Bank of China

Making sense of historic dollars

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am

As Hong Kong is an international financial centre, it is a matter of interest that people should learn more about its currency. Until June 4, the Hong Kong Museum of History presents 'Hong Kong Currency', the largest exhibition of its kind in the city.

Some 700 artefacts are on show, giving visitors a better understanding of Hong Kong's monetary history through coins and banknotes, pictures and videos. People can also learn how the purchasing power of the local currency has changed over the years in relation to their everyday lives.

Presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the exhibition is organised by the Hong Kong Museum of History, with Standard Chartered Bank (Hong Kong), the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and Bank of China (Hong Kong) as supporting organisations.

After Hong Kong opened to foreign trade in 1841, the city used silver sycees [a type of ingot] and Chinese coins as its main currency. Hong Kong only got its own paper money in 1846 when the city's first bank, The Oriental Bank (later known as The Oriental Bank Corporation), began issuing Hong Kong dollar banknotes.

Later, the Hong Kong government began ordering coins in denominations of 10 cents and below from Britain in 1863. Three years later, the Hong Kong Mint was founded to produce silver coins in denominations of 5 cents to HK$1 locally. The Mint was closed in 1868, making the silver coins for those two years the only ones produced locally.

When the British trade dollar (a legal tender of Hong Kong since 1895) was abolished in 1937, Hong Kong's coinage was standardised and issued exclusively by the Hong Kong government. Although Hong Kong had as many as six note-issuing banks in 1866, only three remained before the second world war: the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, and the Mercantile Bank of India.

The establishment of the Exchange Fund in 1935 required note-issuing banks to surrender all silver reserves to the government in exchange for a Certificate of Indebtedness. Any additional issues of banknotes needed to be supported by the bank's deposit of the equivalent amount of British pounds sterling at the Exchange Fund. This marked the end of note-issuing banks having to pay the bearer in silver upon presentation of notes, and banknotes became legal tender that year.

During the second world war, when the Imperial Japanese Army occupied the city, Hong Kong dollar coins and notes continued to circulate at different exchange rates alongside Japanese military ones. From 1943 onwards, Japanese military notes were the only currency of exchange. It was only after Britain resumed administration of Hong Kong in 1945 that new notes printed in Britain were delivered to Hong Kong again.

After Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, her effigy appeared on Hong Kong's coinage in 1955. In the 1970s, the Mercantile Bank stopped issuing banknotes, leaving only two note-issuing banks in Hong Kong: HSBC and Standard Chartered. They issued their first HK$1,000 notes in the late 1970s. In the 1980s, the two banks issued HK$20 notes.

The signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984 marked a transitional period for Hong Kong's return to China.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority was established in 1993, and a series of new coins was introduced in the same year with the image of the bauhinia, the city's floral emblem, to replace the bust of Britain's queen.

In 1994, the government began issuing HK$10 coins and, for the first time, Bank of China issued Hong Kong banknotes, taking the number of note-issuing banks back to three again.

Due to the high demand for HK$10 banknotes during the Lunar New Year, paper notes were issued again in 2002 in the form of government-issued notes. In 2007, those government notes were printed on polymer.

Today, a growing number of Hongkongers prefer to use debit and credit cards for their purchases. The increasing acceptance of personal loan services also helped push the city into the credit-card age.

The 1990s witnessed Hong Kong's embrace of electronic money, and the drop in public demand for paper money and coins indicates that the city's currency is moving from tangible to intangible forms with the definition of money gaining new meaning.

In the exhibition, visitors will be able to learn more about the birth of Hong Kong currency and see the delicately minted coins and colourful banknotes. Among the 700 exhibits featured, some have rarely been seen.

Among the items on display are hubs and dies for coins; silver coins minted in Hong Kong from 1866 to 1868; banknotes issued by the Oriental Bank Corporation (the first note-issuing bank in Hong Kong); the HSBC HK$1 note from 1926, with a watermark window for the first time; and Chartered Bank banknotes from 1959, with the first use of a metallic security strip.

Also on display are the first batches of Certificates of Indebtedness issued to the note-issuing banks by the Hong Kong government in 1935; the printing plate of the HSBC HK$500 note bearing the portrait of Sir Thomas Jackson; commemorative coin plaster models with the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac from 1976 to 1987; and the Bank of China un-prefixed commemorative banknote set from 1994.

To supplement the exhibition, the Hong Kong Museum of History has published a new edition of the Hong Kong Currency catalogue. It is a comprehensive record of the development of the coinage and paper money of Hong Kong from 1841 to the present, with detailed descriptions and historical photographs. Priced at HK$150, the catalogue is available at the gift shop of the Hong Kong Museum of History.

The museum is also organising a lucky draw for the exhibition. Each visitor is given a voucher along with the purchase of an admission ticket during the exhibition period.

Upon answering a simple question on the voucher correctly, they will then qualify for the lucky draw.

Three winners will be drawn and each will receive a special paperweight set valued at HK$3,000 sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank (Hong Kong), the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and Bank of China (Hong Kong).

The draw will be held on June 8 at the Hong Kong Museum of History.

Results will be posted in the museum's main lobby on the first floor and on the museum's website at


Venue Hong Kong Museum of History, 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon

Date until June 4

Opening hours Monday, Wednesday-Saturday 10am-6pm, Sunday and public holidays 10am-7pm; closed Tuesdays except public holidays

Admission HK$10, half price concession to seniors and full-time students, and people with disabilities. Wednesdays free.

For more information visit