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Moving Forward

From bullets to cash machines, HSBC’s 151-year history is closely aligned with the evolution of Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 April, 2016, 11:24pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 12:24pm

HSBC has been part of Hong Kong life for 151 years, through two world wars and numerous economic crises. As one of the three note-issuing banks in the city, its logo is a familiar sight in wallets, while the two bronze lions, Stephen and Stitt, that guard its building and symbolise wealth and power, are icons in the city.

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The bank’s founder was Thomas Sutherland, a Scotsman working in Hong Kong for a shipping firm. It started business on March 3, 1865, at a building at 1 Queen’s Road Central, a site it still occupies today.

The current building has an uninterrupted view of Victoria harbour, which according to Chinese traditional feng shui practise is vital for bringing wealth.

The two lions, meanwhile, would have a few tales of their own to tell if they could, including a near brush with “death”.

They were commissioned by the bank from a Shanghai-based British sculptor in 1935 for its then new Hong Kong headquarters building, which was the first air-conditioned building in the city.

Then the war came and the statues were taken by the Japanese to be melted down, but they survived because the war ended before this could happen. They were recognised by an American sailor in Osaka in 1945 and a year later were returned to Hong Kong. One of them still bears bullet marks from the fighting in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded.

They now stand outside the current main building, with replicas outside the bank’s offices in Shanghai and London.

The current HSBC building, completed in 1985, was designed by Norman Foster and was at the time the most expensive building in the world at HK$5.2 billion, with its all-steel construction. Its lifts do not stop at each of its 47 floors, but it has 62 escalators to connect floors. It also has four basement levels. Stephen and Stitt spent the construction period in the square across the road from the building.

HSBC now has approximately 28,000 staff in Hong Kong, and is the largest banking employer in the city. It has a total of 255,000 staff worldwide. It has close to 100 branches in Hong Kong and 177 outlets in the mainland, making it the largest bank in Hong Kong and the largest foreign bank in China.

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Around seven out every 10 Hongkongers is thought to have an account with either HSBC or its subsidiary, Hang Seng Bank.

The bank had a close relationship with the Hong Kong government until the return of the city to the mainland in 1997. Before the establishment of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority in 1993, HSBC functioned as a semi-central bank.

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