The Unseen History

When we first arrived at a Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Juba’s suburb, a storm came and all the residents in the market started to run from the pouring rain. In minutes, the streets were almost empty; water filled the gutters and the dirty stream ran all through the camp. A few children passed us, stopped and talked to us to offer help. We smiled and declined.

A colleague told me the last time he used a child as a guide who was as good as an adult. It immediately reminded me of English writer J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Empire of the Sun”. It tells the story of a 13 year-old English boy, who was separated from his family during World War II, navigating amongst different nationals and groups, and learning to survive in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre in Shanghai. I had never known this history of Shanghai – where I was born and grew up – before I read the story of Ballard.

At PoC site, we met some children, who were separated from their parents. I asked about their dreams. Instead of cute, innocent answers that you might expect such as becoming a teacher or an engineer, the children focus on more pragmatic things such as mastering a skill to earn a living after they leave the camp.

Later in the week, we climbed up South Sudan’s tallest building – the 15-story Equatorial Towers. We looked down from the rooftop and saw many things that we would not have seen on the ground.

In 1986, when Steven Spielberg came to Shanghai to make the film based on J. G. Ballard’s novel, there was only one high-rise building in the city: the 24-story Park Hotel. During a TV interview, the host asked then 14-year-old Christian Bale who played the English boy if he liked being in China and he said no. He said: “It’s like back in 100 years, really. …The hotel we were in didn’t fit in the place because and everything. When you look out of the window… it’s all these shacks and people running around… dusty clothes…”

“Do you know that Shanghai used to have only one high-rise building?” I asked our driver. He laughed, in disbelief. It was something my dad always told me when I was little to remind me how lucky I am.

The scenes of the film came back to me all the time when I was in Juba. It was like going back home but back in times, back to many years ago to witness something I have never experienced first hand, which is happening now in our times, unseen, rarely-heard-of by the rest of the world.

– Shanshan Chen