Finished reading: Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard 📚
Incredibly moving. First time reading Ballard so this was an eye opener as the book is quasi autobiographical. It focuses on Shanghai just before WWII starts in the Pacific. It is under Japanese occupation but the International Quarter is largely respected. The Brits still control this little area in the colonial way, with Jim living a life of luxury in amongst a hungry, poverty-stricken Shanghai.
This changes suddenly when the Brits and other expats are interned at PoW camp. The story is told through the eyes of Jim: a young, frenetic but endearing teenager, who never quite shrugs off childish ideas and questions, much to annoyance of the adults. This keeps him real and hopeful and even idealistic, despite being in a PoW camp.
One of the most interesting threads of the book is how these pompous and over privileged colonial-master type Brits and others find themselves having to live in this new reality where they are reduced to starving, desperate prisoners of war. All the trappings of their life, their power and wealth are shredded yet some cultural norms are still there.
There’s a hugely interesting thread in the book about the seeds of modern China emerging in this book.
It is the story of the subjugated local Chinese, who - except for the militias - seem to have to given up on life and resistance and live a pitiful life devoid of any meaning or dignity. No-one, neither the Brits or the Japanese value their lives, disgustingly.
There’s a telling line at the end of the book, after the war when Shanghai is back in Allied hands:
However, the heads of the Chinese were already turning to another spectacle. A crowd had gathered below the steps of the Shanghai Club. A group of American and British sailors had emerged through the revolving doors and stood on the top step, arguing with each other and waving drunkenly at the cruiser moored by the Bund. The Chinese watched as they formed a chorus line. Provoked by their curious but silent audience, the sailors began to jeer at the Chinese. At a signal from an older sailor, the men unbuttoned their bell-bottomed trousers and urinated down the steps. Fifty feet below them, the Chinese watched without comment as the arcs of urine formed a foaming stream that ran down to the street. When it reached the pavement the Chinese stepped back, their faces expressionless. Jim glanced at the people around him, the clerks and coolies and peasant women, well aware of what they were thinking. One day China would punish the rest of the world, and take a frightening revenge.