Formerly:   Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation
Address:     564 Mahabandoola Garden Street
Year built:   1901
Architect:    Unknown

This former building of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) was once a Catholic church, creating one of Rangoon’s more spectacular—and unusual—corporate buildings of the early 20th century. Not much of this early splendour remains. The building underwent drastic renovations, most likely in the 1920s, to expand and update the premises. It was stripped of its rich Gothic ornaments and the church spire that once rested on the hexagonal tower. The former HSBC office now resembles a sparse, almost fortress-like building. The tight iron bars on the windows reinforce this impression.

Remnants of a hexagonal corner tower, once crowned with a gothic spire, can still be seen today

HSBC opened this Rangoon branch in 1901. (It had opened its first office nine years before, on Bank Street.) At the time the bank was a pillar of the British Empire in Asia. While it was chartered under British banking regulations, its opulent headquarters were in Hong Kong. In Fiery Dragons: Banks, Moneylenders and Microfinance in Burma, economist Sean Turnell explains that HSBC’s operations in Burma were relatively minor compared to elsewhere in the Empire. And while HSBC worked with Chettiar moneylenders in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), it had little involvement with the Chettiars of Burma, despite their central role in the colonial financial system. Although Rangoon was a minor branch, it was deemed a desirable posting for ambitious young bankers.

A new reflective glass façade has been built in front of the original façade

Today the HSBC building, along with the building next to it on Mahabandoola Garden Street (with its new and questionable glass façade), belong to the Myanma Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB), one of the country’s major state-owned banks. As the name implies, the MFTB facilitates foreign trade and used to be the sole conduit for foreign exchange transactions. The role of the MFTB and other state banks is in flux today, given Myanmar’s gradual opening-up. Foreign exchange dealings were liberalised in 2012. The country’s currency, the kyat, is now traded relatively freely. Foreign banks are returning: at the time of writing, more than 40 international banks have representative offices in Yangon. In October 2014, nine of these were awarded limited licences to provide banking services, but HSBC was not among them. Nor have they, as yet, re-opened an office.

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