Building reflects topsy-turvy history of China banking
By Michelle Qiao
The National Industrial Bank of China building reappeared to the public with Karl Lagerfeld’s “The Little Black Jacket” photo exhibition in July 2013.
Huge black-and-white photographs showcasing Channel’s iconic black tweed jacket from the lens of the German fashion designer glistened among tall, pink marble columns in the old banking hall.
The grey structure nicely perching along the corner of Huqiu and Beijing roads was built in 1929 for the National Industrial Bank of China, one of the major commercial banks in modern China. The site was also the site of the British Post Office, which provided postal services for the expatriates in Shanghai from 1906 to 1928.
Founded in 1919 in Tianjin amid Chinese warring lords, the bank later moved its headquarters to Shanghai and often issued banking notes.
“The bank was acclaimed as one of the ‘four small banks of old China,’ listed along with the Commercial Bank of China, Siming Commercial Savings Bank and Xinhua Trust Bank,” says Shanghai financial historian Xin Jianrong of the Shanghai Archives Bureau.
Xin notes that there were also “four big banks” (Central Bank, Bank of China, Bank of Communications and Agricultural Bank of China) and “four northern banks.” The latter formed the Joint Savings Society which built the Park Hotel in 1934.
“The ’four small banks’ were weaker in financial power, compared with state-owned ‘four big banks’ and wealthy ‘four northern banks.’ Moreover, owing to the ties with old warring lords who were enemies of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, the National Industrial Bank of China failed to form a close relationship with Chiang’s government and thus received little political support,” Xin says.
However, the bank saw some good times when Shanghai manager Liu Huizhi initiated a kind of “lottery saving” that became incredibly popular in the 1920s and attracted a lot of cash. The success aroused jealousy from Chiang’s officials and state-owned banks, which pressured Liu to resign from the bank.
After that, the banker focused his time and wealth on collecting books and antiques. His collection increased so much that a private library had to be constructed in 1934 to house it.
The lovely, green-tiled octagon building still stands in a tranquil yard hidden on Xinzha Road. It was once home to numerous ancient thread-bound Chinese books, ancient ink sticks, ancient weapons and instruments. The most valuable were the oracle bones carved in one of the oldest languages of China.
Only one year after Liu’s green-tiled retreat was erected, Chiang’s government took advantage of the “silver crisis” to merge the National Industrial Bank of China with state-owned Bank of Communications.
The Great Depression caused a banking and financial crisis in the United States and then President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Silver Purchase Act to buy international silver as reserves to restore people’s faith in banks.
“Affected by American silver policy, the world silver price rose sharply,” wrote scholar Ji Zhaojin in his 2003 book “Shanghai Banking History.”
“Huge quantities of silver were drained from China, either by sales of foreign banks in Shanghai or by smuggling in Northeast China under the protection of Japanese military forces. The world silver crisis had destroyed the traditional Chinese monetary standard. Without any alternative, China abolished the silver standard and issued a new paper currency known as fabi, a legal tender note.”
During this crisis, three of the “four small banks” were merged into three state-owned “big banks,” after which Chiang took control of the banking industry of China. Xin says, academically the year 1935 was marked as the beginning of Shanghai as a financial center.
Despite weaker power and an unlucky fate, the National Industrial Bank of China was still a famous bank of its time, and it constructed a beautiful, eclectic-style building near the Bund.
“The original bronze gate still graces the corner, which is designed with a perfect proportion and adorned in an abundant and delicate way,” says Chinese architect Lin Yun, who authored “Shanghai Waitanyuan Historical Buildings.” “The embellishments on the pilasters or under windows were classic, also in a pleasing proportion and great details.”
“The bank had proudly printed the image of this building on its one-yuan note,” Lin adds. The other side of this bill issued in Shanghai was printed with a “magic horse” leaping across the sea.
The layout was also for a standard bank, with a banking hall on the ground floor and offices above.
According to a 1928 drawing, the grand hall, partially circled by teak counters, was embellished with teak parquet flooring and teak dado. The paneled plaster walls smartly hid all the beams behind.
Tall, square-shaped columns covered by pink marble are sprinkled in the spacious hall. Thanks to the generous use of a thick layer of marble, another architect could revive their original look today.
“Nowhere could we find pink marble with the same quality and patterns for restoration,” recalls Chen Libin, Shanghai manager of David Chipperfield Architects, which has renovated 11 heritage buildings in Waitanyuan.
“Fortunately the original marble was as thick as three to four centimeters, which was thick enough for us to divide it in half and use the other half to restore all the damaged columns in a perfect way,” Chen says, chuckling.
It’s fortunate that period architectural details, no matter if they are pink marble or green tile, have survived as time goes by in Shanghai. Silently but solidly, they are telling the uneasy and interesting stories of Chinese banks and bankers in eventful modern China.
Yesterday: National Industrial Bank of China
Today: National Industrial Bank of China building for Rockbund
Architectural style: Eclectic
Architect: Atkinson & Dallas
Built: In 1929
Address: 14 Huqiu Rd
Tips: The building often hosts a variety of exhibitions. Take a close look at the pink columns and the bank’s huge safe treasury on the ground floor. It would be nice to see Liu Huizhi’s green-tiled private library (below) at 1321 Xinzha Rd. Since the building sits in a deep yard behind an iron gate, it requires a bit of luck to get in.