as he rode home through the crowded Shanghai streets in his parents’ Packard. Yang, the fast-talking chauffeur, had once worked as an extra in a locally made film starring Chiang Ching, the actress who had abandoned her career to join the communist leader Mao Tse-Tung. Yang enjoyed impressing his eleven-year-old passenger with tall tales of film stunts and trick effects. But today Yang ignored Jim, banishing him to the back seat. He punched the Packard’s powerful horn, carrying on his duel with the aggressive rickshaw coolies who tried to crowd the foreign cars off the Bubbling Well Road. Lowering the window, Yang lashed with his leather riding crop at the thoughtless pedestrians, the sauntering bar-girls with American handbags, the old amahs bent double under bamboo yokes strung with headless chickens.
An open truck packed with professional executioners swerved in front of them, on its way to the public stranglings in the Old City. Seizing his chance, a barefoot beggar-boy ran beside the Packard. He drummed his fists on the doors and held out his palm to Jim, shouting the street cry of all Shanghai:
‘No mama! No papa! No whisky soda!’
Yang lashed at him, and the boy fell to the ground, picked himself up between the front wheels of an oncoming Chrysler and r
‘No mama, no papa…’
Jim hated the riding crop, but he was glad of the Packard’s horn. At least it drowned the roar of the eight-gun fighters, the wail of air-raid sirens in London and Warsaw. He had had more than enough of the European war. Jim stared at the garish façade of the Sincere Company’s department store, which was dominated by an immense portrait of Chiang Kai-Shek exhorting the Chinese people to ever greater sacrifices in their struggle against the Japanese. A faint light, reflected from a faulty neon tube, trembled over the Generalissimo’s soft mouth, the same flicker that Jim had seen in his dreams. The whole of Shanghai was turning into a newsreel leaking from inside his head.
Had his brain been damaged by too many war films? Jim had tried to tell his mother about his dreams, but like all the adults in Shanghai that winter she was too preoccupied to listen to him. Perhaps she had bad dreams of her own. In an eerie way, these shuffled images of tanks and dive-bombers were completely silent, as if his sleeping mind was trying to separate the real war from the make-believe conflicts invented by Pathé and British Movietone.
Jim had no doubt which was real. The real war was everything he had seen for himself since the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the old battlegrounds at Hungjao and Lunghua where the bones of the unburied dead rose to the surface of the paddy fields each spring. Real war was the thousands of Chinese refugees dying of cholera in the sealed stockades at Pootung, and the bloody heads of communist soldiers mounted on pikes along the Bund. In a real war no one knew which side he was on, and there were no flags or commentators or winners. In a real war there were no enemies.
By contrast, the coming conflict between Britain and Japan, which everyone in Shanghai expected to break out in the summer of 1942, belonged to a realm of rumour. The supply ship attached to the German raider in the China Sea now openly visited Shanghai and moored in the river, where it took on fuel from a dozen lighters – many of them, Jim’s father noted wryly, owned by American oil companies. Almost all the American women and children had been evacuated from Shanghai. In his class at the Cathedral School, Jim was surrounded by empty desks. Most of his friends and their mothers had left for the safety of Hong Kong and Singapore, while the fathers closed their houses and moved into the hotels along the Bund.
At the beginning of December, when school ended for the day, Jim joined his father on the roof of his office block in Szechwan Road and helped him to set fire to the crates of records which the Chinese clerks brought up in the elevator. The trail of charred paper lifted across the Bund and mingled with the smoke from the impatient funnels of the last steamers to leave Shanghai. Passengers crowded the gangways, Eurasians, Chinese and Europeans fighting to get aboard with their bundles and suitcases, ready to risk the German submarines waiting in the Yangtze estuary. Fires rose from the roofs of the office buildings in the financial district, watched through field-glasses by the Japanese officers standing on their concrete blockhouses across the river at Pootung. It was not the anger of the Japanese that most disturbed Jim, but their patience.
As soon as they reached the house in Amherst Avenue he ran upstairs to change. Jim liked the Persian slippers, embroidered silk shirt and blue velvet trousers in which he resembled a film extra from The Thief of Bagdad, and he was eager to leave for Dr Lockwood’s party. He would endure the conjurors and newsreels, and then set off for the secret rendezvous which the rumours of war had prevented him from keeping for so many months.
By way of a happy bonus, Sunday was Vera’s free afternoon, when she visited her parents in the ghetto at Hongkew. This bored young woman, little more than a child herself, usually followed Jim everywhere like a guard dog. Once Yang had driven him home – his parents were to stay on for dinner at the Lockwoods’ – he would be free to roam alone through the empty house, his keenest pleasure. The nine Chinese servants would be there, but in Jim’s mind, and in those of the other British children, they remained as passive and unseeing as the furniture. He would finish doping his balsa-wood aircraft, and complete another chapter of the manual entitled How to Play Contract Bridge that he was writing in a school exercise book. After years spent listening to his mother’s bridge parties, trying to extract any kind of logic from the calls of ‘One diamond’, ‘Pass’, ‘Three Hearts’, ‘Three No Trumps’, ‘Double’, ‘Redouble’, he had prevailed on her to teach him the rules and had even mastered the conventions, a code within a code of a type that always intrigued Jim. With the help of an Ely Culberston guide, he was about to embark on the most difficult chapter of all, on psychic bidding – all this and he had yet to play a single hand.
However, if the task proved too exhausting he would set off on a bicycle tour of the French Concession, taking his airgun in case he ran into the group of French twelve-year-olds who formed the Avenue Foch gang. When he returned home it would be time for the Flash Gordon radio serial on station XMHA, followed by the record programme when he and his friends telephoned requests under their latest pseudonyms – ‘Batman’, ‘Buck Rogers’, and (Jim’s) ‘Ace’, which he liked to hear read out by the announcer though it always made him cringe with embarrassment.
As he flung his cassock to the amah and changed into his party costume he found that all this was threatened. Her head muddled by the rumours of war, Vera had decided not to visit her parents.
‘You will go to the party, James,’ Vera informed him as she buttoned his silk shirt. ‘And I will telephone my parents and tell them all about you.’
‘But, Vera – they want to see you. I know they do. You’ve got to think of them, Vera…’ Baffled, Jim hesitated to complain. His mother had told him to be kind to Vera, and not to tease her as he had done the previous governess. This moody White Russian had terrified him as he recovered from measles by telling him that she could hear the voice of God in Amherst Avenue, warning them from their ways. Soon afterwards Jim had impressed his school friends by announcing that he was an atheist. By contrast, Vera Frankel was a calm girl who never smiled and found everything strange about Jim and his parents, as strange as Shanghai itself, this violent and hostile city a world away from Cracow. She and her parents had escaped on one of the last boats from Hitler’s Europe and now lived with thousands of Jewish refugees in Hongkew, a gloomy district of tenements and faded apartment blocks behind the port area of Shanghai. To Jim’s amazement, Herr Frankel and Vera’s mother existed in one room.
‘Vera, where do your parents live?’ Jim knew the answer, but decided to risk the ruse. ‘Do they live in a house?’
‘They live in one room, James.’
‘One room!’ To Jim this was inconceivable, far more bizarre than anything in the Superman and Batman comics. ‘How big is the room? As big as my bedroom? As big as this house?’
‘As big as your dressing-room. James, some people are not so lucky as you.’
Awed by this, Jim closed the door of the dressing-room and changed into his velvet trousers. His eyes measured the little chamber. How two people could survive in so small a space was as difficult to grasp as the conventions in contract bridge. Perhaps there was some simple key which would solve the problem, and he would have the subject of another book.
Fortunately, Vera’s pride made her rise to the bait. When she had left for her parents’, setting off on the long walk to the tram terminus in the Avenue Joffre, Jim found himself still pondering the mystery of this extraordinary room. He decided to raise the matter with his mother and father, but as always they were too distracted by news of the war even to notice him. Dressed for the party, they were in his father’s study, listening to the short-wave radio bulletins from England. His father knelt by the radiogram in his pirate costume, leather patch pushed on to his forehead and spectacles over his tired eyes, like some scholarly buccaneer. He stared at the yellow dial embedded like a gold tooth in the mahogany face of the radiogram. On a map of Russia spread across the carpet he marked the new defensive line to which the Red Army had retreated. He stared at it hopelessly, as myst
‘Hitler will be in Moscow by Christmas. The Germans are still moving forward.’
His mother stood in her pierrot suit by the window, staring at the steely December sky. The long train of a Chinese funeral kite undulated along the street, head nodding as it bestowed its ferocious smile on the European houses. ‘It must be snowing in Moscow. Perhaps the weather will stop them…’
‘Once every century? Even that might be too much to ask. Churchill must bring the Americans into the war.’
‘Daddy, who is General Mud?’
His father looked up as Jim waited in the doorway, the amah carrying his airgun like a bearer, this member of a volunteer infantry in velvet blue ready to aid the Russian war effort.
‘Not the BB gun, Jamie. Not today. Take your aeroplane instead.’
‘Amah, don’t touch it! I’ll kill you!’
His father turned from the radiogram, ready to strike him. Jim stood quietly by his mother, waiting to see what happened. Although he liked to roam Shanghai on his bicycle, at home Jim always remained close to his mother, a gentle and clever woman whose main purposes in life, he had decided, were to go to parties and help him with his Latin homework. When she was away he spent many peaceful hours in her bedroom, mixing her perfumes together and idling through the photograph albums of herself before her marriage, stills from an enchanted film in which she played the part of his older sister.
Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes