Various headquarters and branch buildings of The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and the HSBC Group, into which the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation has evolved, feature a pair of lion sculptures. The lions have become distinctive landmarks in their own right in Hong Kong and Shanghai respectively, with a further pair to be found in London.
The first set of lion sculptures were commissioned for the rebuilt HSBC building in Shanghai that opened in 1923. The inspiration for the decision to order the lions came from the imposing lions outside the Venetian Arsenal
Cast by J W Singer & Sons in the English town of Frome, to a design by Henry Poole RA, these lions had quickly become part of the Shanghai scene, and passers-by would affectionately stroke the lions in the belief that power and money would rub off on them. They became known as Stephen and Stitt: an in-joke. Stephen was named for A G Stephen, formerly Manager Shanghai, and in 1923 the Chief Manager of HSBC, and G H Stitt, the then Manager Shanghai. Stephen is depicted roaring; Stitt quiescent, and again insiders said that this represented the characters of these two famous bankers.
When HSBC decided to build another HQ at 1 Queen’s Road Central in Hong Kong, opened in 1935, it commissioned two bronze lions from Shanghai-based British sculptor W.W Wagstaff. This commission was inspired by the earlier lions commissioned for the Shanghai office, and the Hong Kong lions were modelled on, but are not identical to, the Shanghai lions.
Wagstaff worked with “Shanghai Arts and Crafts” foreman Chou Yin Hsiang who in an interview with John Loch of HSBC’s house magazine “Group News” in June 1977 recalled that when he first joined Arts and Crafts he worked with Wagstaff for two years to make the lions, without having to learn a word of English: Wagstaff spoke perfect Shanghai dialect. Hunch-backed, Wagstaff was nicknamed “Lao Doo Pei”, meaning “Old Hunchback”. His son, inevitably, was called “Sau Doo Pei” – “Young Hunchback.” Wagstaff had two sons – Don, killed in naval service during the war, and Alex, killed while interned in Shanghai by the Japanese. Chou Yin Hsiang himself came to Hong Kong in 1935, and by 1977 was the proprietor of Jeh Hsing Metal Works – and still casting bronze for HSBC.
Like the Shanghai lions, the Hong Kong lions became objects of veneration, and focus of the Bank’s perceived excellent feng shui. Young couples still bring their toddlers to stroke the paws and noses of the statues hoping for luck and prosperity.
When the 1935 building closed its doors for the last time in 1981 the lions had been moved to the annexe on 19 June. The lions were temporarily moved on 4 June 1982 to Statue Square, opposite the main entrance. As a mark of the respect the lions were held in, the move to Statue Square and the move back in 1985, were accompanied by the chairman Sir Michael Sandberg and senior management of the Bank and the placement of the lions both temporarily and in their current locations was made only after extensive consultations with feng shui practitioners.
Their 4-year sojourn in the annexe and Statue Square aside, the lions have only left their positions as guardians of the Des Voeux Road entrance of the Bank once: they were confiscated by the Japanese and sent to Japan to be melted down. Luckily the war ended before this could happen, and the lions were recognised by an American sailor in a dockyard in Osaka in 1945. They were returned a few months later and restored to their original positions in October 1946.
The Hong Kong lions are also called Stephen and Stitt, and the Hong Kong Stephen has bullet or shrapnel scars in its left hind-quarters dating from the fighting in the Battle of Hong Kong.
After the re-organisation of the HSBC business into the present-day HSBC Group, the Group’s headquarters were placed in London. The new headquarters building opened in 2002. A pair of lions was again commissioned for the new headquarters. This pair was a close replica of the Hong Kong lions, even including the signature of W.W. Wagstaff on the sculpture. The casting was completed at Bronze Age Foundry in nearby Limehouse, directed by Zambian-born New Zealand sculptor Mark Kennedy. However, Kennedy was asked not to reproduce the “war wounds” of the Hong Kong lions in the copies: they had to earn their own battle scars.
In 2010 a further pair of lions, again copies of the Hong Kong originals, were commissioned for the Group’s new China headquarters, located in the Shanghai IFC building, in Shanghai’s newly developed Lujiazui area, across the river from the old Shanghai headquarters.