Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Ban Hin Lee Bank building in Beach Street

Ban Hin Lee Bank, oh, Ban Hin Lee Bank, where art thou today? You may no longer exist but to us, the former staff of this bank, we remember you well. You are our irreplaceable past but you are no longer anyone's future.. But imagine, if you were still around today, we should all be celebrating your landmark Oak Anniversary on the 17th of September 2015. Yes, it has been 80 long years since that day in 1935 when Towkay Yeap Chor Ee obtained his licence to operate the bank as an officially incorporated business.

At the tail-end of the 19th Century, Yeap Chor Ee had arrived in Penang as an impoverished orphan, having escaped a China that was then caught up in the midst of an internal political turmoil.
The Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi was in control of Imperial China and she resisted foreign influence and modernisation, preferring to spend money on her palace and lavish lifestyle. By the 1890s, China was more vulnerable than ever to foreign powers that were carving out their spheres of influence. Under this system, the dominant power in that sphere controlled the economy through collecting taxes and constructing railroads and telegraph wires, while still leaving administrative duties and expenses to local Chinese officials.  This allowed the various powers to drain China of money without having to assume the more burdensome responsibilities of government. But what really shook China out of its lethargy was a war with Japan, which had successfully modernised in the past 40 years. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-85 was fought over control of Korea and to everyone's shock, the Japanese navy soundly defeated the Chinese navy and claimed Korea and Taiwan as among the prize of victory. Such a humiliating defeat sparked the Hundred Days Reform, a new movement among Chinese scholars for widespread reforms, but it was quickly squelched by Tsu Hsi. As a result, China's problems continued mounting until they triggered another revolt known as the Boxer Rebellion from 1898 to 1900.
Amidst the uncertainties of this background, many Chinese like Yeap Chor Ee were forced to leave their homeland and start life anew elsewhere. In the nanyang, the British Straits Settlements was an obvious destination for him and many of his fellow compatriots that were fleeing from this strife-torn China.

With nothing much in his pockets, he started in Penang as a barber. But within six years of his arrival here, he had earned enough from his entrepreneurial ability to set up the firm of Ban Hin Lee & Co. The name itself meant Ten Thousand Blessings to Prosperity, and it proved prophetic enough as his enterprise eventually encompassed a myriad of successful commercial endeavours, including a private bank which he would call, naturally, Ban Hin Lee Bank.

From its inception in 1918, Ban Hin Lee Bank proved itself to be a pioneering force in the domestic banking scene. Even as a private bank, it lent money to borrowers and remitted money overseas for a clientele who were mainly the Chinese in Penang and Singapore. Yeap Chor Ee controlled and managed the bank until his death in 1952, when he left a thriving banking concern in Malaya to his descendants.

On 17 Sept 1935, Ban Hin Lee Bank Limited was officially incorporated under Ordinance No. 155 of the Companies Act with an authorised capital of $5 million and a paid-up capital of $2 million. It was the first local bank to have its base in Penang. Despite this date of incorporation, the new entity of Ban Hin Lee Bank Limited only commenced business formally on Friday, 1 Nov 1935, There was a short entry in The Straits Times newspaper some three days later.

When Ban Hin Lee Bank first opened its doors for business, its premises occupied the ground floor of 86 Beach Street. This was a three-storey building at the corner of Beach Street and Market Street. Above the bank was an architect's office while occupying the top floor was the office of another prominent businessman, Heah Joo Seang. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to trace any old photographs of this building. Today, that original building is gone. In its place stands a new structure that once housed the Penang branch of a defunct Singapore-based bank, the Overseas Union Bank.

A year after Ban Hin Lee Bank Limited commenced formal business activities, work started on the construction of a new building at the corner of Beach Street and China Street Ghaut. This new building was on land belonging to Yeap Chor Ee which stretched from Weld Quay to Beach Street. The new premises was to be the main office and headquarters of the bank.

Obviously, Yeap Chor Ee was deeply serious about his bank. He wanted it to be a proper physical entity, worthy of comparison to the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation of which he was a shareholder, and Ban Hin Lee Bank Limited was to be the bastion of his future business empire.

So this had to be a solid-looking building which gave assurance to his customers that Ban Hin Lee Bank was going to be around for a long while. The premises added an immeasurable amount of prestige to him and the bank.

The general contractors for the new bank office was a foreign West European company known as Enterprises Campenon Bernard which had its headquarters in Paris. The architect was CG Boutcher, a well-known resident Frenchman who was a partner in the local firm, Stark and McNeil. He designed a deceptively simple edifice on classical lines which best explained the overall aesthetic result.

It was a solid, massive building of four stories. In practical terms, the architectural design was a sensible one. It contrasted but compared well with the adjacent row of sedate terraced shophouses. The entrance into the building was raised a half-level above the ground to highlight the approach to the main doorway. Inside, the structure was spacious, creating a feeling of airiness within the confines of the four walls. The open areas of the splendidly enormous interior were accentuated by the high windows that allowed sunlight to filter in and bathe the whole environment with natural illumination

It was said that the principals of geomancy (fengshui) were also incorporated into the overall shape of the building. It was shaped like a trapezoid with a broader back and narrower front. If the popular story was that money would flow into the building and it won't come out because the mouth was small, it suited the bank well.

With so much dependency already placed in the hands of the French, it wasn't surprising that piling work itself was carried out by French contractors who were also civil engineers and construction specialists. They handled the project so well and did such excellent work that when a bombshell landed at the back lane of the bank in December 1941, the building stood unshaken, steady as a rock.

In one of the bank's newsletters printed in September 1979, it was related by Ong Chin Seng, a bank staff for 45 years from November 1935 till his retirement in 1980:
"When the Japanese air force bombed Penang in December 1941, a bomb fell at the back street of the bank. The blast was terrific, but the building stood as firm as a rock. How do I know? Well, all of us were sheltering from the bombs in the strongroom on the ground floor, and it was a terrible experience! When we came out in the open after the bombers flew away, we could see the devastation around Beach Street, and the many dead bodies of the people who were unfortunate to be caught in the air-raid. The whole town was evacuated, and all the townsfolk ran to the countryside like Balik Pulau and Ayer Itam."
The building took two years to complete at a total cost in the region of $200,000 which was no small sum in those days.

When the bank eventually moved into the ground floor of the premises in 1938, the strongroom had been fitted with specially imported Lipp vault doors from England. The upper floors were rented out as prime office space to other tenants, including the government departments of the day.

On 26 Jan 1940, Yeap Chor Ee transferred the land title, covering an area of 987 square metres, to the ownership of the bank.

Of course, as we all know it, the bank is no more. By 30 June 2001, Ban Hin Lee Bank had ceased to exist after the formalities of a takeover exercise by the Southern Bank Group were completed. Ironically, even Southern Bank does not exist today, itself having been swallowed up by a bigger banking giant.


Ng Fook Chin said...

Excellent write up

Ng Fook Chin said...

Excellent write up

Zain Abdullah said...

Thanka for the comprehensive and informative write-up.

Standard Issue Mum with Pretensions. said...

Just a minor thing CG Boutcher the architect mentioned wasn't French; he was British and born in London. Since he was my grandfather, I can be fairly sure of this! He went out to Penang in 1913 and worked there for 40 years.

joseph pereira said...

Enjoyed your banking story. I worked in United Commercial Bank Serangoon Branch in Singapore from 1981 to 1988. The bank had a branch in Penang before the Indian banks in Malaysia were forced to merge into UAB. That bank collapsed because of gross mismanagement. I believe UCO Bank had four branches in Malaysia. KL, Penang, Ipoh and maybe JB.