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No. 12: Opulent temple of commerce
By Michelle Qiao

No. 12 on the Bund, the former HSBC Building now housing the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, was described at the time as "an olive leaf" carried by Noah's dove, signifying a bright future for the great business houses or "hongs" in China.

"The laying of a corner stone for the magnificent new home of Way-foong (HSBC) ... is the olive leaf that symbolizes for the 'hongs' of China that the waters of business depression are subsiding and that the future holds bright for those who have passed through the flood of hard times," reported the Far Eastern Review in June 1921.

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Building was completed in 1923 and known as the most luxurious building between the Suez Canal and the Bering Strait. It has a floor area of 62,000 square feet (23,415 square meters) and was said to be the second-largest building in the world at that time, after the Bank of Scotland building in the United Kingdom.

Size, site and style

The white, Neoclassical edifice (a seven-story central section with five-story sections on each side) dominated the Bund as its tallest building, until it was surpassed by Sassoon House and the Customs House erected in the late 1920s. It was also the most massive and the most magnificent, on a prime and auspicious location. The facade was covered with white Hong Kong granite.

It was built on the site of the old HSBC house at No. 12, the book store Kelly & Walsh at No. 11 and Messrs Thomas Simmon & Co at No 10, a trading company.

Rising more than 50 meters to the massive dome, the building stood out in clear view of the merchant ships from around the world sailing up and down the Huangpu River.

George Wilson, chief architect of Palmer & Turner, designed the building in a Neo-Grec style, without ornamental carving or sculpture in a preliminary plan. Relying almost entirely on proportion and lines, the building achieved great dignity and beauty with simplicity. The initial plans were far more ornate and less appealing.

When British author Harriet Sergeant visited the building after the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), it was the headquarters of the Shanghai Municipal Government. As she departed, she felt the building's shadow and presence. "There was, one felt, no escaping its influence," she wrote in her book "Shanghai" (1991).

Treaty port bank

She was right.

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp was established in March 1865 in Hong Kong and in Shanghai a month later. According to HSBC archives, the inspiration behind the bank's founding was Thomas Sutherland, a Scot then working for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. He realized the considerable demand for local banking facilities in Hong Kong and on the mainland coast.

"HSBC had lent a large sum of money to the imperial Chinese government and in this way it took control of the salt tax and tariff in China. The bank's Chinese comprador was even awarded a royal official cap button as an honor given by the Qing (1644-1911) royal government," says Shanghai banking historian Xin Jianrong from the Shanghai Archive Bureau.

"The bank's strict confidentiality rules had also attracted many Chinese officials to put their money in. Qing Prince Yi Kuang deposited a huge amount of money gained from bribery. Empress Dowager Cixi sent an imperial envoy to investigate the deposits, but he was turned away by the bank. The anecdote served as a vivid advertising for the bank among Chinese upper-class circles, and was later retold in Chinese fiction about imperial officialdom," he adds.

In 1923 the Far Eastern Review reported that the bank's original US$2.5 million capital was raised to US$50 million at a shareholders' meeting in May 1921.

In 60 years, the little treaty port commercial bank had expanded into the foremost financial institution in Asia, the strongest foreign bank in the British Empire.

Entrance hall

That explains the grandeur of the building, which amazed me on my first visit.

First and foremost, the magnificence of the entrance hall and the ceiling mosaics is awe-inspiring and visitors look up in admiration for so long that their necks get sore.

The 15-meter-wide octagonal ceiling suggests a sacred temple, inspired by the Chinese belief that the number "eight" would bring good fortune and prosperity. (The word for eight, ba, sounds similar to the word for prosperity.)

The ceiling is supported by eight detached Sienna marble columns. The outer arcade is of the same marble, but the bases and capitals of the columns are of bronze.

The most exciting part is the domed ceiling decorated with rich Venetian mosaic.

The center depicts the mythological figures of Helios, Artemis and Ceres. The eight principal panels represent the banking centers of the East and the West, including Shanghai.

According to researcher Jiang Longfei from the Shanghai Archive Bureau, it was then Shanghai Vice Mayor Pan Hannian who made the decision to cover the mosaic with a thin coating of white painted plaster during the 1950s renovation that turned the building into the municipal government headquarters.

Thanks to Pan, it was sensational news when the plaster was removed in 1997 to reveal the splendid mosaic, reviving memories of the Bund in its glory.

Banking halls

The octagonal entrance hall opens onto the main banking hall, a vast space of perfect proportion and light. Four monolithic columns, two at each end, were worked in Italy and delivered to the bank without damage. Each column weighs around seven tons.

It was reported by Far East Review, "No difficulties, no pains or trouble have been spared in finding and securing whatever seemed most suitable for different parts of the structure. The crafts and trades of all nations have been employed."

Below a marble staircase at the south end of the banking hall, I found another entrance to the bank on Fuzhou Road, which was said to be the gate for Chinese, who could only do business in the Chinese banking hall in the southwest corner of the building.

I walked through the separate entrance to get a sense of what a Chinese customer might have felt a century ago.

Seeing the grand banking hall for foreigners in the front, one had to turn left to enter the much smaller Chinese hall which was designed with Chinese elements. That was quite a feel.

The bank was constructed with the latest technology and amenities, so it was as grand as a European palace, but much more comfortable.

It had the most up-to-date system of ventilation and warming; fresh air was drawn in at certain points and washed by passing through a water stream.

In winter, this cleansed air was warmed and pumped through a system of ducts into the rooms. The air in the building was recycled twice an hour in the winter and six times an hour during the summer.

At the time architects studied modern buildings in Europe and the United States and installed the best and most practical features in the HSBC Building.

Architect as conductor

At the opening ceremony in 1923, chief architect Wilson described his role in designing the great modern building as that of "the conductor of an orchestra" who "gathers about him assistant architects, engineers, artists, sculptors and other specialists, carefully selecting those he knows will work in sympathy with his ideas and aspirations."

"It is for the community to decide whether the architect has justified the confidence placed in him and produced a building worthy of the opportunity which, as regards the size, site and in other ways, was an exceptional one. It is sufficient for him to say that he has given of his best."

After 1949, HSBC moved to 185 Yuanmingyuan Road. The building was renovated in 1955 to house the Shanghai Municipal Government.

In 1997 it was renovated again, based on the original blueprint, to house the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank.

And so, the dominant white-domed building fulfilled its mission, bringing hope to the business community of Shanghai for at least a decade. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the sunshine was breaking through the gloom and commerce flourished again after the "olive leaf" on the Bund was planted.

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