When the communist Chinese armies marched into shanghai in 1949, they were determined to destroy that city’s huge and important foreign business community, and destroy it they did.
The centre of shanghai, with its sturdy old european-style banks and office buildings, still looks like a western city, but the foreign companies which inspired its construction departed more than three decades ago.
or at least, almost all of them did. one of the greatest foreign firms in the old shanghai has managed to hang on in spite of the advent of communism — the Hongkong and shanghai banking corporation, now one of the biggest banks in asia.
The small office the bank still maintains here gives it the moral right to continue to include shanghai in its name, although the days when this east China seaport was one if its two main bases have long since passed.
Its main competitor, the British chartered bank, also maintains a similarly modest presence.
The honkers and shankers, as the bank was fondly called in colonial days, was probably the most powerful financial institution in the old China and its large, solid headquarrters building symbolised the respect it generated.
That building, situated on shanghai’s most prestigious road, the bund, facing the huangpu river, is now the shanghai headquarters of the Chinese communist party. the imposing victorian brick mansion in the western suburbs which was once home for the bank’s local manager has become the local office of the new China news agency.
But despite insisting on a change of premises, the new communist rulers of shanghai kept the Hongkong and chartered banks on when virtually every other foreign firm was ordered to shut up shop and depart.
“they probably let us stay because at the time, the bank of China’s international business was still in its infancy, and they needed us for certain transactions,” said the Hongkong bank’s present shanghai branch manager, keith holt.
The bank occupied its huge original headquarters on the bund for seven years after the communist take-over, and was required to continue paying the salaries of its 300 local staff, even though there was almost nothing for them to do.
It was only in the mid-1950s that the Chinese government formally took over all the bank’s assets in China, an action which it inscrutibly explained was “in payment of pre-liberation deposits.”
The bank finally gave up its spacious offices on the Bund in l956, and moved to its present location, two floors of a building in a backstreet nearby which were once occupied by the german consulate.
for the following two decades and more, the Chinese authorities insisted that at least one expatriate bank employee had to be present in shanghai at all times, apparently fearing that the bank would try to close the operation down when its representative was out of the country.
The bank’s representatives usually stayed for no more than a year during these difficult years.
But following the death of chairman mao in 1976 and the political resurrection of the current leader, deng xiaoping, China has developed a new economic openness to the outside world, and the bank’s relationship with the shanghai authorities has greatly improved.
dozens of foreign banks have opened representative offices in Peking in the past four years, but the Hongkong and chartered banks in shanghai, along with two smaller overseas Chinese institutions, are the only ones allowed to perform any of the functions of a full bank branch.
“our major business is handling documentary credits for consignments of Chinese exports, mostly consumer goods.” said mr holt.
“we are also allowed to handle remittances, and could theoretically open foreign currency cheque accounts except that all our foreign currency holdings have to be handed over to the bank of China,” he added.
naturally enough, the branch is not a big profit-maker. “But we make enough to cover expenses and have a small amount left over.”
for most of the ordinary shanghainese people on the crowded streets outside the bank is not even a memory, even though it was once a household name.
“old people still remember it, but it means nothing at all to young people,” said yang san ling, assistant branch manager who has worked for the Hongkong and Shanghai bank for 44 years and was a junior clerk when the communists arrived in 1949.
probably the most famous feature of the old bank building on the Bund were two very British bronze lions which lay on either side of the entrance.
“The lions disappeared in the 1950s but we are almost certain they still exist,” said Mr Holt. “Someone saw them in one day in the early 1970s when they were apparently replaced temporarily for a movie.”
what the bank does still have in its possession, however, is the contents of many of its safe deposit boxes, abandoned by their owners in 1949 as they rushed to escape from the communists.
The hoarde naturally includes some exquisite antiques and pieces of jewellery, but their fate is as obscure as the present whereabouts of their owners.