Shanghai Bishop Jin Luxian’s Legacy

This mostly dormant blog was started in 2007 with almost no agenda beyond plans to expand on my just-published profile of Shanghai’s Catholic bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian in the July/August 2007 issue of the Atlantic. I did that, and over the years I kept up with Jin – though I didn’t publish anything much beyond what the Atlantic piece contained.

Meanwhile, over the weekend I received the very sad news that Jin had passed away at 96. At that advanced age, no death can be called unexpected. But Jin was a man of unusual intellectual and physical vigor (he was traveling internationally, carrying his own bags, as recently as his 88th year), and it came as a bit of a surprise to me, and to many others who knew him, even though he’d been ailing for some time. He was just that kind of man – full of life, thoughtful, and – it can now be said – very, very funny.

On the occasion of his passing, I’ve written a short remembrance and biography that tells the tale of how I acquired Jin’s first passport in an online auction. Matt Schiavenza at the Atlantic’s new China channel was kind enough to publish it, here. As a very minor supplement to the piece, entitled, “Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian’s Legacy for Religious Freedom in China,” here is the first page of the passport, as described over at the Atlantic.

page2 001



Build, Demolish, Rinse, Repeat: A Shanghai Scrap Carmelite Update

Way back in January 2009 the staff of Shanghai Scrap told you about the demolition of Shanghai’s (then) 135-year-old Carmelite Convent  on the edge of the expensive, rapidly re-developing Xujiahui neighborhood (part 1, complete with historical background, here, and part 2, here; background on Carmelites, here).  The building wasn’t anything special – except for the fact that it was one of the city’s oldest structures, foreign or Chinese. But what made this demolition so egregious, so patently ridiculous, were the stated intentions of the (re) developers to build a 20% smaller replica of the convent just a few meters south of the original one. [UPDATE: also see comment #1, below, left by Lisa Movius, on why the destruction of the convent “was criminal – literally”] This struck me as stupid and wasteful, but I’ve been here long enough to know that it should also  strike me as one more thing: typical. That is, the Carmelite Convent is not the only historic structure in Shanghai to be demolished in favor of a replica that – for whatever reason – is more in the interests of the developer. In fact, in the case of some dilapidated slum dwellings, this might often be a good thing. In others, less so, to put it lightly.

Anyway. I’d mostly forgotten about this sorry Carmelite episode until this weekend, when I happened to pass the site of the old convent in a taxi and saw that it was being rebuilt. I returned a couple of days later, with a Benedictine, to photograph it. Here, from January 2009, is the historic convent in the last stages of its demolition.

Take note of the roof, and the close proximity of the remaining structure to the fence. And then, have a look at the photo below. The arrow points to the roof of the new convent. The white buildings in place of the old convent are dorms for workers building the replica convent and the highrises that will surround it.

After the page jump, a before and after view from the development’s gate. Continue reading

Expo 2010 has a little bit of everything, but it sure doesn’t have one of these.

I was working up an article on Expo 2010 (World’s Fair) a few weeks ago when – by accident – I came across (and then purchased) this vintage postcard showing the Vatican City pavilion from the 1964/65 New York City World’s Fair.

And the back side (click to enlarge for text).

No surprise, despite signs – once again! – of warming Sino-Vatican relations, Vatican City won’t be exhibiting in Shanghai. And frankly, that’s a pity. After all, in 1964, they not only had a pavilion, they had Michelangelo’s friggin’ Pieta exhibited inside of the pavilion (fyi: no longer impressed that the Danes have lent the Little Mermaid to Expo 2010). So, unlike Expo 2010’s tacky exhibits, promotional films, and endless rounds of 4-D programming (wind! rain! in your face!), that’s something (an artistic masterpiece of the very first order) that might’ve been worth waiting in line for three hours to see. Continue reading

Orphans and Woodcarvers: Shanghai’s Prodigal Memorial Gate Returns Home.

The upcoming Expo 2010 Shanghai (World’s Fair) is an un-apologetically forward-looking event, intended – at least in part – to solidify Shanghai’s place as the Next Great World City. This is all fine and good. But lost in all of this talk of the future is scant acknowledgment of Shanghai’s relatively brief but fascinating past. So, last night, when I received an invitation to attend the unveiling of a restored early 20th century Chinese memorial gate, built and carved for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (ie, the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair), I didn’t hesitate to cancel my morning travel plans. Here it is:

Now you may be thinking: he canceled travel plans for this? And I answer: yes. Because what makes this gate blog-worthy – what makes it formal-unveiling-worthy – is the illustrious history of the mostly forgotten Tushanwan orphanage and workshop responsible for carving it. I’m going to use the remainder of this post (and a train ride to Hangzhou) to explain why. Almost all of the information that I’m going to recount comes from the wonderful ‘Zikawei in History,’ a multi-author history of Shanghai’s once-Catholic Xujiahui neighborhood published by Shanghai Culture Publishing House (a must if you’re interested in Shanghai’s pre-liberation history). The book contains some rough English translations, and I’m going to draw upon – and polish the English where appropriate – along the way. After the jump, we’ll start in the mud hills … Continue reading

Italians painting Byzantine icons in Shanghai.

Yesterday afternoon I was invited to visit the almost-completed new fresco in the 150-year-old Dongjiadu Catholic Church (aka, the Jesuit-built St. Xavier Church) in Shanghai. The church is 150 years old, and it’s in the midst of what was once one of Shanghai’s most Catholic neighborhoods (now, mostly demolished – more on that in the next day or so). Anyway, the fresco project is privately funded, and very quickly accomplished: according to Juan Pablo Civíl, the leader of the team of one-dozen artists commissioned to do the work, it required a mere four days of drawing, and nine days of painting (and affixing of gold leaf). That’s quick, I’d say, and proof perhaps that – at least when it comes to frescoes – the Europeans can compete with Chinese production rates.

The fresco is an authorized copy of a design by Kiko Argüello who, I’m told, passed through town recently to inspect and sign it. The design is unapologetically Byzantine (Russian Byzantine, in fact), with a few Chinese characters inserted into the Book of Life (held by Christ in the center of the painting), for obvious reasons. Anyway, not the sort of thing one sees happening in Shanghai (or anywhere else, really) very often. A few more photos after the jump … Continue reading

The Artist is flexing: A brief note on the stained glass windows of Shanghai’s cathedral

The three leading reader questions received via the Shanghai Scrap contact form are:

  1. Can you get me into the Expo grounds? [What do I look like? A ticket broker? No.]
  2. Will you ship your large inventory of e-waste to me? [I don’t have any e-waste (except for that Dell in the closet). So, no.]
  3. What is the status of the project to restore the stained glass windows of St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai, and can you put me in touch with the artist?

Well. Long-time readers of this blog may recall a series of posts that I wrote back in late 2008 covering the installation of several dozen new stained glass windows into Shanghai’s century-old Catholic cathedral (here, here, and here, among others; my lengthiest treatment of this project in traditional media is this 2006 piece for the now defunct LA Times Sunday Magazine). As commissioned by Shanghai’s bishop Jin Luxian, these windows aren’t restorations of the windows destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, so much as they are an entirely new cycle of stained glass that merges Chinese characters, idioms, and artistic traditions with Western liturgical art and stained glass. The artist entrusted with this unprecedented commission is Wo Ye, Beijing born and bred, trained as a traditional Chinese painter and, later in life, trained in Catholic liturgical art in Italy and the United States. There’s really nobody else with her background, and training, anywhere, and that not only explains the commission, but why she is – best as anybody knows – the only woman or Chinese to ever get such a commission.

In any event, not long after completing that late 2008 series of windows, Wo Ye took a one year leave of absence from the project for personal reasons. Her leave – and the absence of visible progress on the cathedral’s windows – led many to wonder if the project was halted. It wasn’t, and it’s not. As proof: this morning I paid a visit to Wo Ye in her studio not far from People’s Square, where I found her as strong as ever (the photo, below, is meant to convey that), and getting ready to resume work in earnest:

With a little convincing, she submitted to an exclusive interview. Here it is:

Shanghai Scrap: Do you want to say anything about your upcoming plans for the cathedral windows? Designs, anything like that?

Wo Ye: [laughing] No!

Rumor has it that the second level nave windows are next. More when I have it.

Japan’s Benedictines

Typically, I don’t post links to articles that I write for my hometown media (back in Minnesota), lest I come off as the provincial rube that – frankly – I am. That, and I think interest is fairly limited for things Minnesotan among my readers – the vast, vast majority of whom have no interest in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. But once in a while an exception is in order, and so I hope interested readers will enjoy having a look at “In Japan, a Minnesota monastic community thrives,” my account of Trinity, a small Benedictine monastery in the mountains west of Tokyo with roots in St. John’s Abbey, a much, much larger Benedictine community in Collegeville, Minnesota (I’ve had some positive feedback from non-Minnesotans who read it via a link off my twitter feed – thus, this post). Below, the view just past the monastery’s driveway:


Quite a bit of thanks is due to the very kind, very hospitable brothers at Trinity. I had the privilege of spending a long weekend with them (and doing the reporting for this story) in the midst of a long, totally unrelated reporting trip in late May and early June.