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Shanghai's Red Church rises once again

A $3-million conservation plan is returning the Holy Trinity church, built in the 1860s, to its former glory and signals yet another transformation in Chinese history.

February 27, 2011|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • Holy Trinity Church in Shanghai. Craftsmen at a furniture factory in Zhejiang province produced scores of carved teak pews to fill the recently renovated Holy Trinity.
Holy Trinity Church in Shanghai. Craftsmen at a furniture factory in Zhejiang… (Martha Groves, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Shanghai — During the winter of 1941 everyone in Shanghai was showing war films.... To Jim's dismay, even the Dean of Shanghai Cathedral had equipped himself with an antique projector.

— "Empire of the Sun"

"Empire of the Sun," J.G. Ballard's atmospheric novel about his coming of age in China, opens on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Shanghai Cathedral choir boys are being marched to the crypt to watch newsreels of Royal Air Force fighter planes falling in flames to the English countryside.

The cathedral's actual name was Holy Trinity, and Ballard, the son of expatriate Britons, attended the cathedral's prestigious boys school.

Built in a Victorian Gothic style in the 1860s, Holy Trinity served for nearly eight decades as the spiritual home for colonialists who flocked to Shanghai after Britain's victory in the Opium Wars opened the port to trade. With its stout pews, stained-glass windows and 2,500-pipe organ, the red-brick Anglican church provided a cloistered haven in an exotic, untamed place.

Along with the men-only Shanghai Club and racehorse owners' Shanghai Race Club, "the cathedral was a central feature of British life in a faraway land," said Peter Hibbard, a British expat and president of the Royal Asiatic Society China in Shanghai. Here in the Red Church, as many called it, babies were baptized, couples were married and parishioners were laid to rest in a homey refuge complete with manicured lawn, gargoyles and spire.

Now, after decades in the control of local politicians, during which it was revamped as a theater and meeting hall and later left to deteriorate, the cathedral is nearing the end of a painstaking renovation by a Chinese Protestant organization. Later this year, this historic church will reopen to what is expected to be a crush of worshipers once dozens of faux stained-glass plastic windows have been replaced with the real thing.

Under the Red Church's watch, this tumultuous city has come full circle — from anything-goes capitalism to the birth of communism to war with Japan to the religion-crushing Cultural Revolution to, once again, unfettered commercialism and even a robust revival of Christianity.

Church revival

Jonathan Yardley's jaw dropped when he entered Holy Trinity in February 2005. "What the hell have they done?" the conservation architect recalls wondering.

Instead of immaculate tile and marble, Yardley found a sloping ground floor made of 7 inches of reinforced concrete and a "floating" second floor above the building's interior arches. Turquoise fans and modern chandeliers hung from the superimposed ceiling. Red-brick walls had been plastered over and painted. The altar had been turned into a stage, and hundreds of raked theater seats had been squeezed in where parishioners in sturdy wooden pews had once recited the Lord's Prayer.

Yardley was a consultant with Commonwealth Historic Resource Management, a firm in Vancouver, Canada, that had been hired to study the cathedral's history and devise a conservation plan. He saw immediately that many bricks would have to be replaced. Interior alterations would have to be carefully dismantled to restore the church to its appearance in 1930, considered its spiritual and physical peak.

The renovation would be done under the auspices of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Founded in the 1950s, the Christian organization promoted a strategy of "self-governance, self-support and self-propagation" to assure that members would be free of foreign missionaries' influence. The wish to renovate reflected the growing interest in preserving Shanghai's historic Western architecture, long denigrated as evidence of Chinese subordination to imperialism.

"Many people think the architectural style of this church is very unique and beautiful," said Rev. Gao Feng, president of the Shanghai-based China Christian Council, an umbrella organization for Three-Self and other government-approved Protestant Christian churches in China. "We think it's important to restore it for neighboring communities to worship."

The council, which has offices in the former cathedral school, estimates there are 23 million Christians in China, but many China watchers believe the number could be double or triple that.

"There is quite a significant religious revival in China," said Richard Madsen, a sociology professor at UC San Diego with expertise in Chinese culture. The government still attempts to restrict religious practice to registered places of worship, Madsen added, but untold numbers of Chinese practice on their own in non-approved "house churches."

Far from a "house church," Holy Trinity represented the height of formal Christian religion in a city that had never seen its like.

A church rises

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