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Church of crouching tigers, flying cranes

Crouching Tigers and Flying Cranes. Between lies a Byzantine-style Catholic church that is still operating.

I have visited nearly 100 historic buildings all around the city, but none of them is located in an environment as unusual and beautiful as the Catholic Country Church (Xi Yan Tang) along the Xinjing River.

It was built in 1925 with funds raised by legendary Chinese Catholic educator Ma Xiangbo and other Catholic patriots.

One sunny windy afternoon, I was fortunate to visit the waterside church in the western suburbs of Shanghai with experts in architectural history.

I first glimpsed the two-story building from a short bridge on Kele Road, which offered a perfect view. The church topped with a stunning dome was reflected perfectly in the tranquil water. The scene was very Zen in some ways.

It's a pity that my expert friends found that the walls, originally coated in rough-textured cement, had been renovated and looked less authentic.

This is another building designed by world-renowned architect L.E. Hudec (1893-1958), who designed more than 60 historic buildings including the Park Hotel in Shanghai.

It is the first of three churches he designed in the 1930s for Shanghai. He later designed the Gothic-style Moore Memorial Church on Xizang Road and the Art Deco New German Evangelical Church (demolished) on the site of what is now the Hilton Shanghai hotel on Huashan Road, near Yan'an Road M.

"This is a very rare Byzantine-style church in Shanghai and a unique building among Hudec's works. It shows his mastery of different architectural styles," says Hua Xiahong from Shanghai Tongji University. But she says local Catholics believe Chinese Catholic architect Pan Shiyi was the real architect, instead of Hudec.

"I think Hudec had designed the church according to original blueprints and his role as the chief architect for the local province of the Jesuit Order," says Hua. "Pan used to work in Hudec's firm. So he may have participated in the design work as well, just as Chinese and foreign architects nowadays."

In addition, Hudec later designed another building for Ma Xiangbo, the Aurora Arts and Science College for Women that Ma had founded. Hudec always had many Chinese clients, such as owners of the Park Hotel. Today the college building is still there, part of the Shanghai Xiang Ming High School on Changle Road.

Born in 1840, Ma was a renowned, knowledgeable Catholic Chinese who was fluent in several foreign languages. Throughout his long life of nearly 100 years, he founded three universities, including one that became what is today's prestigious Fudan University.

When we arrived, it was Saturday afternoon and a service was underway. The Catholics from the neighborhood, mostly elderly, gray-haired women, were chanting and praying.

Giant columns and numerous Gothic arches reminded me of the day I visited Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

The dome is coated with copper which looks aerugo.

According to the book "Hudec's Architecture in Shanghai," "light cast through the window apertures on the bottom of the dome gives the illusion of the huge dome suspended in the air."

Compared with Gaudi's still-unfinished church, this one is designed in a much simpler, more modest way. But the mysterious sanctified atmosphere, enhanced by old black-and-white photos on the walls, was quite similar. Smart architects are good at creating illusions out of solid, simple materials.

The church was previously known as the "Chapel of the Westerners Cemetery on Rubicon Road." The 50,000-square-meter open area around the church was primarily used as a cemetery. There was also a mortuary and an underground passage to transfer the remains from the mortuary to the church for the funeral service.

Today the former mortuary is used as the office for the local Catholic community. The building with interesting Chinese elements is preserved in good condition.

Our Saturday exploration reached a high point as we helped each other climb onto the small, dusty bell tower adjacent to the chapel through a narrow, steep iron ladder.

From the 1970s the former cemetery on the west side of the church became part of the Shanghai Zoo where tigers were displayed in a line of cages just behind a low wall. On the other side of the tower, we could see white cranes patrolling the waterside, appearing now and then from behind the greenery.

It was dreamlike to stand in the wind on the tall tower with Gothic lancet windows, with tigers roaring on the right and cranes flying on the left.


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