HSBC Group’s history in Singapore dates back to 1877 when its founding member, The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited, opened its first branch on the island.
On 5 December 1877 HSBC opened its first branch in Singapore with Herbert Cope as manager and John Macnab as accountant. The island’s financial prospects were looking promising. Trade was booming as a result of the completion of the Suez Canal and the increased use of telegraphy.
Unforeseen was the astonishing prosperity which would come in time from the experimental rubber seedlings that had just been planted at Singapore’s Botanical Gardens.
The early days
In the early days, much of the office’s business consisted of the provision of loans to Chinese merchants and the financing of the import, export and entrepôt trade.
From 1881 to 1909, the branch had permission to issue its own banknotes. The notes were trusted by local merchants as a stable and secure currency for transacting business and were significant in Singapore’s economic development. As a reflection of the multicultural nature of Singapore, each banknote carried the many languages of the island - English, Chinese, Malay, Arabic, Tamil and Gujarati.
The rubber trade
In February 1885 the Board of Directors expressed satisfaction with the Singapore branch, stating that it had made remarkable progress and was an important contributor to the general results. This growth in business had much to do with the expansion of the rubber trade. In 1910 the inspector noted in his report that:
‘In view of the enormous amount of capital which the development of the Rubber Industry has brought into the Straits Settlement and the Malay Peninsula, and the rapidly increasing population, which is the natural outcome of the demand for labor one must be very pessimistic not to look forward to a season of great prosperity in this part of the world for some years to come.’
By 1918 rubber constituted 35 per cent of Singapore’s total export trade. HSBC led the way in financing this commodity in the early twentieth century and was one of the first banks to provide finance to the Lee Rubber Group (now Lee Group).
Branch manager John Peter, who served from 1911-22, was instrumental in persuading leading merchants to open accounts with the bank. His contributions to supporting the economic development of the region was recognised with a knighthood in 1922.
The branch’s first office had been located on Collyer Quay and in 1890 a site was purchased further along the road opposite the Fullerton Building. An imposing gothic structure, designed by architectural firm Swan and MacLaren, was built here and the bank’s main office in Singapore stands on the same site today.
By the 1920s, business had grown considerably. The bank required more space and wanted their home to reflect the faith and confidence they had in Singapore as a trading centre. The adjacent property was acquired and both buildings were torn down. A grand new building known as the Hongkong Bank Chambers opened in 1925. It was four stories high but in a few decades even this proved inadequate, with four more stories being added in 1957.
Second World War
As with many of the bank’s branches, the Pacific War hit the Singapore office hard. In 1941 the branch became a temporary home for HBSC staff evacuees from across the region who brought with them their branch cash and records. The office then found itself catering not only to its own customers but the customers of the branches from across the Malayan peninsular. The branch had to work almost 24 hours a day in very difficult conditions to meet the business demands, with many of the remaining staff virtually living on site. One of the banker’s wives later remembered this difficult period with pride saying ‘all this speaks volumes about the character of the bankers, their adaptability, superb organization and above all,their great consideration for their clients.’
On 13 February 1942, the branch opened to the public for the last time during the war period and two days later Japanese troops entered the bank to begin the process of forced liquidation. Many of the staff were interned but a small group managed to fly out of Singapore with a copy of key ledger balances with which to later re-establish the business.
HSBC played an important part in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Singapore’s economy after the war. By 1948 it was handling 35 per cent of Singapore’s foreign and trade exchange business. The bank expanded its branch network to support the island’s industrial development as well as to satisfy the growing suburban populations need for increasingly sophisticated banking facilities. A branch opened on Orchard Road in 1949 and this was followed in the 1950s and 1960s by branches in Tanglin, Beach Road, Queenstown, Jurong, Bukit Panjang and Serangoon. The branch network was further extended in 1959 when HSBC acquired the Mercantile Bank of India. This bank was well established in Singapore having had an office there since 1856 and operating four branches on the island.
Diversification of business
In the 1960s and well into the 1970s, the main business of the Singapore branch was the finance of large-scale imports and exports, including rubber, palm and pineapples. The business also began to diversify into new services such as hire purchase and discount house activities during this period. This continued growth and the need to provide more modern facilities for its customers persuaded the bank to temporarily establish its new headquarters in the nearby Ocean Building in 1974. This move made it possible for the bank to launch a third building project on the historic site in Collyer Quay. The new branch opened in 1983 and joined the community of elegant skyscrapers that now line the waterfront in Singapore.
Innovation in banking services
The 1970s also saw HSBC leading technological advances in Singapore. It introduced the first computerised accounting system in 1971 and unveiled the first automatic cash dispenser in September 1972. These competitive services provided customers with increasingly easy ways of carrying out transactions.
In May 2016, HSBC transferred its retail banking and wealth management business to a new, locally owned subsidiary, HSBC Bank (Singapore) Limited. This move affirmed the bank’s long-standing commitment to Singapore where it continues to build on the roots that were laid down in 1877.
Global Archives: HSBC's archives are one of the most important business collections in the world. The archives contain the historical records not only of HSBC, but also of many of the banks which have been acquired by HSBC and its predecessor companies.