This is JG Ballard's autobiography, including a significant chunk that tells the true story on which "Empire of the Sun" is based.
The Chinese aspect was the main draw for me, but in fact his contact, experience and knowledge of Chinese people, food and culture was negligible. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and found some of his descriptions of pre-war Shanghai remarkably resonant with my experiences there in 1992 and 2008.
EARLY YEARS IN CHINA
Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930 and grew up in the International Settlement, i.e. amongst Europeans, albeit with Chinese staff. "My insulation from Chinese life was almost complete. I lived in Shanghai for fifteen years and never learned a word of Chinese" nor tasted any Chinese food till decades later in England. This sounds like a slight exaggeration, especially given the amount of time he spent at the Kendall-Ward's house (where the mother spoke fluent Chinese to the servants) and his own father's interest in Chinese history and culture.
Nevertheless, Ballard did cycle alone around the city alone, and his memories are vivid and reflected in his adult work, "a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory". Shanghai was a frantic city, lacking "everyday reality", and it and its people "live above all, on the street" so there was plenty to see. "In Shanghai the fantastic, which for most people lies inside their heads, lay all around me and I think now my main effort as a boy was to find the reality in all this make-believe." After WW2, England was "a world that was almost too real. As a writer, I've treated England as if it were a strange fiction".
Ballard was not just cut off from the Chinese; from the opening sentence, you assume a distant relationship with his mother, and their parenting was very hands off. "Children were an appendage to their parents, somewhere between the servants and an obedient Labrador, and they were never seen as a significant measure of a family's health or the centre of its life. My mother claimed not to have known of my dangerous cycle trips around Shanghai, but many of her friends recognised me and waved from their cars. Perhaps they too felt it was scarcely worth mentioning." It is no surprise that his own approach to parenting was very different.
As a writer, Ballard of course mentions aspects of his life that are reflected in his writing, but it is odd how few questions he asked his parents about them and their lives (e.g. why they went to China, and why they left for good in 1951) - even when he was writing Empire of the Sun.
As a young man, Ballard became interested in surrealism (and Freud and psychoanalysis), but his first taste was shortly before internment: "Seeing everything displaced and rearranged in haphazard ways gave me m y first taste of the surrealism of everyday life, though Shanghai was already surrealist enough."
"Linghua Camp may have been a prison of a kind, but it was a prison where I found freedom." (Amelie Nothomb's experience in a Peking diplomatic compound in the 1970s was similar: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/342140589). The famous two and a half years in the internment camp were, unlike in Empire, spent with his parents, and he views that time as incredibly happy (less so for the heaving-drinking adult expats, who had to go cold turkey). For the first time in his life, he was with his parents most of the time - so different from the traditional 1950s professional families where people "hung their clothes in private wardrobes, along with their emotions, hopes and dreams". On the other hand, in some ways, his parents were now more passive in their parenting because "they had none of the usual levers to pull", they were "unable to warn, chide, praise or promise".
PAIN OF PEACE
After such freedom, the end of the war was a shock. "Peace, I realised, was more threatening because the rules that sustained war, however evil, were suspended." Going to England to live with grandparents was "the lowest point in my life... several miles at least below the sea level of mental health", an all the more startling comment in the light of an event that occurs a few years later.
Post war England was depressing. "The English talked as if they had won the war, but acted as if they had lost it... hope itself was rationed... the indirect rationing of unavailability, and the far more dangerous rationing of any kind of belief in a better life."
Although colonial China was very hierarchical, the reality of the English class system came as a shock. "Middle class people in the late 1940s and 1950s saw the working classes as almost another species and fenced themselves off behind a complex system of social codes... Everything about English middle class life revolved around codes of behaviour that unconsciously cultivated second rateness and low expectations." But it wasn't deference that won the war.
Unsurprisingly, Ballard didn't really fit in; he was drawn to international friends, literature and films. Consequently, "I read far too much, far too early", including big names when he was still learning about life and writing. Nevertheless, he began to fit in a bit. "The camouflage always imitates the target", so he was mortified when his mother turned up at school in an American car, in the latest New York fashions.
He wanted to be a painter, but opted for medicine so he could become a psychiatrist, though he "knew that I already had my first patient - myself". Obviously, he became none of those things, and although he loved the modernity of the Cambridge labs, he hated the old-fashioned gentlemen's club atmosphere of college. "My two years of anatomy were amongst the most important of my life... because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution" (and he had seen a lot of death in China). Furthermore, it may have been "an unconscious way of keeping Shanghai alive by other means".
He came to sci-fi relatively late (in his twenties), and was always more interested in a "what now?" approach than a "what if?", i.e. inner space, rather than outer space - coming back to his interest in Freud and surrealism. These interests were epitomised by his controversial book, "The Atrocity Exhibition"(http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/493008844), shortly after which, he did actually put on an atrocity exhibition of crashed cars (with no explanatory text). In many ways, it was a psychological experiment to see if there was a connection between crashes and sexuality, testing the ideas put forward in "The Atrocity Exhibition", which he then presented in a more conventional narrative structure in his novel, "Crash".
A pervading passion in the later sections is for his children. That means their adulthood was a mixed blessing: "Infancy and childhood seem to last for ever. Then adolescence arrives... and one is sharing the family home with likeable young adults who are more intelligent, better company and in many ways wiser than oneself."
Although Shanghai unconsciously seeped into many of his writings, it was 40 years after he left China before he deliberately wrote about it, and slightly longer before he revisited.
In 1991 he was struck by how a city built by Europeans now had no trace of Roman script, English signs or American cars, and attributed that to the facts that "the Chinese are uninterested in the past" (what about their reverence for their ancestors?) and that "there are only two words in the Chinese bible: make money".
I'm not sure I agree with him. I first visited China a year after him and even then it wasn't entirely true. When I went back in 2008, Roman script (Pinyin), signs, adverts and more are sadly ubiquitous.
Sadly, advertisers now sell un-Chineseness to eager Chinese consumers.