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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

In 1847, Shanghai was a rambunctious place where opium smuggling, prostitution and gangsters all flourished. To counter the corruption, an English businessman donated land and money to build a small church in the international settlement controlled by Britain and the United States.

The site was three blocks west of the Bund, the mile-long river embankment now lined with banks and posh hotels in magnificently restored Western-style buildings. A church was soon erected, but three years later the roof fell in.

In 1863, church trustees commissioned George Gilbert Scott to draw plans for "a model of modern ecclesiastical architecture" for 800 worshipers at the considerable cost of 60,000 taels, a part of the Chinese system of weights and currency at the time. The devout son of a clergyman, Scott "was the architectural superstar of England," said Harold D. Kalman, a principal with Commonwealth Historic Resource Management. (Kalman, heritage consultant on the Holy Trinity renovation, researched the cathedral's history and produced the conservation plan.)

Scott spearheaded England's Gothic revival, creating many well-loved structures, including the Midland Grand Hotel at St. Pancras station and the Albert Memorial. From his London office, Scott designed the Shanghai church in the cruciform, or cross-shaped, style prevalent in the early 13th century. Scott envisioned exuberant accents, including hand-carved woodwork and rows of dark blue or black bricks to represent what the British called engineering brick.

The building featured a nave, transept, north and south aisles, a chancel and two small chapels, with lancet and rose windows, hexagonal and round columns, and arches both Romanesque (rounded) and Gothic (pointed). The Jan. 20, 1866, North-China Herald and Market Report described the planned church as "massive and substantial in its feature."

Yet Scott "let them down terribly," Kalman said, by proposing a building that was far costlier and had far fewer seats than specified.

It fell to William Kidner, a British architect working in Shanghai, to modify the drawings. Kidner lengthened and widened the building and dispensed with the clerestory so that walls could be thinner. He substituted a wooden roof for a vaulted brick roof. Scott approved the changes, and in May 1866 members of masonic lodges staged a procession and ceremony to lay the foundation stone as crowds of Chinese lined the streets to watch.

By the end of 1867, walls had been raised to 15 feet, and the granite shafts of the nave and aisle arcades, chapels and apse had been set in place. The roof timbers had been framed. Fittings from England had arrived, stained glass had been ordered and bricks had been locally manufactured.

Holy Trinity Church officially opened Aug. 1, 1869. In 1876, it became the cathedral of the Diocese of North China.

In 1925, two organ builders from Harrison & Harrison Ltd. in Durham, England, sailed to Shanghai to install a three-manual instrument with more than 2,500 pipes. It filled two stories near the chancel to the right of the "crossing," the junction of the church's four arms.

"Every bit of the organ was brought from the docks, nearly two miles, on hand carts by coolies," the brothers Doyley and Austin Jones wrote in a letter to their employer, preserved in the company's archives. But the laborers soon went on strike after Shanghai Municipal Police officers opened fire on Chinese protesters in the international settlement. (Four years earlier, Mao Tse-tung and colleagues had launched the Communist Party in Shanghai, and this "May 30th Movement" provided a boost.)

In the end, the Jones brothers and a Russian helper assembled the organ. Austin Jones professed himself just as happy, given the Chinese workers' tendency to walk off with supplies. "We had to have a special place built to prevent them stealing the pipes, but the number of brass screws that have disappeared is wonderful," Austin wrote to his bosses.

In 1928, the four-story school that Ballard would later attend was added.

By about 1930, Shanghai and the cathedral had reached their zeniths, but the glory days were numbered. In 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the city and surrounded the international settlement. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese occupied the settlement, evicting residents from their homes and effectively ending Anglo-American influence.

Greg Leck, author of the 2006 book "Captives of Empire," said some expats briefly lived under the cathedral's blue-painted wooden beams, which were adorned with gold-leaf flowers and stars. The Japanese soon moved these expats and the Allied population at large into squalid internment camps, as Ballard relates in "Empire of the Sun."

From then on, Holy Trinity went largely unmaintained.


By the early 1950s the church could not afford to pay taxes, and the fledgling Three-Self Patriotic Movement (and, by extension, the Chinese government) took control.

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