City of Manila,  Makati

China Bank’s centennial legacy

The COVID-19 outbreak that has afflicted the world through much of 2020 has pretty much put a damper on a lot of events and milestones that are supposed to be held this year. One of which is an important one for China Banking Corporation, better known as China Bank, as it was in the midst of its centennial celebrations this year. That’s not even counting that like the rest of the banking industry across the globe, its operations and services were heavily impacted.

Nevertheless, China Bank is managing this unprecedented crisis on its centennial year as well as many financial institutions here are at the moment, which is a good thing and hopefully not turn for the worse. So today the Urban Roamer, pays tribute to the resilience of this 100-year old bank through its edifices, including ones that were unrealized.

Beginnings in Binondo

The idea of what would become China Bank came from the mind of Dee C. Chuan, son of an immigrant Chinese businessman from Fujian. By the late 1910s, he not only expanded his family lumber business but also acquired various lumber companies across the country, to the point that he had become known as the “Lumber King” of the Philippines.

Despite his success early on, Dee’s vision went beyond the lumber industry, a dream of a bank that would help serve the financing needs of his fellow Filipino-Chinese entrepreneur fellows. It must be noted that while there were already a number of banks in existence at the time, none offered bank financing, especially for the growing number of small Filipino-Chinese businessmen. Bank of the Philippine Islands and the Philippine National Bank at the time only accommodated the mestizo elite; the rest were foreign banks who only catered to their respective nationalities.

With the help of 11 other businessman, including Carlos Palanca Sr., Guillermo Cu Unjieng, Albino SyCip (father of SGV founder Washington SyCip), and Indonesian-Chinese businessman Huang Yizhu (the “angel investor” of the group) Dee was able to realize the establishment of the China Banking Corporation with the opening of its first branch in Calle Rosario (now Quintin Paredes Street) on August 16, 1920. It is said that China Bank is the first privately-owned commercial bank in the country but this is something that has to be verified.

In a few short years, China Bank would experience remarkable growth, so much so that after 3 years, it moved to a bigger location at the corner of Juan Luna and Dasmariñas streets, in a five-storey (later expanded to seven) neoclassical/Beaux Arts building designed by Arthur Gabler Gumbert, who also designed the Yutivo Hardware Building in Binondo and the San Miguel Brewery building in…uhm, San Miguel (now the New Executive Building of the Malacañang complex). The building would also serve as the corporate headquarters of the bank for the next 60+ years.

From expansion to relocation in Makati

China Bank managed to survive one crisis after another: the effects of the Great Depression felt in the country by the early 1930s, the death of Dee C. Chuan in 1940, World War II, and the postwar struggles. But Binondo, its home throughout that time, would lose its luster as the country’s financial district by the 1960s with the rise of Makati. Like many businesses in the City of Manila, China Bank was looking to move its headquarters to the new financial district. However, it purposely held off making such plans for now and instead opted to first have a foot in Makati’s door with the construction of its Makati building along Paseo de Roxas.

Designed by architect Antonio Sindiong, the 15-storey China Bank Makati building bears a look inspired from the Lever House in New York City, known to be the standard of the “glass box” International Style skyscrapers being built during the postwar period. It was built in 1969, the first bank to have a building on that particular part of Makati. It also, reportedly, served as an inspiration architecture-wise for the later buildings that will be built there, like that of Citibank, Equitable Bank (later absorbed by BDO), and Philamlife.

But as the bank grew in the 1970s, China Bank was looking to build its new headquarters in Makati elsewhere other than the Paseo de Roxas site. It was actually eyeing a bigger property, at the corner of Ayala and Buendia (Now Gil Puyat) Avenues. In fact, it managed to tap the services of a rising star in world architecture: I.M. Pei, who designed iconic structures like the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, US and, somewhere down the line, the Louvre Museum Pyramid in Paris, France and the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong. How China Bank was able to get the services of Pei was interesting, his father actually served as a foreign-based board member of the bank in the 1940s, before the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949. Pei accepted the task of designing what was planned to be a 32-storey tower, a symbol of China Bank’s stature at the time as one of the country’s top commercial banks.

Unfortunately, the plans for what would have been an iconic, I.M. Pei-designed bank tower were scuttled by 1980 with death of its chairman at the time, Dee K. Chiong, the brother of Dee C. Chuan. What followed were a string of scandals, global and national economic crisis after another which effectively stunted China Bank’s growth which it has yet to recover. So much so that by 1990, it effectively abandoned those lofty Makati tower dreams and settled on their existing Paseo de Roxas building as its corporate headquarters, while the Binondo office was repurposed as its Binondo Banking Center.

As for the Ayala-Buendia property, it would later be acquired by another bank which would build a massive structure of its own: RCBC.

Keeping the legacy alive

Throughout the troubles China Bank experienced in the 1980s, one man was with the bank to help it weather through the challenges: Henry Sy of SM himself. Despite already owning a bank himself with Banco de Oro, Sy had a soft spot for China Bank as it was the first bank that lent him money when he was a starting his own business in the late 1940s. As a way to help China Bank get back up, he was accumulating shares of China Bank, culminating in 2004 when his SM Group managed to own a majority of the bank. Despite the ownership, Sy opted to not merge China Bank to its now bigger sibling BDO and kept the management of the two banks separate as a show of respect to China Bank’s legacy and his vision to keep it alive for years to come.

In return, legacy seems to be what China Bank has in mind when it unveiled in 2018 a plan to renovate the Binondo building back to its former glory as part of the centennial celebration. While the work being done by Noche Architects (headed by architect, author, and heritage advocate Manolo Noche) is still ongoing at this time of writing, so far it has been an impressive one.

photo courtesy of China Bank
photo courtesy of China Bank

Here’s hoping to see not only the restored China Bank Binondo building in its full glory, especially once this pandemic subsides, but for the bank itself to carry on towards a hopefully better future, as it had managed to for the past century.

Acknowledgements as well to the China Bank website and the book, “A Matter of Trust: the China Bank Story” by Raul Rodrigo

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