On the Hunt for Hong Kong’s Missing Bankers’ Lions

Two lions wait behind a thicket of foliage, standing to attention. Their geometric shoulders are bunched powerfully, haunches tensed like clock springs. They share a grinning, mischievous countenance, their large lolling tongues framed by cubic teeth. The lions’ clean Art Deco lines cut striking figures, best appreciated from the safari vehicle of a tram negotiating Des Voeux Road as it skirts the grand Bank of China Building.

These curious lions playfully combine Chinese motifs and tradition with flowing modern curves, perfectly complementing the granite edifice they protect. Turning the corner, however, we find the bank’s front entrance guarded not by another cheeky art deco duo, but by a pair of lions sculpted in the ubiquitous traditional Chinese style. Their snarls expose sharp canine fangs and their chests puff out giving them the air of pumped-up leonine bouncers. As dictated by tradition, the male lion on the right rests his paw on a ball while the lioness on the left wrangles a cub under hers.

Lions Two of Nolli’s lions remain at the Bank of China on Des Voeux Road – Photo by Billy Potts

The male and female lions symbolise yin and yang like the scores of stone guardian lions that have been in China since their introduction from Persia during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). But what became of the charming, unorthodox lions that originally occupied these granite plinths? And why were they banished from their guardpost? To begin the hunt, we looked to the lions’ creator.

The delightfully eccentric Art Deco lions are the work of Italian sculptor Rodolfo Nolli. Born in 1888 in Lombardy, the young architect and artist followed his uncle, Vittorio Novi, to Bangkok in 1913. There, alongside other Italian artisans, they created stonework for the King of Siam’s palace throne hall. In 1921, Nolli moved on to Singapore. In the Lion City, he spent the next four decades creating sculptures for numerous buildings and infrastructure projects, including the Allegory of Justice on the tympanum of Singapore’s Old Supreme Court building (now the National Gallery). Notably, Nolli created a set of eight art deco lions: four for Hong Kong and four for Singapore. More languorously curved than their pared-down Hong Kong counterparts, the Singaporean lions retained more of the details that one might expect from traditional Chinese sculpture. All these lions, save two, would soon take their places guarding buildings for the recently formed Bank of China.

Founded by Sun Yat-sen in 1912 at the advent of the newly minted Republic of China, the Bank of China was to embody the spirit of a new, modern nation. In 1934, the bank commissioned Hong Kong’s oldest architecture firm, Palmer & Turner, to create high-rises in Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Architect Luke Him-sau set about designing these three edifices in the height of 1930s Art Deco style. Nolli was brought in to create lions for the Hong Kong and Singapore branches, but not, it seems, the Shanghai branch.

Nolli’s lions stand guard at the Bank of China Tower in Singapore – Photo by Galen Crout

The Shanghainese tower on the Bund was completed in 1937, but progress in Hong Kong and Singapore was hamstrung when the Japanese invaded in 1941 and 1942, respectively. By the time construction resumed in 1950, both the bank and China were under new management. The bank’s new Communist masters ordered construction to continue with the original designs, ignoring that time and style had moved on. Thus an anachronistic masterpiece of prewar architecture emerged incongruously amidst Hong Kong’s sleek 1950s skyline, complete with its now unfashionable lions.

For background on the building and Nolli’s lions, we turned to architect Sandi Pei Li-chung. Pei restored the ground, second, and eighth floors of the Bank of China Building in 2017, converting the main hall into a private banking facility. Far more than a simple client, the Bank of China holds particular significance for the Pei clan. In the 1980s, Pei worked with his father, I.M. Pei, to design the iconic Bank of China Tower. Pei’s grandfather had been the general manager at the bank at one point. “[My father] was very pleased that we were doing [this project], and remembers when his father occupied the building and used to work in it,” he recalls. “[My father] used to go there quite a bit when he was a young student and he used to get his allowance there.”

Of the old bank building, Pei is effusive. “The building occupies a very significant site in Hong Kong,” he says. “The rest of Central has been pretty much turned into a lot of modern skyscrapers. But the Bank of China [Building] today is probably the only one that continues to remain as an iconic building of that period. The fact that it’s a free-standing building, not encroached upon by [others], gives it a certain integrity that buildings with party walls do not have.”

There’s just one problem: Pei’s work had nothing to do with the building’s exterior. When it came to the question of the missing Art Deco lions, he wasn’t able to offer much help.

Luckily, Hong Kong’s army of amateur historians have been able to dig up some clues. Posts on the Hong Kong history website Gwulo and the Hong Kong Heritages Facebook page indicate that the lions now reside at the University of Hong Kong, and many speculate as to why the bank dismissed the lions in the first place. A travel guide in the May 13, 1956 edition of the Chicago Tribune contains a photograph labelled “Lions Living in Limbo.” It states that the ‘“reactionary lions” were removed from the bank in 1951, suggesting that China’s new political masters were not a fan of Art Deco modernism.

In the face of this continuing enigma, we reached out to Lee Ho-yin, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Architectural Conservation Programme. He confirmed that, upon the bank building’s completion, in 1951, the lions were promptly removed and donated to the university. He says they were placed outside the western side of the Main Building until 1973, when they were moved to the new High West staff quarters.

Stacy Belcher-Lee and Garfield Lam at the University of Hong Kong Archives joined in the hunt by digging up information in The University of Hong Kong: An Informal History (Vol. 2)  by Bernard Mellor, a former registrar at the University of Hong Kong. In a brief passage, Mellor describes the circumstances under which the two lions arrived on campus. “‘Foolish, reactionary lions, made by foreigners’—they were criticized and offered to the university, but only two,” he writes. “The others were structural as well as ornamental and could not be moved.” If you examine the lions at the eastern face of the Bank of China building, you’ll notice that their rear ends are indeed built into the stone wall.

While the Chicago Tribune depicted an unhappy exile for the lions, “brooding” with their tongues hanging out, Mellor describes a lively campus life full of student japery. “Their tongues [were] now and then painted red by mischievous students and eye-balls given squints and scowls and blinks and disdainful looks,” he writes.

Lam unearthed a particularly surprising article from the June 13, 1937, issue of the China Press. Predating the debut of Nolli’s lions by about a decade, the article describes a pair of “modernistic lions” outside the first Bank of China tower on the Shanghai Bund, with “straight lines and simple abstractions” and “block teeth.” Despite the strong familial resemblance, these creatures are not the creations of Rodolfo Nolli. They are the work of W.W. Wagstaff, who is more famously known for another pair of sentinel lions sitting less than five minutes from the Bank of China Building on Des Voeux Road. These lions are Stephen and Stitt, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank’s own iconic bronze cats named after early Chief Managers of the bank and bearing the same name as their cousins in Shanghai. Despite being the work of two different sculptors, Nolli and Wagstaff’s modernist lions appear to share a common design lineage.

The China Press article goes into some detail about Wagstaff’s references and methods in creating his modernist Bank of China lions. While Nolli would certainly have gone about it in his own way, the article may shed some light on the way he conceptualised his own lions. Wagstaff’s lions were copies of statues that stood in Peiping (modern day Beijing), but with their lines smoothed out in a modernist way. To accomplish this, casts were first made of the original Chinese lions, then a second cast was made of a modernised version of the sculpture. The features of the two were then combined and the third cast made, producing a lion of clean-cut design. The Nolli lions seem to share design DNA with Wagstaff’s pair. Perhaps the Italian was inspired by Wagstaff’s work, but we will never know for certain.

On a crisp November afternoon, we finally make our pilgrimage to see the exiled lions at HKU, our taxi making its way up a nondescript drive just off Pokfulam Road. Emerging from a tree tunnel and cresting the top of a hill, the exiled lions suddenly heave into view. After tracking their story across China and Southeast Asia, it is odd to finally make their acquaintance.

Their names are Clementi and Lugard – after two of the novelist Stella Benson’s bulldogs, according to Bernard Mellor. The lions greet us like old friends with cheerful grinning faces. Once derided by Peking and chased away by bank officials, they now stand watch over High West, an unremarkable bit of 1970s architecture. Incongruous in style and scale against the building they guard, the lions bask in dappled sunlight. Standing watch alongside the lions, security guards smile and encourage us to admire the statues. “We don’t know anything about them, but they’re very beautiful,” one says.

A little further up the hill stands University Hall, a gothic mansion formerly known as Douglas Castle. A malign pair of sculptures guards the men-only dormitory. With the bodies of lions and heads of elephants, these are leogryphs. “If you touch these two statues, you get bad luck. You fail all your exams,” explains a student as he rushes past. Chris McCann, a fellow hall resident on exchange from University College Dublin, lingers and kindly invites us into the gothic pile. In the course of wandering the dark halls, McCann offers a possible remedy to the curse of the leogryphs. “Those lions down the hill bring good luck if you touch them,” he says.


A pair of leogryphs guards the former Douglas Castle

We haven’t read anywhere else of Clementi and Lugard’s ability to bestow good fortune. But why not? This is, after all, the way myths are born.

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