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.
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 worshippers once dozens of faux stained-glass plastic windows are 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.
"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 nonapproved "house churches."
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.
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 worshippers.