Return to its glorious past for Hong Kong’s old Bank of China building in Central

Main banking hall dominated by original art deco ceiling featuring titles laid out in a mosaic depicting nine ancient Chinese characters for money

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 1:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 7:24pm

Returning the old Bank of China Building in Central to its former glory has proved a major challenge for architect Sandi Pei Li-chung, during a meticulous year of renovation work at the site.

Built in 1951, the building with its pair of lions on guard at its front doors, is right next to the HSBC headquarters, and had served as the major office of the Bank of China Hong Kong until 1990, when the 70-floor new Bank of China tower was completed.

Sandi’s father I.M Pei, who turned 100-years-old this year, designed the new Bank of China Building on Garden Road. The old Bank of China Building will now become the regional headquarters of BOC Hong Kong’s private bank.

Pei Jnr described the renovation of the older building as “forensic” in its nature, in that he and his team worked from many old photos, documents and carried out detailed on-site inspection to replicate its original splendour.

“As such a historic building, my intention was always to return it to its original, grand design,” Pei said.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of BOC Hong Kong, it hired Pei to renovate the 15-storey building’s ground, second and the eighth floors, and that work just finished last week.

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The building’s 13th to 15th floors are still taken up by the ultra-grand China Club, which draws frequent visitors for lunches, dinners and events, and has remained largely unchanged from its own glory days, decades ago.

Pei said the most challenging part of the project was restoring the ground floor’s spectacular ceiling.

After the bank moved actual operations to the new tower nearby, the old building was still used as a bank branch of Sun Wah Bank – but a false, more modern ceiling was installed, which Pei described as giving visitors the impression of “being in a spaceship”.

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“When we uncovered the original ceiling, we found unique art deco designs with mosaic titles. We spent months painstakingly removing the false ceiling without damaging any of the original mosaic,” he said.

Now fully restored, the ceiling features nine ancient Chinese characters for money. Nine means forever in Chinese.

“The ceiling design fits so well with the bank,” Pei adds.

Also kept and restored is a main wooden banister, first installed more than six decades ago.

And the polished stone pillars within the lobby, rebuilt into a circle in the 1980s, have been returned to their original square shape.

An exhibition of the older building’s history has been created in the lobby of the new tower, which also has photos of Sandi’s grandfather Pei Tsu-yee.

He was appointed general manager of the bank in 1919 until after second world war and who had worked in the old Bank of China Building when it was first built in 1951, based on the top floor, which is now home to the China Club.

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Pei says the bank’s new lobby has been created to have a friendly, welcoming atmosphere for customers.

The outside the building, including its lions, has been largely untouched, and remains one of Hong Kong’s most valued and recognisable heritage sites – a protective status which prohibits demolition and limits the amount of external renovation work allowed.