The new HK$100 note unveiled by the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in 1972 was not a radical departure from the earlier bills issued by the bank, but it was different enough to be notable. Like the bank’s previous $100 note, released in 1959, it featured HSBC’s second-generation Hong Kong headquarters, which had been the tallest building in Asia when it opened 24 years earlier. But the older note veered into kitsch, with its front featuring a matronly white woman holding what appears to be an account ledger, and on its reverse side, a winged cherub soars above a three-dimensional rendering of the headquarters, lips perched at the mouth of a long bugle. By contrast, the 1972 note is restrained and elegant, flanking its rendition of the bank’s façade with the two iconic HSBC lions, an intricately drawn Chinese dragon in the background.
This note was the work of Henry Steiner, who had arrived in Hong Kong only a decade earlier but had very quickly established himself as the city’s leading graphic designer. It was the start of a long collaboration not just with HSBC but with a host of financial institutions who would prove to be some of Steiner’s most reliable clients. They helped sustain the impressive longevity of his practice, which will mark its 60th anniversary next year. And in turn, Steiner gave them visual identities that have tied them so strongly to Hong Kong their presence feels inevitable.
Most famously, Steiner designed the logo for HSBC that can now be found in nearly every country in the world. He designed annual reports for the bank, using them as an outlet to develop and explore his notion of cross-cultural design. And he created several generations of banknotes for Standard Chartered that are still in circulation today. For him, the benefit of working for these financial institutions was obvious: they allowed him to flex his creative muscle – and they paid well. “There was a gangster who lived on the block where I was at the time,” he says. “He was the sort of criminal who was playful. Someone asked him at the time, ‘Why do you rob banks?’ And he said, ‘That’s where the money is.’”
When Steiner first came to Hong Kong, banknotes were issued by three institutions: the Mercantile Bank of India, London and China, the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, and HSBC. All three were officially based in London but operationally headquartered in Asia, because their business was to facilitate British commercial interests in the region – and as such, their affairs were intricately intertwined with those of Asia’s colonial governments. HSBC in particular was a dominant force, its headquarters a symbol of the bank’s power in Hong Kong.
After opening in 1865, the bank leased offices in Wardley House, which enjoyed a prime location on the Central praya. A little over two decades later, Wardley House was demolished for a purpose-built headquarters designed by Palmer and Turner. Not long after it was completed in 1886, the waterfront was reclaimed to create what would later be known as Statue Square, a new ceremonial heart for Hong Kong flanked by the Supreme Court on one side and Prince’s Building on the other, with the HSBC headquarters enjoying pride of place at the head of the new plaza.
The latest generation of the headquarters, designed by Norman Foster and completed in 1984, is still there today, its commanding view of the harbour protected by waterfront height restrictions. Its stalwart position seems unimpeachable today, but that wasn’t guaranteed in the turbulent decades after World War II, when Hong Kong was being transformed by millions of refugees from mainland China and a remarkable industrial boom that laid the groundwork for its global importance today.
In his book Uneasy Partners: The Conflict Between Public Interest and Private Profit in Hong Kong, the late Hong Kong-based economist and government advisor Leo Goodstadt describes how the city’s colonial institutions were being targeted by a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs like Li Ka-shing, who acquired the venerable trading firm Hutchison Whampoa in 1979. “Among the most famous British business names, a majority failed to match their Chinese rivals and were taken over, often ignominiously,” writes Goodstadt. Though British institutions like Swire and Jardine are still around, their relative influence in the Hong Kong economy is only a shadow of what it was in the past. By contrast, HSBC is more powerful than ever. “The Hongkong Bank proved the most durable of all Hong Kong’s expatriate institutions,” notes Goodstadt.
Rather than shrinking into relative obscurity like some of Hong Kong’s other colonial enterprises, HSBC leveraged its influence to become the global hegemon it is today. (Not coincidentally, it was HSBC that sold Li its controlling stake in Hutchison Whampoa.) Insofar as branding and design can be influential, Steiner played at least some role in this. In a 2006 review of Steiner’s work for the Design Issues journal, scholar DJ Huppatz sees the “East meets West” imagery Steiner used for HSBC’s annual reports as a way to position the bank as Hong Kong rooted but globally minded, shedding its colonial skin to become a modern bank suited for a new era of globalisation.
The same can be said for Steiner’s work on developing a new corporate identity for HSBC in the early 1980s. That led to the ubiquitous and enduring logo, but it also involved a brand mark that went against the grain of the era. “I’ve always tried to avoid whatever the mob drift of design is at the given time,” Steiner told us in 2011. “When I was working on the HSBC identity, I used Times Roman consistently for it,” he says, referring to a variant of the font developed for The Times in 1932. “There were some people who told the bank that Times Roman was terribly old fashioned. All the banks were using a bold sans serif. But I wanted to do something classic and dependable.”
Steiner also created a logo for Dah Sing Bank based on the first character of the bank’s name, daai6 (大, “big”) and an abacus. His logo for the International Bank of Asia, now part of Fubon Bank, riffed off the character for Asia, aa3 (亞). Coincidentally or not, the current Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) logo — which was not designed by Steiner — looks remarkably similar.
He took a similar approach of mixing contemporary and classical — and Chinese and Western — influences when Standard Chartered (which had been created in 1969 with the merger of the Chartered Bank and Standard Bank of British South Africa) asked him to redesign their Hong Kong banknotes in 1975. Unlike the HSBC notes and their authoritative serif typeface, Steiner chose a trendier sans-serif, paired with a florid cursive that called to mind the script of a historic document. What made the notes most memorable was the imagery: mythological Chinese creatures, ranging from a fish on the lowest-value note, HK$20, to a dragon for HK$1,000.
Why cryptids? Steiner says it was a logical decision, because Hong Kong’s position as a colony made it too politically complicated to have any human figures on the notes. And he was increasingly fascinated by Chinese mythology and art. “It was like a playground for me,” he says. “It was something that for others was like, ‘Yeah, but so what?’ And to me it was beautiful. I was an outsider and I thought there was this wonderful symbolism.”
Steiner updated the notes in 1993, 2003 and 2010, tweaking the design to accommodate the latest anti-counterfeiting technology. Scenes of Victoria Harbour found on the reverse side of the earlier notes were replaced by images of pioneering technology: abacus, coin, circuit board. But the mythological creatures remain, as does a tangible reminder of banking’s role on Hong Kong – and Henry Steiner’s influence on how we perceive this all-pervasive industry.