I’ve come to realise that some cities are very special places. Certain cities connect with us in unconscious ways which we perhaps feel more precisely than we can fathom. For me Shanghai is one of these special places
My first visit to Shanghai put the city in direct contrast to the place from which I’d come – Beijing. It was winter, and even at the best of times, Beijing can be a stark and austere city. It is vast and cut by a grid of wide boulevards teeming with traffic. The kind of showy thoroughfares designed for parading Soviet-style, goose-stepping battalions of soldiers and enormous mobile missile launchers before the massed ranks of Party officials and four-star generals. Shanghai, by contrast, is a sprawling, closed-in kind of city. Both glitzy and shabby; towering skyscrapers, intimate nooks and corners; spiralling concrete flyovers and narrow alleyways where you can’t see the sky for the massed rows of laundry hung out overhead from windows on either side.
In Beijing it seemed like you could walk its wide streets for miles without seeing another soul out on foot, let alone finding a place where you could safely cross. In Shanghai the traffic is just as unrelenting and perhaps even more quixotic; but rounding a corner, whilst out wandering on one of my first nights in the city, I recall unexpectedly finding a group of some twenty or more couples of varying ages all dancing in elegant, silent harmony in the dark; the low, almost imperceptible drifting melody of the music drowned out even at that near distance by the unconscious and unbroken whoosh of the flyover passing directly overhead. This was the Shanghai which I was only then coming to know for the first time. A city of gleaming neon and broken rubble. A city reminiscently familiar, yet simultaneously completely alien and ‘other’ to any place I’d been before. I can’t think how else to describe it. It was like discovering the familiarity of the unknown. There is a quote at the beginning of Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky (1949) by Eduardo Mallea which has always stuck in my mind: “Each man’s destiny is personal only insofar as it may happen to resemble what is already in his own memory.”*
For me it felt like Shanghai was a city which was always meant to be a part of my life. It’s a place in which I instantly felt oddly at home. There was a disconnected sense of connection which makes the city one of the most constantly compelling place I’ve ever been. It’s a city to perceive and ponder at several simultaneously-occurring levels, from the intimately personal to the most disembodied abstract. It’s a city of both bricks and mortar, and of glass and mirrors.
It’s a city that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s been so many things to so many people, and it’s transformed itself so much throughout the many eras of its existence. It has been the “Paris of the East”, the Capital of Mammon, and unofficial colonial enclave; the secret seed ground of the CCP, subject to a brutal occupying army from overseas, then subsumed by revolutionary tides rising from within, to the futuristic showcase city of China’s newly opening economy – a "World City" – a home of Expos and Olympics; a dynamic, restless place, always hungry for change, yet never quite wholly throwing off the myriad remnants of its various pasts. Shanghai is a city which accrues time whilst also standing outside of time.
It is a city to absorb and be absorbed by. A city to record and reflect upon. And my friend James H. Bollen’s new book – Jim’s Terrible City: J. G. Ballard and Shanghai – does just that. It connects with the Shanghai of J. G. Ballard and the Shanghai which we know and experience for ourselves today. It depicts a city which is both Shanghai and yet which is also every city. For Ballard’s Shanghai is perhaps in essence a meta-Shanghai, a meta-city, the Ur metropolis of the human psyche, a disconnected inhabitable dystopian manifestation of the Anthropocene era.
Ballard’s own experiences of life in Shanghai clearly spanned the complete spectrum of the possible. From the cosseted opulence of a life of wealth and privilege to the raw, dehumanised brutality of a wartime prison camp. That knife edge of fortune which can flip an entire world on its head, topsy-turvy. Life, when looked at closely, can be completely surreal. Even the ‘normal’ is but a thin film veiling the ludicrously bizarre beneath the shallow surface. All you have to do is look for it and it’s there.
James Bollen’s photos capture this Ballardian idea for me perfectly. His photos matched or juxtaposed with short excerpts from Ballard’s novels are genuinely thought-provoking pointers to the absurdity of certain scenes of everyday cityscapes. The book is a marvellous meditation on Ballard’s fictional realms, all of which are clearly deeply rooted in the surreal experiences of his childhood self (as well as Jim, his fictional alter-ego) in wartime Shanghai. In this sense James Bollen avoids a stale, standard historical catalogue retracing Ballard’s old haunts, but instead traces an inspirational Shanghai which is both past and future. As James says in the Introduction to his book: “Ballard is a writer noted for his prescience, particularly in relation to technology and the environment. Moreover his concept of Inner Space remains relevant to our lives today in areas such as politics and advertising, where distinctions between fiction and reality constantly blur.”
We are given an image of a seagull standing hunched on a rock inside a cage on the bars of which is an ideogram sign warning us against the temptation to “tease” the animals within; a real Chinese fighter pilot’s helmet and khaki jump-suit propped against a wall of painted sky; another image of that wallpapered sky slashed through; the cut gently curved and peeling open; preceded by the observation that: “Flight and time, Mallory, they’re bound together. The birds have always known that. To get out of time, we first need to learn to fly.” – Hinton, Memories of the Space Age.
A weird-faced laughing clothes mannequin standing in a shop window with arms outstretched: In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom.” – Wilder Penrose, Super-Cannes.
James Bollen’s beautifully crafted book – Jim’s Terrible City – with a very personal foreword by J. G. Ballard’s daughter, Fay Ballard, may well introduce you to a city you never knew you already knew …
For more info visit James H. Bollen’s website & for more on my own explorations in search of J. G. Ballard and others in Shanghai, see Retracing Old Shanghai. Read an interview in the L.A. Review of Books in which Paul French and James Bollen discuss Ballard, Shanghai, and the inspiration for ‘Jim’s Terrible City.’ For more information about J. G. Ballard's works, see his publisher, Harper Collins’ website.
My thanks to James Bollen, and to Duncan Hewitt, who set all this in motion.
* … and, for the record, I suspect that not a few women can similarly relate to Eduardo Mallea’s assertion about personal destinies and memory too.