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Where once was joy and sunshine

It was a sunny afternoon after endless early-spring chilly rains on April 7, 1922. A rainbow of teenage girls stood in a half circle; each took a spade and dug out a little mud to celebrate the ground-breaking of the St Mary's Hall's new campus.

This April 7 was also a sunny day when I visited the campus that housed one of Shanghai's best Christian schools early last century for girls from the best families. Nowadays it is known for one of its students, Shanghai-born author Eileen Chang, who studied there from 1931 to 1937.

Chang's novels are still bestsellers, widely read and talked about among Chinese. The once poetic campus, the cradle of her early writings, is still there but no longer in good shape. Some buildings have been torn down by developers. The remaining are empty and topless, with only the chapel intact, thanks to a "historic architecture" copper board on the wall.

It took only 88 years for the Christian school to develop from an empty land to a well-established campus and to a land of ruins in front of my eyes.

Seated on bustling Changning Road, the campus is now encircled by imposing residential buildings.

"The location used to be the suburbs outside the railway route. As our city is growing bigger and bigger, the campus now sits in the middle of the Zhongshan Park Commercial Center and thus attracts developers," says researcher Su Shenglan from Shanghai Committee of Cultural Relic Administration who wrote a master's paper on St Mary's Hall.

According to Su's research, the school boasted a string of classic-style buildings which were interestingly connected with each other through long, beautiful colonnade. All the buildings, ranging from the science hall, the gym, the dining hall to the Basilica chapel, were designed in a modest yet elegant style that went well with each other.

"Imagine how graceful it was that you could walk from building to building through a long colonnade," says Su. "It's a pity that the colonnade has been damaged. Moreover, some buildings - including the Dodson Hall, the gym, the Twing Hall and the music halls - have all been demolished."

To paint a picture of the original school, Su dug out students' articles published on the school magazine - "Phoenix." Chang had published her earliest English and Chinese essays in this magazine.

In an article about the campus opening in 1924, former student Yui Da-iung wrote: "Those cream-colored buildings, with their road stairways and high arches, represented a life of joy and sunshine. The lawn and trees mirrored the beauty of nature. Was not St Mary's Hall, with her friends and benefactors, an ideal place for developing China's best citizens?"

Bathed in the weak April sunlight, the ruins revealed a unique kind of wild beauty.

The former lawn is sprinkled with pieces of gray brick and weeds growing at will. On the east side the former white teaching building is topless, each room still with a mottled blackboard in it, hanging on the wall like pieces of contemporary art.

Heavy columns, formerly part of the fabulous colonnade, lie silently in the weeds. Scarlet ivy climbs all over the walls and circles the mini Ionic columns on the window in an artistic way.

The former dining hall on the west side shows a line of compelling red-framed wood windows. Walking through this mix of red windows, white arches and yellowish walls is a strange feeling.

The only well-preserved house, the chapel with a bell tower, is the tallest building in the campus. Student Lieu Wo-Bing describes the chapel "yellowish-orange, as bright as the glowing sun" in 1925:

"All of its windows are in the shape of ancient triumphant arches. With the brick colonnade on either side, it reminds us of the ancient buildings in Europe."

Now the color has turned an old gray covered with thick ivy and climbing onto the spiral stairway with the original railings all missing made me a little dizzy.

As student Wo Chingli wrote in 1925, the top of the bell tower offers a perfect view. Although I could only glance from a huge windowless frame at a land of ruins, my heart throbbed and for an instance I felt like the small girl climbing onto this 60-inch-tall tower to overview her beloved campus 80 years ago. And it's true as she wrote "there is much wind."

"Author Chang has described a scene in one of her late novels: Heroine Miss Chao stood on the colonnade, looked through an arch and saw a silhouette of the bell tower reflected in the reddish sky. At such an amazingly beautiful scene, the girl's heart is overwhelmed with great joy. And the exact scene is still there in the campus," says Su.

Chang wrote the novel in 1978 when she lived in Los Angeles. She wrote the scene she had seen nearly half a century ago when she was a school girl. The scene was so touching it was carved in her mind.

After visiting the campus on April 7, the 88-year anniversary of the ground-breaking ceremony, I stepped onto the upper level of Zhongshan Park Metro Station which offers a more comprehensive view of the campus.

In the weak April sunlight, I cast a last glance at St Mary's Hall that once housed so many vivacious girls, including the slim, sensitive, bookworm Chang.

In an English article, "My Great Expectations," Chang wrote: "Time is like a sharp knife. As time marches on, it (St Mary's Hall) may be marred by dust, worn out by weather, or broken into separate fragments. If I have a chance to live to be a snowy-haired old lady, I shall, in my peaceful dreams beside the fireside, seek for the old paths leading through the green plum trees which I have been familiar with in my early days."

To preserve or to demolish, and how to preserve old buildings is always a question for fast-growing, history-heavy cities like Shanghai. Teenager Chang thought about time as a sharp knife decades ago. Her penetrating words and a campus of wild, beautiful ruins kept me pondering for a very long time.


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