Monday, 13 November 2017

OCBC: The 85-year journey of a Singapore bank

A new book, Wind Behind The Sails: The People And Ethos Of OCBC, published by Straits Times Press, traces the bank's growth and how it helped transform Singapore's cityscape. Below is an edited excerpt.
The Sunday Times, 12 Nov 2017

Built in early 1932, the China Building along Chulia Street was one of the most recognisable landmarks in the business district. A head taller than the surrounding shophouses, it stood out for its distinctive Peking style. Designed by international architecture firm Keys & Dowdeswell, it had elaborate decorations adorning its exterior walls. But it was its pagoda-style roof that marked its presence in the area, giving it an aura of aristocracy.

It was therefore unsurprising that the fashionable building was often a gathering place for the who's who of the Chinese business community in the early 1950s to 1960s. Former OCBC chairman Lee Kong Chian often hosted contemporaries to lunch at the Garden Club, located at the top floor of the China Building, discussing everything from business to politics.

The China Building was officially opened in January 1932 to house the Chinese Commercial Bank and the Oversea-Chinese Bank. It became the headquarters of OCBC when the two banks merged with Ho Hong Bank later that year. For an entire generation - nearly 40 years - the building housed the top tier of Chinese bankers in Singapore till the late 1960s. But by the beginning of the decade, it was increasingly clear that OCBC, with its thousands of employees, had outgrown the small but elegant headquarters that had served it for so long. In 1969, the bank started to plan for a new headquarters that would serve as the nerve centre for the growing banking group.

The planning and building of the new headquarters was the most important project for the bank up till that point in its history. It would be the tallest building in the region, equipped with the most up-to-date features and facilities of any building in Singapore. Representing a bank on the ascendancy, the new skyscraper was to be the crowning glory of the towering financial institution. OCBC Centre was not just going to be the new home of the group but a symbol of its strength and the pillar of its future.

To build the superstructure, the bank first had to secure enough land for the new building's foundation to stand on. Over the course of the 1960s, the bank purchased shophouses and godowns around the China Building, and even a public carpark. A total of 6,565 square metres of land was procured. The new superstructure would be sited on the same piece of land, albeit an enlarged one, where the old China Building stood.

The old headquarters had to be first vacated. It took five weekends to move people, documents and valuables. The move to a temporary headquarters along Upper Pickering Street was done under tight security. The bank's staff had to check, file and move documents and records from the China Building to OCBC's various offices and branches around Singapore. It was crucial that all the documents were accounted for - computers were not used to keep records in those days - because many of these documents were records of the assets of their customers, some of whom had been with the bank for decades.

The mammoth logistical challenge involved a total of 144 truckloads carrying 280 tonnes of furniture, equipment and papers. It was a difficult but crucial task which the appointed OCBC staff undertook diligently. The bank's safes, which contained some of the most valuable items the bank held, had to be removed and transported to the temporary premises in Upper Pickering Street. The move was finally completed on November 29, 1970.

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean remembers the day he was taken to the bank to witness the huge safes being moved. DPM Teo recalls his father, Mr Teo Cheng Guan, who was then an assistant general manager of the bank, taking his family to witness the historic event. That morning, the younger Teo watched as massive cranes arrived outside the bank. Their task: to lift and transport the huge safes that had been stored in the building for decades. Part of the China Building, including its roof, had to be first removed to make space for the cranes to haul the safes up and out of the building.

"It was quite a sight. Cranes hauling these massive safes up into the Upper Pickering Street building," said DPM Teo.

For the rest of the OCBC staff, there was a mix of sadness and anticipation. China Building had been, for so long, the home of the bank. More than being simply an office, it was a symbol of resilience and grace, one that had survived an economic winter and braved a war. The traditional banking hall and its offices were all familiar to those who had spent years, even decades, at the bank.

China Building was finally demolished in November 1970, after months of preparation. Its end, however, marked a new start for OCBC. The site on which China Building once stood would be the epicentre of the ambitious $100 million OCBC Centre project.

The massive project needed to be executed perfectly; any delay would result in huge costs and an even bigger loss of face. It was imperative that the project was handled by the best talent the bank could get. As such, the quest for perfection began with the appointing of an architect with the verve and vision to design a monument that would stand the test of time.

The task fell to American-Chinese architect I.M. Pei, an international architect of renown. He had designed some of the most iconic buildings in the US in the 1960s. These included the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. Mr Pei's task was to build not just a regular office building but a building of the future, one that would revitalise and regenerate the surrounding areas, which remained marked by numerous shophouses and old offices. As Mr Pei told the Harvard Asia Pacific Review in 1998: "The OCBC Building has nothing to do with the shacks along the Singapore River."

The project was such a massive undertaking that specialised equipment such as tower cranes had to be brought in from overseas. Special material like granite from Italy had to be shipped in, while expert builders from the region were roped in to help construct the building that was to be a major landmark for Singapore's business district.

After years of toil and careful construction, the building was finally completed and opened on October 1, 1976. Some 3,000 guests, including Singapore's then-National Development Minister Lim Kim San, attended the opening ceremony. For Singaporeans accustomed to the low-rise commercial buildings that had defined the business district, OCBC Centre was an awe-inspiring sight. Soaring 198 metres above sea level and fitted with state-of-the-art facilities, OCBC Centre was designed to reflect not just the strength of the banking group but also its transformation from a traditional Chinese bank into a financial institution of national importance and international reach. It had a banking hall that was 12.2 metres high and 1,300 square metres large. The building had 27 lifts that could travel 366 metres per minute, making them the fastest lifts in Singapore at the time. At the top of the building, there was a helicopter pad - OCBC Centre was one of few buildings in those days to host one.

As one editorial in The Straits Times in 1976 put it succinctly: "Its purity of form was compared by one architect to the prestigious Cartier lighter - part of the accoutrement of the well-dressed, conservative and world-wise managers who work in the building."

Wind Behind The Sails: The People And Ethos of OCBC is published by Straits Times Press. It is not for sale but will be available for borrowing at public libraries by end-December.

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