Grey Room

The Value of Enclosure and the Business of Banking

Alexandra Quantrill


The 1979 design competition held by the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) for its new headquarters building was pivotal in choosing a face for the bank’s evolving presence on the world stage. At the time, Hong Kong’s political and economic future was precarious. HSBC’s acquisition of the New York–based Marine Midland Bank in 1979 had signaled its transition to a more geographically dispersed multinational bank, and, following the opening of the Chinese economy under Deng Xiaoping, HSBC established offices in Beijing and in China’s special economic zones. Despite its presence in China and in the West, however, over 50 percent of the bank’s profits came from its operations in Hong Kong, where it issued 80 percent of the banknote currency and functioned as principal banker to the government, its director ranking second only to the queenappointed governor in the colony’s power structure. HSBC assumed a unique position between an outwardly expanding business and an inwardly focused center of colonial power, enmeshed within Hong Kong’s governmental framework. The new headquarters, then, was to cement HSBC’s foothold in Hong Kong in advance of the looming handover of sovereignty to communist China in 1997. But it was also tasked with housing a new kind of banking.