Shanghai’s Masonic history shrouded but remnants remain
By Michelle Qiao
Dan Brown’s best-selling novels “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Lost Symbol” aroused international interest in Freemasonry. What is not known is that the mysterious ancient society once erected a beautiful Masonic Hall on the Bund in 1867 that “forms a striking picture when Shanghai is approached from the river.”
“Freemasonry founded over a dozen branches in Shanghai after the city opened port in 1843, among them Northern Lodge of China, Royal Sussex Lodge and Tuscan Lodge that co-funded the construction,” Shanghai historian Wu Zhiwei says.
The organization was started by medieval masons who were shrouded in mystery and ancient secrets over the centuries.
“As one of the world’s largest secret societies nowadays, most of their members are white male Protestants, free thinkers and social elites,” Wu says.
Masonry always played an important part in Shanghai life, according to F.L. Hawks Pott’s 1928 book, “A Short History of Shanghai.”
“We find that the first lodge — the Northern Lodge — was established in 1849. This was followed by the Sussex Lodge in 1863. Its first home was in Park Lane, now Nanking Road (the current Nanjing Road). The foundation stone of the new Hall on The Bund was laid in July 1865, and was one of the first buildings of pleasing character to appear on the waterfront.”
The Chinese name “Kwei-Ken-Tang” meant “Compass and Square Hall,” according to Masonic symbols “compass and square,” two crafting tools used by masons who built stone churches.
“The site of the Masonic Hall covers today’s The Peninsula Shanghai and the former British consular court. It was such an influential society that the site was specially approved by the British Consulate,” Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao says.
A lost temple
Another Tongji University researcher, Wang Fang, calls the Masonic Hall “an ornament of the Bund” in her 2011 book “A Study on Waitanyuan.”
The pleasing building, which took two years to complete, was constructed to a high standard and consisted of two parts.
The eastern part facing the Bund contained a servants’ office in the basement, library and reading room on the ground floor and offices and parlor room on the second. The western part was somewhat hidden and housed the public hall on the lower floor and the Masonic Temple above.
Wang notes an interesting “worldly function” of the Masonic Temple. The society’s most secret and sacred room opened to the public when hosting the biannual Masonic Ball for charity fund-raising.
A feature story in the North China Herald described the building decorated “on a lavish scale” during a Masonic Ball in 1910:
“At the street entrance were numerous large tree palms, and immediately facing the doorway was an immense square and compass, which shone out brilliantly from the tiny lights of red, white and blue that were entwined among the bamboo foliage, with which the stairway was arched.”
In the main hall “in the middle of the ceiling was a large five-pointed star of amber-colored electric globes, which was draped with strips of ivy. The ceiling was festooned with many lengths of evergreens, among which were entwined electric lamps of red, white and blue.”
In addition, the walls were tastefully decorated. “Each pilaster containing a loop of evergreens, and a St Andrew’s Cross occupied each recess between the pilasters; while the blank spaces were admirably filled by a judicious distribution of lodge banners, each Order in Shanghai being represented in this way,” according to the North China Herald story.
Symbolic mysteries probably added glamor to the ball, which was regarded as the city’s big feast and enjoyed great popularity. The less than 400 participants in 1886 soared to more than 700 in 1899 and 1,200 to 1,300 in 1910.
The once spacious hall became uncomfortably crowded, which resulted in a big renovation in 1910. Architects Christie & Johnson smartly made use of every available inch, removing the east wall and the old veranda to allow more usable space. According to a 1912 report in the North China Daily News, the design of the main staircase is “very effective without being too elaborate.”
“The lower part of the staircase is well lighted on the left by a large and well-designed window partly of stained glass and above the principal landing — the main hall — is a handsome cupola lighting of stained glass. Standing out in effective relief from the grey-tinted walls are the white emblems of the three English lodges.”
However, according to Huangpu District Archives, the edifice was partially damaged by a fire in 1918 and later sold to a new owner, who demolished it entirely and left the site “30 The Bund” empty for a very long time.
A surviving temple
The grand Masonic Hall is sadly gone but another Masonic building remains safe in downtown Shanghai, although it is not listed as a Shanghai Historic Building.
Renowned Chinese historian/economist He Xin wrote about his visit to the 4-story Renaissance building at 1623 Beijing Road in a 2013 book “Who Rules the World.” This scholar had been studying and writing about the conspiracy of the secret society against China during recent years.
“Shanghai, Weihai, Tianjin and Xiamen all have relics of Freemasonry before 1949, whose China branch retreated from the mainland from 1954 to 1962,” he notes in the book.
The stone tablet of the new Masonic building is still there, inscribed with names of several Freemasons in Shanghai as well as the construction time, January 1931. The year 1931 was also written as “AL 5931” on the stone, referring to a calendar system within the Freemason fraternity. “AL” is abbreviation for Anno Lucis, which means “Year of Light.”
Currently housing a rainbow of medical societies, the building is well preserved with the original teak wood flooring, staircase and most amazingly, a green-toned grand hall adorned with patterns and symbols that was probably the new Masonic temple moved from the Bund.
A door in the hall leads to a dim-lighted old bibliotheca with high ceiling and double-level book shelves, reminiscent of another era and a library in a “Harry Potter” movie.
Officer Hua Fei of the Shanghai Medical Society recalls receiving Freemason guests from overseas, who recognized symbols in the hall. Some red wooden doors of the building are still graced with the society’s signature square and compass.
On a beautiful day on September 18, 1793, then US President George Washington, decking out his ceremonial Masonic apron festooned with square and compass symbols, laid the cornerstone for the US Capitol building in Washington DC, the heroic architecture in Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.”
The ritual for laying cornerstone of the Masonic Hall on the Bund on July 3, 1865 mirrors the “full Masonic ritual” for the Capitol building. Participants were fully attired and formed a long parade according to a strict Masonic order, with the most respected ones at the end. The ritual drew a large audience, including many Chinese whose curiosity turned to aspiration about the coming building.
American writer Mary Ninde Gamewell, pointed out “Shanghai is a little world” at the beginning of her 1916 book “The Gateway to China.” One cannot agree more when delving deeply into the relics and symbols left by the Freemasons on the Bund and beyond.
Yesterday: The Masonic Hall
Built: In 1867
Architectural style: Neoclassic
Architect: Mr Clark, renovated by Christie and Johnson
Tips: Visit the new Masonic building at 1623 Beijing Road W. and read the original inscription on the left bottom base stone.