Shanghai cathedral undergoes major renovation

SHANGHAI —"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 in 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.

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.

"There is quite a significant religious revival in China," said Richard Madsen, a sociology professor at the University of California-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."

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.

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.

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

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.

To date, the renovation has cost about $3 million, a pittance by U.S. standards. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement is attempting to raise nearly $800,000 more to buy and install dozens of stained-glass windows, the final step, Hou said. After that, the Red Church will welcome worshipers.

A theologian who saw the cathedral as the renovation was under way said the project speaks to the dramatic changes occurring within China.

"While there are many flourishing churches in China, this cathedral has a special significance," Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said in an e-mail. "The very fact that it is reopening... is yet another manifestation of the marvelous resurgence of faith in China."