It has been a while I wanted to write about Shanghai heritage banks. One of the reasons why it took me so long is that many things have already been said on this topic as Shanghai was THE city of banking in East Asia in the 30s. However, the recent transformation of the city into a fashion and luxury shopwindow made the bank issue come to life again. As Peter Hibbard commented in his book “The Bund Shanghai, China faces West”: “Shanghai, once the Wall Street of Asia is again in the limelight as a charismatic world-class destination”.
The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank
One of the first landmarks in Shanghai is definitely the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank on the Bund. Not to mention that this place represents the historical site of nowadays HSBC, it also stands for Shanghai history. Once the tallest building on the Bund, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building was also the largest in the world. No surprise then that the 30’s tycoon Victor Sassoon first request to the architect Palmer and Turner was to make his Cathay Hotel (today’s Peace Hotel) slightly higher than the Bank in order to please his ego. The most stunning part of this building is the mosaics under the entrance dome (picture on the right). With three different layers of designs, they picture the core values of the bank, the zodiac signs as well as the different locations of the bank in the 20's. Quite amazing indeed to see New York skyscrapers or Paris Notre Dame within mosaics!
During Mao era, the building was the Shanghai City Hall and the mosaics had been hidden under a thick layer of plaster. This is only during the renovation process that the mosaics were rediscovered and restored! Although guards might not allow you to take pictures, the site is worth the visit!
Among the numerous insurance companies implanted in the Bund neighborhood, one special mention is to be made of the China Mutual Life Insurance. This wonderful 1910 building is actually off the Bund on Guandong and Sichuan Roads junction. Unfortunately, it cannot be visited but I could make a few pictures though. The entrance is decorated in an eye-catching renaissance style, with wonderful classical statues and stained glass (picture on the left). The lavish floor is made of Carrara marble by Italian artist Paolo Triscornia di Fernando. It gives the overall impression of a Florentine church. No doubt that the founder James Alexander Wattie wanted to impress his clients as the upstairs offices really don’t meet the same standards!
One visiting the heritage banks on the Bund area can be surprised to discover the Banque d’Indochine (picture on the right). The Bund was indeed under Shanghai Municipal Council rule and French interests would have been expected to concentrate in the French part of the city, the so-called French Concession. Nevertheless the Bund was THE place to be for financial services. As the largest French bank in Asia, the Banque d’Indochine had to be there too. It had also branches in Saigon, Tien Tsin, Hong Kong and Hankou, today’s Wuhan. As a major bank, La Banque d’Indochine would print its own bank notes, exactly like the formerly mentionned Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.
On 9th December 1941 in the morning, Yvon Segalen, the son of the explorer Victor Segalen and director of the bank, was among the first witnesses of the invasion of the British Settlement by the Japanese forces, only a few hours away from the Pearl Harbour attack. From his windows he actually could see the British vessel “Petrel” being sunk by Japanese artillery In less than five minutes. The next morning the Shanghai Bund was Japanese!
Old buildings, new glamour
If you are a regular visitor of famous Shanghai “Bar Rouge” located at Bund 18, you may have noticed that the building was first used by the Chartered Bank of India, which is the oldest foreign bank in Shanghai established in 1853. Behind the restored bronze gates now lies a rather delicate patio with art galleries, a chocolate bar and there are even classical music performances on weekends. In the staircase leading to the Bar Rouge (left credit jonathanphoto), a sculpture by mediatized Chinese artist Ai Weiwei gives the old bank building a brand new touch! This huge transformation of heritage sites is clearly a distingtive feature of Shanghai “New Haipai” (read my article Swinging Shanghai).
Another interesting project is the former Ningbo Bank at 240 Beijing East Road which I recently had the opportunity to visit. This neo-renaissance style building actually hubs a group of communication and design agencies and was totally reengineered when they moved in. For instance, the fantastic original Art Nouveau staircase gives the modern style atrium a most unique feature. The roof of the bank is also used for events like a venue of French artist JR or yoga activities. A dramatic change indeed when you think of the former studious atmosphere of this Chinese merchant bank! (Photo right Superpress)
The renovation of bank and insurance heritage is symptomatic of the recent changes occurring in Shanghai. These sites keep coming to life again and surprise us with brand new projects!