Saturday, April 25, 2009
Remembering JG Ballard - Lunghua Airfield
As someone who hates gyms in all their incarnations and all forms of organised “games” I do still accept that I need some exercise. Walking, or occasionally a swim, suffices. Walking is also educational and instructive unlike time spent in a gym as well as having the added bonuses of seeing things (other than CCTV9 or CNN, neither of which interest me in the slightest) and of being able to wear normal clothes rather than the ridiculous outfits I see people “heading for the gym” wearing. Therefore an interest in psychogeography, I think, is the answer.
For those not au fait with psychogeography it’s basically a strategy for exploring cities in such a way that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape. Perhaps Will Self is the most famous practitioner of the discipline at the moment – walking to Heathrow while of course the novelist Ian Sinclair experienced the outer rim of London anew by walking the M25. I’ve decided to coin the term psychohistoricalgeography and so my Saturday…
This weekend I was struck with the idea of two things – the need for fresh air and wanting to commemorate the sad passing of JG Ballard in some way. Actually I live just round the corner from Ballard’s old family home on Shanghai’s former Amherst Avenue and do occasionally eat in the restaurant that now inhabits the former Ballard residence – not much good but a nice house. Architecture trumps cuisine anyday, and anyway James Fallows’ on his excellent blog has already posted photos of the interior and exterior of the former residence.
So here was my solution – Ballard, as everyone knows from Empire of the Sun, was interned in the Lunghua (Loonghwa) Civilian Assembly Centre on the outskirts of Shanghai and which abutted the Lunghua Airfield and was close to the Lunghua Pagoda – all are shown in the film and described in the book. He was interned in 1943 with his parents and younger sister, spending over two years, the remainder of World War Two, in the camp. His family lived in a small area in G block, a two-story residence for 40 families. He attended school in the camp, the teachers being inmates from a number of professions. I’m not sure if JG himself had to walk to the Camp but many internees did – I did the walk on a breezy, sunny Saturday morning without a suitcase containing my most precious belongings and without any Japanese guards shouting at me to hurry up. I’m also a reasonably fit 42. Many of the internees were much older, unwell and had to make the walk in either far colder or far hotter weather depending on when they were interned.
So I walked from Ballard’s childhood home on Amherst Avenue to Lunghua Airfield, or what’s left of it. This is not an overly long walk – tales about 90 minutes at most out from the former Western Roads Settlement (where Ballard’s family house was and not the French Concession as so often written) along the old Siccawei Road (now Huashan Road) through Siccawei itself (now the Xujiahui shopping district) out past the sports stadium, past the Lunghua Revolutionary Martyrs memorial and to the Lunghua Pagoda (which is these days adjacent to a Tesco supermarket for those that like to make points about that sort of contrast). Continue slightly further along and you’ll reach the rather grand edifice of the old modernist-style air terminal, with its sweeping observation deck and control tower still reasonably intact. Inside are a reasonable Shanghainese restaurant where I lunched and a KTV joint.
In the film, if I remember correctly, you see the Japanese planes fly over the terminal building with the Pagoda (which is obviously still a major tourist attraction) in the background sans Tesco. There is still some original tiling left in the building and it does rather have the aura of old time air travel. The area is a striking image in the book and also in the film – and if you get into the right psychohistoricalgeographist mindset still quite atmospheric.
Here’s remembering the great JG once again