Wayfoong epitome of old Shanghai

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2009, 12:00am

For Gary Yang, a 38-year-old Shanghai white-collar worker, the HSBC brand is a symbol of his family's glorious past.

Mr Yang, whose grandfather was a senior executive with the bank early last century, said HSBC was the epitome of the old, prosperous Shanghai.

He still lives in the three-storey house on Beijing Road that his grandfather bought more than half a century ago. Mr Yang likes to reminisce about a time when wealth and opulence was the norm for the family.

His late grandfather was among the 'old carats' - a term Shanghai people used for the super-rich who made their fortunes by dealing with or working for foreign companies.

Old carats were knowledgeable about what was happening in the world. They were always followed by a swarm of people, who either served them or hoped to learn from them.

'Whenever people knew that I was an offspring of an old HSBC executive, they kind of showed unexpected respect for me,' said Mr Yang. 'HSBC was synonymous with something lofty in people's minds.'

In Shanghai, nearly all the senior citizens have memories of HSBC, and they talk about the British bank with awe because it was a catalyst in the rise of old Shanghai.

In 1925, HSBC, known as 'Wayfoong' at that time, constructed a new headquarters building on the Bund, at that time a British enclave.

Headquarters' orders were to 'spare no expense but dominate the Bund'. When it opened in 1925, the 23,415 square metre neoclassical structure with its huge dome and six Ionic columns did just that. It was the Sistine Chapel of British commercial imperialism in Asia.

After 1949, the building was home to the Shanghai municipal government, until it was given to Pudong Development Bank in 1996.

HSBC had hoped to buy back the palace-like structure but failed to reach agreement with the government, which reportedly wanted US$100 million for the lease.

Shanghai was rife with rumours that HSBC wanted to get back more than 10 cartons of gold bullion hidden in the old headquarters. In 1997, during renovations, mosaics by English artist George Murray were discovered. They had been covered with stucco to save them from destruction during the Cultural Revolution.

Mr Yang said: 'The old HSBC was much more than a bank. It was a symbol of the era. The new HSBC is just a foreign bank in the eyes of local residents.'