Author J.G. Ballard wrote the novel Empire of the Sun based on his own childhood. That’s the first level of creative difference between truth and fiction. By the time it was adapted for the big screen, there were bound to be some things that were changed.
So, what really happened? Let’s find out.
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About the movie Empire of the Sun
From 1839 until 1842, Great Britain and China fought what we now know as the First Anglo-Chinese War. Or, another name for that is the First Opium War because the fight came about largely because of the Chinese wanting to stop the spread of opium by seizing it from British traders. Meanwhile, Britain didn’t like how China was handling the British traders, so the war broke out. When that conflict ended, Britain gained a larger foothold in China through the Treaty of Nanking.
In addition to the Chinese seceding the island of Hong Kong to the British, there were five ports setup under British control to appease their trade demands. It didn’t really work, but for the purpose of our story today, that’s important because one of those ports setup by the Treaty of Nanking was the Shanghai International Settlement.
It was here, on November 15th, 1930, that James Graham Ballard was born to British parents. Seven years later, Japan launched their full-scale attack on China. Then, of course, we know it was soon after this that the rest of the world was thrust into war.
After World War II, James would grow up to become a well-known author. His first novel called The Wind from Nowhere was published in 1961. That was the first of many sci-fi books that James would write.
But then, in 1984, James published his 11th novel — and it was quite a bit different than his usual novels filled with a science fiction and dystopian futures. Thanks to the 1987 movie of the same name that introduced many in the world to a young Christian Bale, J. G. Ballard’s novel that the movie was based on would go on to be his most popular.
And even though Empire of the Sun was a fictional novel, there’s some real history in there as it was based on J. G. Ballard’s own experience as he grew up in the Shanghai International Settlement during Japanese occupation.
Learn the true story behind Empire of the Sun
The movie begins with some text scrolling on screen as a voiceover reads it.
It says that in 1941, China and Japan had been in a state of war for four years. The Japanese Army was in control of much of China’s countryside and cities, while in Shanghai there were thousands of Westerners who lived in the International Settlement. Many of whom had lived there since the British set up the settlement in the 19th century.
Inside the settlement there was peace, despite the war breaking out around them thanks to diplomatic security. But then, at least according to the movie, that diplomatic security was about to expire as the Japanese were waiting for something only they knew was coming … Pearl Harbor.
All of that is true.
As we touched on in the introduction to this episode, it was in 1937 when war broke out between China and Japan. Specifically, most historians point to the Marco Polo Bridge Incident that took place on July 7th, 1937 as the trigger for the war.
If you listened to episode 71 about the movie Ip Man, we talked more about that incident over there, so I won’t repeat it here. But, even though that was when war officially began, there had been skirmishes between the Chinese and Japanese for years before that.
After all-out war began, the Japanese rolled through China. One of the major victories the Japanese won took place between August and November of 1937. More specifically, August 13th through November 26th.
During those three months, one week and six days, about a million troops battled for the city of Shanghai. The Japanese were vastly outnumbered with some 300,000 troops compared to China’s 700,000 in defense.
But, the Japanese had far superior technology. The Chinese lost a quarter of a million men while the Japanese losses were only around 100,000. Only. After defeating the Chinese in Shanghai, the Japanese moved swiftly to China’s capital, Nanking. That fell in about two weeks.
The movie is correct in stating, though, that the Shanghai International Settlement was left out of the bloodshed around it. Oh, sure, there were skirmishes that broke out between the Japanese and Chinese rebels that would sometimes get near the settlement’s borders, but for the most part the settlement was immune.
There are some estimates that about 1.5 million Chinese lived in the settlement as a way of avoiding the conflict — about a million going before the Japanese even took over Shanghai and another half a million after the attack.
By the time 1940 rolled around, some of the British commanders must’ve seen the writing on the wall because they started moving their military forces out of the International Settlement. Most of them ended up leaving by August of that year, but there were some who stayed behind — although they were mostly civilians left.
In fact, there were only a couple military ships left in the port. That’d be the British ship HMS Peterel and the American ship USS Wake. Even those ships had been reduced to almost no crew. Their primary purpose in being left behind was mostly to communicate what was happening in Shanghai with the rest of the Allies.
As for the movie’s claim that the Japanese were waiting for Pearl Harbor to enter the settlement, that’s true as well.
But, that’s getting a little ahead of our story.
So, let’s hop back into the movie to be introduced to our main character: Jamie Graham. He’s played by a 13-year-old Christian Bale — as a fun bit of trivia, not his first acting role, but certainly his first major role in a movie.
Early on, we see a few different scenes to set up young Jamie’s life in Shanghai. And, it’s a nice life. At one point, we see Jamie open up the refrigerator in their home to see all sorts of luxurious foods … cakes, pies, cheeses, bacon, and some huge piece of meat that looks sort of like a shank or something.
It’s pretty clear that they’re living well.
And while I don’t think we can really expect the specifics of these scenes to be too accurate, the gist of what they’re trying to convey is correct.
As we learned in the introduction, the character of Jamie Graham is based on the book’s author, J. G. Ballard — James Graham Ballard.
Growing up in Shanghai, James was relatively sheltered from what most of the world in the 1920s and ‘30s considered, “The Wickedest City in the World.”
A large part of that was due to his father’s occupation as a businessman running a textile factory in Shanghai. His mother, meanwhile, wasn’t involved in the business but seemed to enjoy the life of lavish parties.
Oh, and even though the movie mentions Jamie’s mother and father as being John and Mary, that’s not their real names. John Graham is played by Rupert Frazer while Mary is played by Emily Richard.
In truth, James Ballard’s father was also named James while his mother was named Edna.
Back in the movie, the movie doesn’t do a very good job of giving us an overall view of the timeline. But we can start to piece it together based on a couple key things.
First, there’s a scene where we see Jamie’s family dress up and go to a Christmas party at a friend’s house. As a fun little bit of movie trivia for you, one of the guests in the background wearing a red coat and a top hat was none other than James Graham Ballard himself. The guy who wrote the book that the movie is based on — and, of course, the real “Jim” who lived in the Settlement as a child.
Right after the party, we get an even bigger indication of the timeline when we see the Japanese make their way into the Shanghai International Settlement itself.
If you remember, the movie mentions that the Japanese were waiting for Pearl Harbor to move into the settlement.
And that’s how we can compare the timeline in the movie here to history because that’s true.
At 7:48 AM on December 7th, 1941, the Japanese commenced their attack on Pearl Harbor. At least, that’s 7:48 AM local time in Pearl Harbor. In Shanghai, that would’ve been about 1:48 AM in the morning. Except Shanghai is on the other side of the International Date Line, so that would be 1:48 AM on the following day, December 8th.
So, while most residents were in their beds and before they would’ve heard any news about what was going on in Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began yet another invasion as they moved into the International Settlement.
About three hours later, shortly after 4:00 AM, the crews on board HMS Peterel and USS Wake started to hear the first reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
It had to have been a surprise — were they hearing this right? Wait … if that happened, the International Settlement is surrounded by the Japanese that had already overtaken the rest of Shanghai. Could they be next?
But, there was no time to react. The Japanese were already on their way across the diplomatic borders. And that included the two military ships in the harbor.
That’s when the USS Wake, a ship who was launched in Shanghai in 1926 and never once sailed in American waters, became the only US Navy ship to surrender during World War II when Japanese marines forced the men on board into a situation where there was no other option. Not a single shot fired.
Her ally in the harbor, the HMS Peterel refused to surrender, though. Instead, she made a mad dash down the river. But, the Japanese had anticipated one or both ships might try to run. They opened fire and the Peterel soon sank to her final resting place. I found some conflicting reports about survivors with some sources claiming only six of the 14 men survived while others said it was six who were killed, and the rest were taken prisoners of war.
Those are details that don’t change the outcome. The International Settlement fell to the Japanese very easily that day.
Back in the movie, we see all of this happen from the perspective of Jamie’s family. As the Ballard family descends the stairs to join the throngs of people pouring out onto the street, Jamie asks his mom if he’ll be going to school today.
“No, Jamie, there will be no school today,” his mom replies.
While the situation was different than what we see in the movie, the end result was very similar.
According to James Ballard’s biography, it was on December 8th, a Monday, that he asked his father if he’d be going to school that day. With the school year winding down for Christmas break, that was the day they’d be starting their exams.
No, his father told him. There won’t be school today. No more exams.
As a child, it’s not like James could’ve grasped the gravity of what was happening. He was happy to not have to go to school. But, that’d change.
The movie makes it seem like the Ballard family gets separated right after the Japanese entered the settlement. We see Christian Bale’s version of Jamie get separated from his mother and father in the crowds of panicking people. It happens when Jamie drops his toy airplane. He lets go of his mom’s hand for a moment to grab it from the ground, and when he stands back up his mom is nowhere to be found.
Standing on a car, Jamie sees her. The crowd is pushing too strong, and she can’t get back to him, so she calls to him … telling him to go back to their house.
So, Jamie does. But, his mom and dad aren’t there. The movie doesn’t give us any sort of indication of time, but we can tell it’s passing from a montage of shots. There’s a montage of shots Jamie roams around his home all alone. He’s drinking the last of some water he can find, playing with his dad’s pipe, devouring some chocolates that he finds, riding the bike throughout the house — something his parents would probably disapprove of, and perhaps one of the biggest indications of time passing is the waterline of the pool out back. The pool that was once filled to the top is now almost completely empty. There’s only a little puddle left at the deepest part.
While it is true that a lot of those living in the International Settlement were imprisoned soon after Pearl Harbor, it’s not true that the Ballard family was among them. In fact, James lived with his parents at their home until March of 1943. Years later, James would guess that it was probably because there were a lot of Swedish and Swiss nationals living in the Shanghai International Settlement. As such, the Japanese didn’t treat them as badly as they did the British and Americans.
So, for lack of a better term, for the years immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was mostly a matter of luck that the Ballards were allowed to live in their home.
Going back to the movie’s timeline, after Jamie gets fed up living at home alone and with a dwindling supply of food there, he tries to surrender to the Japanese. But, they don’t seem interested in a British kid throwing his hands up in front of their marching soldiers. There is someone who is, though.
That’d be a random boy who keeps chasing Jamie. The chase happens for quite some time until, when he finally catches up in an alleyway, the boy starts stealing Jamie’s boots. A woman appears and starts hitting the boy, which causes just enough of a distraction to let Jamie slip away. He runs out into the street and right in front of a truck.
And that’s how we meet the driver of the truck, Frank Demarest. He’s played by Joe Pantoliano. Frank takes Christian Bale’s version of Jamie off to meet yet another major character in the film, Basie. He’s played by John Malkovich. It’s here that Frank and Basie, who are both Americans by the way, decide to rename Jamie to “Jim.”
Frank, Basie and the newly-nicknamed Jim went to his house where Jim convinced the two Americans there would be plenty of things they could scavenge. But when they get there, they find the Japanese have taken over the home. That’s when the three get captured and taken to an internment camp.
Well, as we already learned, Jamie is really based on James Graham Ballard, so Jim would’ve been a nickname for him anyway.
As for the characters of Frank and Basie — they’re fictional. And seeing as they’re a big part of the story from here on out in the movie, that probably gives you an idea of how realistic the rest of the movie is.
So, what really happened then?
Well, we’ve already learned a few of the pieces. For example, after the Japanese took over the International Settlement on December 8th, 1941, the Ballard family continued to live in their home for a couple more years. We also learned James wasn’t separated from his family at that time.
But, it was in March of 1943, that the Ballard family was among many other foreign civilians who were taken from the Shanghai International Settlement to a new camp called the Lunghua Civil Assembly Centre that was built on the grounds of a former school.
In fact, the location of the Centre is where the Shanghai High School lives today.
For a bit of geographical reference, the Centre is on the south side of downtown Shanghai and about 23 miles, or 38 kilometers, to the north of the Pacific Ocean. That’s also about three miles, or five kilometers, from where the Shanghai Lunghua Airport is … well, today it’s the Shanghai Longhua Airport, but then again there have been various spellings of the town in the area going back before World War II — Lunghua, Lunghwa, Longhua, and so on…
Oh, and not only was James with his mother and father at this time, but the movie never shows that he wasn’t an only child. He had a four-year-old sister named Margaret who was taken to the camp with them.
The lead-up to people being taken to Lunghua was unfortunately a familiar scene for anyone with knowledge of the camps during World War II.
After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese didn’t go around rounding up foreign citizens in the International Settlement right away. They did make the British and Americans register their businesses, though. I couldn’t find anything to show that James Ballard Sr., did this for his textile factory, but it’d make sense if he did.
As time went on, these foreign citizens labeled as potentially hostile weren’t allowed to go to bars, clubs, theaters, and so on. Lots of businesses were pressured to refuse their patronage. How did these businesses know they were “hostile citizens?”
Well, the Japanese required they wear armbands with a letter on them — “A” for American, “B” for British, and so on. Toward the end of 1942, the Japanese started to take things from their homes. Radios, cameras, and other things that were prohibited for these “hostile citizens.”
Then, in February of 1943, the Japanese began rounding up the rest of these citizens from foreign countries deemed hostile to put them into internment camps.
It was a sunny day in March of 1943 when the four members of the Ballard family joined other foreign citizens around the swimming pool of Shanghai’s American Club. They knew were waiting to go to Lunghua. Some of the people there thought the war would be over in a matter of days, so they didn’t even bother to pack anything.
Of course, we know from history that the war lasted a little longer than a few days after March of 1943.
Even though many of the scenes with the fictional Frank and Basie in the movie are made up, some of them are based on young James’ life at Lunghua.
For example, when we head back into the movie’s timeline, there’s a moment where we see Christian Bale’s version of Jim running from person to person in the camp. He trades cigarettes for a couple tomatoes and a half a head of cabbage. The cabbage he runs over to a woman ironing some clothes. He hands her the head of cabbage, which she quickly hides under a hat. Then, he runs over to a boy and gives him a piece of gum in trade for a pair of boots. The boots get delivered to a Japanese officer, and Jim sneaks a bar of soap into his pocket in exchange.
As this continues, we see some text on screen that says Soochow Creek Internment Camp, 1945. We’re two years after we know the real Ballard family was sent to the camp.
Those specific scenes in the montage are made up, but the basic gist is true. Although, as we learned, the real James Ballard didn’t stay at the Soochow Creek Internment Camp like the movie shows. Instead, he was at Lunghua, which is about 60 miles, or about 90 kilometers to the east of Soochow Creek.
Despite the location difference, James Ballard spent a lot of his time at Lunghua running errands. Trading this trinket for that one.
But, it wasn’t always about trinkets. As the war raged on outside the camp, inside the camp, the availability of food grew more and more scarce.
In the movie, we see the camp as a series of single-story buildings that are spaced far apart. Outside the camp, there’s a few different scenes where we can clearly see an airfield just on the other side of the barbed wire fence.
Probably the most inaccurate part of the look of the camp in the movie is that, in truth, well, it didn’t look anything like what we see in the movie. As we learned earlier, Lunghua used to be a school before it was converted to the internment camp, and as such it resembled what James would later refer to as a half-ruined college campus.
Some buildings were damaged or destroyed — the rubble left where they once stood.
The primary buildings where the internees stayed were three or two-story buildings filled with small rooms that once were class rooms back when the campus was a school.
In fact, if you want to know what they look like today, just do a search online for the Shanghai High School. One of the primary buildings that’ll come up in that search is a big, three-story gray building with a yellowish-brick entrance. That’s one of the buildings used to house internees during World War II at the Lunghua camp.
I’ll make sure to add a link to a photo of it on this episode’s page over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com, too.
And, for the most part, even though it was technically imprisonment, and there were some Japanese guarding the buildings surrounded by a barbed wire, the movie is correct in showing that it wasn’t the same as other prison camps during World War II. The Japanese left most of the details of running the camp to the people in the camp themselves. Seeing as Shanghai and most of China around them was all occupied by Japan, and the internees in the camp weren’t soldiers to begin with, they apparently weren’t much of a risk for escape.
And, for good reason. Looking back on it, James Ballard recalled more than a few times when a ball or a kite would make its way beyond the barbed wire fence. He’d simply go through the fence, retrieve it and head back in.
Thanks to his errands and love of exploring the camp — something his parents let him do — James earned a name for himself in the camp. He made a lot of friends there, and for the most part seemed to enjoy his time at Lunghua.
Sure, it wasn’t the life he had before, but considering what was going on around the world, it wasn’t as bad as others were experiencing during World War II.
Oh, and remember the airfield the movie shows just on the other side of the camp? Well, there was one there, but it wasn’t right on the other side of the fence like the movie shows. Remember earlier when we learned that the camp was about three miles from the Shanghai Lunghua Airport is now? Well, that’s the airfield the Japanese used.
So, it was more like five kilometers from the camp. Not quite as close as the movie makes it seem.
Speaking of which, back in the movie, we see the first Allied forces at the camp when a squadron of American P-51 Mustangs burst into view after shooting a Japanese Zero out of the sky. Christian Bale’s version of Jim, who throughout the entire movie had been fascinated by the Japanese, is thrilled with the American fighter — especially when one of the pilots waves at Jim.
That didn’t happen, but it is true that P-51 Mustangs attacked Lunghua. More specifically, it was the airfield that was the target, not the camp.
As the war continued, conditions at the Lunghua camp got worse. For lack of a better way to put it, the Japanese had higher priorities than the people in the camp. Food, which had already been a prized commodity compared to what they were used to, became even more scarce. The location of the camp happened to be in an area with a lot of mosquitoes. As such, malaria was a big problem for those in the camp throughout the duration of the war. And, as the Japanese started to neglect the camp in favor of what they no doubt saw as higher priorities, access to supplies started to dry up as well.
Now, we haven’t really talked much about the events going on outside the camp. The movie doesn’t, either, but for the sake of context let’s get an idea of what’s happening around this time. If you remember, earlier in the movie when Jim was running errands around the camp, we saw some text on screen that mentioned the year was 1945.
By that point in the war, the Allies had made some headway against the Japanese in the Pacific. After the Japanese managed to force the Allies from the Philippines and the East Indies, the Allies retaliated with a series of campaigns that saw major victories for the Allies.
The Aleutian Islands, Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, the Philippines, and so on…even with stiff Japanese resistance, the Allies were pushing their way toward the Japanese homeland.
Meanwhile, in China, the Allies weren’t having as much success. Having dug themselves in, for three long years the Japanese defended China. But, the Allies kept pushing. It was in the summer of 1944 when the Allies began air raids on Shanghai.
P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightnings swarmed the skies, strafing the runway and nearby Japanese defenses. Even though the airfield was a few miles from the camp where James was at, it’s not surprising that he would’ve seen the battle take place in the skies. And he was mesmerized by them. All his childhood, James was fascinated by the Japanese. They had what must’ve seemed like amazing technology to a boy who grew up in Shanghai.
But, the fascination he had with the Japanese military disappeared when the American planes started to show up. As James would later say, Japan was the past. The American planes were the future.
As the movie comes to a close, we see the Allies liberate the camp. Christian Bale’s version of Jim gets taken in by members of the American Army, and he gets sent to an orphanage for children who are prisoners of war. It’s here, in a very sentimental ending scene, that he’s reunited with his mom and dad.
That didn’t happen.
As we already learned, James was in the Lunghua camp with his sister and parents the entire time. So, there wasn’t a reunion after the war ended.
Toward the end of 1944, the Axis powers were on the verge of collapse. If you remember from history, Operation Overlord — D-Day — was on June 6th, 1944. By the end of the year, the last counter-offensive from the Germans in the Ardennes failed. Allies began pushing through Germany and Italy and, on May 7th, 1945, Germany signed a total and unconditional surrender.
After this, the Allies turned their full might to the war with Japan. And, with the Allies already making good progress in the Pacific theater, it was only a matter of time before the Allies would emerge victorious. On July 27th, 1945, the Allies called for the unconditional surrender of Japan. That was rejected. On August 6th, the Allies dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, with another dropped three days later on Nagasaki.
Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and nine days later, on August 15th, 1945, Japan surrendered. Documents of surrender were officially signed on September 2nd, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
As for James Ballard, it was in the early days of August 1945, when everyone in the Lunghua camp assembled for roll call in the same way they did for years before. This time, though, the Japanese guards weren’t there. Many people, including James, thought perhaps the Japanese had surrendered. But, as it turned out, the Japanese around the camp didn’t seem to care about that.
The war was obviously near its end, and the mood in the camp was tense. Was it over? Or was it not? They knew something was going on, but they didn’t have access to a lot of outside news.
Some of the people in the camp tried to leave but were returned a few hours later — badly beaten by the Japanese Army.
As August came to an end, James grew tired of the tension in the camp. It didn’t help that an American bomber had dropped some supplies. The ravished internees in the camp horded the supplies, guarding them against others in the camp. That’s when James decided he’d walk the few miles to the home he’d grown up in. And so, without telling his parents where he was going, that’s what he did.
And he made it, too.
When he arrived at his home, there was someone living in there. He rang the doorbell, pushing past the person as he made his way inside. They fled the house, leaving James to survey the house he once knew as his home. And, as far as he could tell, it was exactly the same as it had been when he left — almost as if nothing had happened.
That had to have been an eerie feeling.
James ended up returning to the camp and to his family. Many of the internees in the camp stayed there until they thought it would be safe to return home. Japan may have surrendered, but many troops still held to their previous orders. By the time September rolled around, though, the Ballards returned to their home.
As American and Allied military men began to flood Shanghai, the city changed into something new. James would later admit to missing his time in the camp. He’d made friends there, had his formative years there, and learned more about life than one could’ve hoped for in that time.
With 1945 coming to an end, James, his sister, and his mother took a ship to England. His father decided to stay, though. No doubt to help rebuild his company.
It would be years before James would see his dad again.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- Empire of the Sun | Scripts on Screen
- Empire of the Sun (1987) – IMDb
- Empire of the Sun (1987) – Plot Summary – IMDb
- Empire of the Sun (1987) – Rotten Tomatoes
- Empire of the Sun (film) – Wikipedia
- Empire of the Sun – Wikipedia
- JG Ballard | Books | The Guardian
- Empire of the Sun (Audio Download): Amazon.co.uk: J. G. Ballard, Steven Pacey, Audible Studios: Books
- The real Empire of the Sun: JG Ballard on how his Shanghai childhood inspired the war film | Daily Mail Online
- Miracles of Life: J.G. Ballard’s Pre-posthumous Memoir | L.A. Weekly
- JG Ballard: five years on – a celebration | Books | The Guardian
- J. G. Ballard’s Memoir, ‘Miracles of Life’ – The New York Times
- A Point Of View: JG Ballard and the alchemy of memory – BBC News
- J.G. Ballard ‘Miracles of Life’ | TIME.com
- Review: Miracles of Life by JG Ballard | Books | The Guardian
- ‘Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography’ by J.G. Ballard – The Washington Post
- History of the Shanghai International Settlement – 2018 Words | Bartleby
- Japanese takeover of Shanghai International Settlement – Axis History Forum
- J.G. Ballard | British author | Britannica.com
- J. G. Ballard – Author – Biography
- Orange and Magenta » Shanghai in the Thirties
- Japanese attack on Shanghai 8 December 1941 | War and Security
- Japanese Forces – International Settlement
- Warship Weds Aug 8, The Lost Wake | laststandonzombieisland
- Our Greatest Generation – Posts
- USS Wake (PR-3) – Wikipedia
- Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre – Wikipedia
- Captives of Empire: The Japanese Internment of Allied Civilians in China and Hong Kong, 1941-1945 – Captives of Empire: The Japanese Internment of Allied Civilians in China and Hong Kong, 1941-1945.
- BOY IN ‘EMPIRE’ CALLS ACTING ‘REALLY GOOD FUN’ – The New York Times
- 1200px-SHSID_Flower_Garden_and_Longmen_Building.jpg (1200×900)
- China Lost 14 Million People in World War II. Why Is This Forgotten? – Pacific Standard
- Allies of World War II – Wikipedia
- World War II– China Shanghai
- ‘Empire of the Sun’ internment camp forgotten in Shanghai | South China Morning Post