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King's tale of Hongkong Bank

Santanu Sanyal

KOLKATA, Oct. 26

IT was an evening with a difference; not exactly a corporate bash although big wigs of the corporate sector, bankers and diplomats, many with wives in tow, were present, all at a club to listen to 76-year-old Prof Frank H.H. King, a former World Bank economist and Director of the Hong Kong University's Centre of Asian Studies.

Professor King's research has focussed on the monetary history and development problems of East and South-East Asia and he has written and lectured widely on these subjects. Perhaps, he is best known for the four-volume The History of The Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, though he has also authored Money in British Asia and Money & Monetary Policy in China 1845-1895. "It's now nearly 40 years since I stopped teaching pure economics," he said.

On Friday evening, the professor chose to speak on the early days of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank in India. The first branch of the bank was opened in Calcutta in 1867. "It was an important event in the bank's history but not so significant in India's economic history because the bank never intended to fund local business; instead, it concentrated on exchange business," he said. The Calcutta branch also supervised the Rangoon (now Yangon) branch in then Burma (now Myanmar).

However, Hongkong & Shanghai Bank (now HSBC Bank) will celebrate its 150th anniversary in India next year. This is because the first branch of the Mercantile Bank, subsequently merged with Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, was opened in Bombay in 1853.

It was revealing to learn that there were three Indians among the first batch of directors on the bank's board. "They were the Sassoons from Bombay, also having business interest in China, if I remember correctly," he said, pointing out that they did not continue after 1870.

Was there any fraud? Yes, in the Bombay branch, came the reply. The person concerned was picked up from Aden before he had succeeded in getting out of the jurisdiction of British India, he said.

When the bank authorities decided to write a history of the bank on the occasion of its centenary in 1964, someone high-up in his wisdom felt that a writer of eminence should be commissioned for the job, thus, suggesting the name of Mr P.G. Wodehouse, who had served the bank in London at the turn of the last century.

In fact, Mr Wodehouse in his book Psmith in the City had referred to an Oriental Bank, which, according to Professor King, was Hongkong & Shanghai Bank.

Subsequently, realising the improbability of commissioning Mr Wodehouse for the job, the job fell on Professor King.

"Despite being an American I was invited to write the history of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank; the only complaint against me was that I used too much British spelling," he said.

Had any other eminent person served the bank? Yes. Mr Charles Addis, who had served first as a manager of the Calcutta branch and then in the Rangoon branch, subsequently became the director of the Bank of England.

The professor took a dig at the Financial Times that preferred to call Hongkong & Shanghai Bank "a colonial bank" on the ground that it served "some Oriental curries during lunch time to its officers on some particular day of the week".

At some point in his long career, Professor King's name surfaced in connection with the writing of the history of Mercantile Bank.

The project was subsequently dropped on cost considerations. "They wanted to economise the history," quipped the professor.

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