At the south-east corner of Mahabandoola Garden on Merchant Road is the fortress-like Myanma Foreign Trade Bank. This building was previously the Rangoon branch of HSBC bank, and before that a catholic church. It was remodelled in the early 1900s to make the building appropriate to its new, secular role: the spire was removed, along with most of the ornamentation – particularly the decorative stonework around the windows.
Today one of the largest banks in the world, HSBC derives from The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. Founded in 1865 to enable and profit from the increased trading between China and the British Empire, it became one of the most important banks in the working of the empire. In Burma its role was less prominent, and at times it was even unprofitable. Though HSBC worked with the Indian Chettiar moneylenders in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), it had limited involvement with them in Burma – despite their importance to the overall financial system of the country.
Instead, HSBC in Burma was seen as a training ground for young, ambitious bankers – known as ‘birds of passage’ by the bank’s management. After a stint in Burma they would be placed in other, more high profile and lucrative operations in the region.
Probably the most interesting chapter in the history of the banks of Burma was their evacuation in the face of the 1942 Japanese invasion. In the months leading up to the attack, banks began to move their records and material wealth out of the city. Initially this was done by sea, but as chaos began to spread and Japanese artillery neared, a train to Mandalay was commissioned especially for the banks – full of cash, gold bullion, and hundreds of nervous staff.
Once in Mandalay, the banks temporarily reopened before being evacuated again to India. Senior staff were flown out, while those more junior had to join the long and frequently fatal march out of Burma to India.
Not everyone made the Mandalay train. One of HSBC’s senior bankers missed it, and holding much of the banks currency had to walk north into India. Amazingly he made it with all the money intact. Lawrence Dawson of Dawson’s Bank ended up in in the hill station of Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin), with all the banks gold and jewels. With a tightly packed flight out of the country his only option, he could take only what he could carry, and was forced to try to hide the rest somewhere in the town.
Finding a friend in the process of digging a hole to hide his own valuables, he begged to use the same hole – and would arrange to have it properly lined with bricks and cemented over. After the war the men returned to find the hoard looted. His friend had lost all of his belongings, but the doubly paranoid Dawson had hidden the banks treasure in the earth underneath the brick floor of the cache, with his friend’s valuables acting as a decoy to thieves. The bank recovered all of its materials, and presumably Dawson received a serious bonus that year.
After the war, HSBC returned to Burma and continued to operate until 1963, when all banks were nationalised. In the last few years, foreign banks have been granted licenses and have begun to return to the country. HSBC is not yet one of them.
In the background of the newer photograph is the notorious Shwe Bank building, which we previously denounced here. In that article I wrote that if I found a good photograph of the older Whiteaway and Laidlaw building that was originally on the site, I would share it. It almost pains me do so, given what now sits in its place:
That said, I’m unsure as to what exactly was left of the original building prior to the construction of the Shwe Bank. I haven’t been able to track down a photograph from that period, but the artist Sitt Moe Aung does have a watercolour piece looking south along Pansodan, showing what looks like a fairly non-descript concrete building in its place.
Whiteaway and Laidlaw was another large department store, like Rowe and Co. The original building was an opulent four stories of marble and glass, with an iron bridge connecting newer and older sections. Also like Rowe and Co, they distributed a monthly illustrated catalogue of their products for sale. Considering how many of these must have been printed, I’m amazed I’ve never seen on for sale on the second hand book stalls of downtown Yangon.
For more on the Burmese banking system, I highly recommend tracking down Fiery Dragons: Banks, Moneylenders and Microfinance in Burma by Sean Turnell