Shanghai's Anglican cathedral to rise again

Beijing, China - The state-run Protestant Church in China has unveiled plans to restore Shanghai's colonial-era Anglican cathedral, in a sign of the revival both of Christianity and of interest in the city's historic western architecture.

Holy Trinity, a classic piece of empire neo-Gothic designed in the 1860s by Sir Gilbert Scott, the leading architect of his day, was for almost a century the focal point of Anglicanism in the Far East.

The cathedral school next door educated the sons of the western businessmen who flocked to Shanghai's International Settlement and French Concession in the decades before the Second World War. One pupil was the future author J G Ballard, whose celebrated novel of the era, Empire of the Sun, opens with the 11-year-old hero wearing a cassock and watching war films with fellow choristers in the cathedral crypt.


Now, after more than 50 years in the hands of the local Communist Party, it is crumbling, with tree branches poking through its distinctive red brickwork and cracked windows shedding a gloomy light on its nave and chancel.

But since it was handed over to the official Church two years ago, ambitious plans have been drawn up to restore it to its former state, at a cost of 49 million yuan, more than £3 million. Even the spire, which was knocked down in the Cultural Revolution, is to be rebuilt. Work is due to begin later this month.

Inside, it will be refitted in traditional style, with mahogany pews.

Peter Hibbard, a British architectural historian in Shanghai who was consulted on the restoration, said the city was paying more attention to conserving historic buildings, though often old fittings and stone were torn out to be replaced with copies.

"Basically they want to prettify it," he said. "They do want everything to look new and modern, even if it's old."

China has also been on an extensive church-building spree to cope with the rapidly rising number of Christians, particularly evangelical Protestants. Although most worshippers belong to illegal and unregistered "house churches", the official "Three-Self Patriotic" Protestant Church, which is loyal to the ruling Communist Party, is also trying to keep up.

In part, this is because the party has come to the reluctant conclusion that rather than being just a feudal superstition, religion has a role in stabilising an increasingly fractious and materialistic society - similar in some ways to what British businessmen found 100 years ago on arrival in Shanghai.

After the Communists won China's civil war in 1949, Holy Trinity was handed over to the district government and used as an auditorium, while the school and dean's residence behind, both built in the 1920s in Art Deco style, became police offices and the exit visa bureau. The school has already become the Church's national headquarters, while the residence has just completed conversion into a luxury boutique hotel. Like much of old Shanghai, it is surrounded by grand, semi-restored neo-classical buildings used as banks and corporate offices, and demolition sites.

Unlike his fictional self, Ballard was never a chorister, but the cathedral still made an impression. "I remember it as quite an august place, quite a big cathedral," he said.

"I remember after Pearl Harbour there was tremendous destitution among the white Russians and other European refugees and my father would give money to those who worked for his company. We used to hide behind the pillars in the precincts of the cathedral and watch these desperate men emerge, take their money, and slip away into the wilds of Shanghai. It was a very strange city."

A spokesman for the Zhang Ming Architectural Design Firm, which has led restoration work on some of Shanghai's best-known European buildings, said renovation would take two years.