The Missions Building symbolized Christian influence in China
By Michelle Qiao
A number of Christian societies were “already ensconced in their airy and commodious quarters” in the new Missions Building on Yuanmingyuan Road as the building fast approached completion, North China Daily News reported on June 10, 1924.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, Yuanmingyuan Road was home to more than 30 religious organizations, according to a survey by Shanghai Zhang Ming Architectural Design Firm. They were sprinkled in the True Light Buildings and the YWCA Building, but most were in the Missions Building.
The six-story edifice in eclectic style was built to “amply accommodate” offices of National Christian Council and other mission boards. At last it housed the majority of religious organizations operating on Yuanmingyuan Road, which was later defined as the “cultural Bund” by scholars to echo the commercial and financial Bund on Zhongshan Road E1.
The National Christian Council was founded in 1922 on the base of the China Continuation Committee to promote cooperation among Christian forces in China. Chinese Christians played a leading role within this council.
The new building was constructed largely with a US$150,000 donation in 1913 from a member of the Presbyterian Church, Dr Fred J Tooker and his sisters to memorize their father. Tooker was formerly at the Presbyterian Mission in Hunan Province but later was obliged to leave China for health reasons.
The Presbyterian Board contributed its valuable property at the then 18 Peking Road that was later sold to secure the Yuanmingyuan Road site. The trustees of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fund also offered US$100,000.
F.L. Hawks Pott’s 1928 book “A Short History of Shanghai” described the city as a center of Protestant Missionary work soon after it became an open port in 1843:
“The efforts of the missionaries were exerted in founding churches, schools and hospitals. Naturally, as Shanghai developed into the largest and most important treaty port, it became the headquarters of most of the Missions carrying on work in China.”
According to Tongji University PhD researcher Zhou Jin’s study on Shanghai Christian architecture, dozens of Protestant missions in China faced fierce competition against each other in their strong desire to spread into other Chinese regions. Therefore Shanghai became a base for training new missionaries from overseas to learn the ABCs about China and for translating and printing religious publications.
“The influence of religious publications was much more impactful a century ago,” Zhou says. “In the times when media was still limited, a religious book was often the most information a man could get. Other Chinese cities may have outnumbered Shanghai in the amount of Christian churches, but nowhere did a street in China like Yuanmingyuan Road have such a density of religious publishing institutions.”
After the Missions Building’s completion in 1924, the National Christian Council occupied its third floor. Besides administrative offices, there used to be a large, 100-seat committee room and smaller exhibit rooms for those organizations that had no offices inside but wished to showcase their work.
Mission Architects Bureau, designer of the building, picked the fourth floor as their office. At the time, many architects loved to move their offices into their own projects on the Bund. Some other organizations, including the Associated Mission Treasures, the London Missionary Society and the American Baptist Society, filled the other floors.
Tenants of the building also included trade companies, shipping firms and manufacturers, two of which were noteworthy.
The Kow Kee Timber was among the internationally chosen suppliers for Shanghai’s landmark Park Hotel, which was built in 1934. According to Luca Poncellini’s book “Laszlo Hudec,” “commissions were granted to those delivering the highest standard, regardless of national belonging.”
For the woodwork, Park Hotel designer Hudec regularly contracted Kow Kee, with offices formerly located in Hudec’s True Light Buildings that were moved in 1935 to the Missions Building.
The firm played a prominent role in projects ranging from Jardine’s Pootung Wharf to stations of the Shanghai-Hangchow Railway. When the company’s Chinese manager, Y.L. Chang, suddenly died in 1936, the obituary of this successful entrepreneur/philanthropist was published in local English papers with a portrait photo.
Another noteworthy tenant was the United Boards for Christian Colleges in China, or Tou-Se-We Orphanage, which was founded by Catholic missionaries in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to educate orphan boys to learn blacksmithing, photography, painting, printing, woodworking, shoe-making and stained glass-making.
The institution produced the majority of stained glass in Chinese churches and also exported their work at their peak. It was also a cradle to a new generation of Chinese artists, especially in the field of sculpture and Western-style painting.
At first glance, the Missions Building impressed chief architect Lin Yun from the Zhang Ming Firm as a “well-balanced, practical office building.”
“Divided in classic three sections, the eclectic-style elevation without classic Orders shows a pure simplicity,” wrote Lin, co-author of “Shanghai Waitanyuan Historical Buildings,” recalling his first exploration into the edifice before a renovation in 2006.
“The elevation is decorated with Shanghai plaster with grey bricks in the middle. The ground floor had grand French windows formerly for bookstores. The staircase was adorned by wooden handles and cast iron railings. With walls partially painted green, the upper floors looked like classrooms. I remembered the original wide-sized, wooden window-blades, which were found in many heritage buildings on Yuanmingyuan Road.”
According to Huangpu District Archives, the building has been shared since 1957 by China Christian Association, a state-owned transportation company, and the National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China.
The building was included in the Rockbund redevelopment project of the north Bund area since 2002, turning it into a mixed-use building of high-end retail and offices.
Back to a May afternoon in 1923, when the foundation stone was laid for the well-balanced Missions Building, C.G. Sparham of the London Missionary Society made a statement outlining the history behind the erection of such a religious block.
“This building, as it rises on the beautiful site secured for it, will be an outward and visible sign of that true spiritual unity in which we rejoice.
Yesterday: The Missions Building
Today: The Missions Building
Architectural Style: Eclectic
Architect: Mission Architects Bureau
Completed: In 1924
Address: 169 Yuanmingyuan Rd
Tips: The building is open to the public with an Italian restaurant at the top floor. Please notice the interesting harmony between the Lyceum Building and the Missions Building, which were designed by two different firms but show a pleasing unity.