“No, I told you, you can’t go upstairs if you’re not a guest,” the teenage hotel desk clerk scowled at my camera.
Just then, a portly middle-aged man waddled up to the counter and interrupted me, “How much for a room for 3 hours?” Her suspicious eyes not leaving me, the desk clerk pointed to a board on the wall which indicated day and overnight rates.
As the man contemplated, I noted his lady friend seated on the couch, her long legs encased in a mini-skirt, examining her fingernails. Without missing a beat, he grunted, “I’ll take the small room.”
I couldn’t resist a quiet laugh. So there I was, in the tiny lobby of a budget inn watching a man preparing for some afternoon delight, in what was a former Seventh-day Adventist Church (沪北会堂).
It was hard to miss this handsome red-bricked building along Wujing Lu (武进路), close to Wusong Lu (吴淞路), with its Gothic-inspired equilateral arches yet built in a manner reminiscent of its times. It was the first church built by the Seventh-day Adventist in Shanghai in 1905 and later expanded in 1924 to its present two-storey, Settlement design.
Interestingly, Wujing Lu, formerly known as Range Road, has a colorful history and one can always rely on Paul French of ChinaRhyming for a bit of historical context. Range Road marked the northern border of the International Settlement in Hongkou and the Chinese-managed part of Shanghai. According to French, border roads bred proprietors that skirt (literally) the law with businesses such as low-end bars and brothels, hence attracting a diverse group of characters including hoodlums and gangsters. But looking around the beautiful houses in the neighborhood, one imagined Range Road to have been quite tame for a border road.
Details on the activities of the church are scant, but I found out that the church had rented out the space on occasion. One particular patron was the famed writer Chinese Lu Xun, who held a Russo-French Book Illustration Exhibition on the premises in 1933. The church laid empty for much of the Cultural Revolution and later served as a kindergarten and primary school. Appropriately enough, the space transitioned into a spacious restaurant when China’s economy opened up after 1979 and eventually into the present arrangement of a smaller restaurant and budget inn.
I had wanted to see the second floor of the building from the inside, hence the awkward situation with the temperamental hotel desk clerk. My limited sleuthing inside and around the church revealed an interior that had absolutely no architectural connection with the exterior.
At this point, the hotel manager was called down, a middle-age man who looked more curious than annoyed. I explained the situation to him, sharing the history of the building in effort to assuage his suspicion that I was going to expose the seedy underside of budget inns.
“Yes, yes. I have heard about the history,” he waved his hand in acknowledgement, “It was a church. But you still can’t go up. There is nothing worth looking at. The outside is just a shell. The rooms have square windows and are not at all aligned with the outside windows. It would have been too expensive and impractical. Don’t bother.”
Behind him, another couple strolled down. The man yawned heavily as his girlfriend checked out of the hotel.
After a 15 minute back and forth, I unwillingly admitted defeat and left. As I lingered outside to take more photos, the hotel clerk, with her busy fingers furiously texting, continued to watch my every move.