Emptied Shanghai Orthodox churches await new
By Mark South
With their imposing architecture, cavernous vaulted ceilings and
ornate decoration, Shanghai's old Russian Orthodox churches should
be prime real estate.
Plumb in the middle of Downtown Shanghai, the former St Nicholas'
in Gaolan Road and the Mission church in Xinle Road, both built
in the 1930s and registered by the municipal government as architectural
heritage, would be worth a fortune to any private investor.
Strange then that today the two buildings stand empty.
The last tenant of the Mission church, The Dome - a teahouse, restaurant
and nightclub - has long since vacated the premises.
"It's been closed for more than a year," said a man named
Qu who sells newspapers outside the church. "The local government
wanted to protect the building and make sure it wasn't damaged so
they closed it down."
A short walk away, the building that started life as St Nicholas'
church but most recently played venue to the Ashanti Dome, an award
winning French restaurant and bar, is also derelict.
According to a Mr Yang, officer with the Luwan district economic
committee and custodian of the empty building, the French eatery
moved out last November.
"In October we were told to protect the building and the restaurant
left. I come here every day to make sure everything is secure -
I don't know what will happen in the end but at the moment it isn't
on the market for anything."
Built between 1932 and 1934, as well as spending time as a church
and a French restaurant, St Nicholas' has hosted various unlikely
activities. According to one local history website, the church was
once home to a washing machine factory.
During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) it faced demolition
but local residents hung a large picture of Chairman Mao from the
roof, and the church was spared.
Before the restaurant opened six years ago, Yang added, the building
housed the community cultural office and had also spent time unoccupied.
"I used to sneak in when I was young," said the 55-year-old.
"But when it was empty it was really frightening inside."
Yan Ronghua, Yang's boss, whose phone number is posted on the firmly
locked door of the building, said orders to remove the bar and restaurant
had come from the Central Government and the owner had been compensated
for the loss.
The Russian Consulate in Shanghai was unable to confirm whether
its government had requested the bars and restaurants be closed
for being disrespectful to the buildings' religious past.
Mr Zhang, a security guard working near St Nicholas', was happy
its tenure on the Shanghai bar scene had come to an end.
"In the past the bar was very popular and attracted a lot of
foreigners. During the day it was quiet but at night it would get
quite noisy with tables and chairs on the front terrace. It definitely
won't be a bar or restaurant again."
The future use of the buildings appears to be undecided, but one
clear favourite has already emerged for St Nicholas' at least.
"It would be great if it could be a church again," said
Zhang. "A lot of foreign tourists still come here to take pictures
and it would be heartbreaking if the building was ruined."