Chinese Commercial Bank

The Chinese Commercial Bank (华商银行) was founded in 1912 by Lim Peng Siang, a Hokkien businessman who established the Ho Hong group of companies. Set up by the Hokkien business community, the Chinese Commercial Bank had many leading figures involved in the establishment – such as Yin Suat Chuan, Yeo Cheng Hai, Tan Jiak Kim, Tan Chay Yan, Lim Kwee Eng and Tan Sian Cheng. Lee Choon Guan and Lim Boon Keng were appointed chairman and vice-chairman respectively at the time of its founding.1 As one of the earliest Chinese banks in Singapore, the Chinese Commercial Bank popularised the use of cheques among Chinese traders and merchants.2 In 1932, affected by the economic downturn, the bank amalgamated with Ho Hong Bank and Oversea-Chinese Bank to form the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC).3

Early days
The Chinese Commercial Bank was registered in 1912 with an authorised capital of 4,000,000 Straits dollars and an issued capital of 2,000,000 Straits dollars. With Lim Peng Siang as the managing director, the bank commenced business on 2 December 1912 at temporary premises at 31 Market Street.4 Months later on 5 May 1913, the company moved into its new home at 64 Kling Street (renamed “Chulia Street” from 1 January 1922).5 Despite the economic depression, the bank reported a profit of 84,742.03 Straits dollars in their first annual report ending 15 October 1913.6 By 1914, the bank had a paid-up capital of 1,000,000 Straits dollars.7

From as early as December 1913, there had been a feeling of unease among the public towards the Chinese banks in Singapore due to a suspension of payment from Kwong Yik Bank on 20 November 1913 after a run on the bank due to rumours that it was in a poor financial state.8 As a result, many Chinese merchants transferred their money from Chinese banks to European banks. This prompted the secretary of Chinese Commercial Bank, Seow Poh Leng, to issue a public statement assuring that the bank’s finances were sound.9 On 4 August 1914, however, two years after its founding, there was a run on the bank – about 260,000 Straits dollars was drawn over the counter by a panicking public withdrawing cash from the Chinese banks due to the alarm sparked off by World War I.10 The colonial government was asked to vouchsafe the bank and an investigation on the bank accounts was conducted following the bank’s suspension.11 The government subsequently declared that the bank had more assets than liabilities.12 With financial assistance from the government,13 the bank resumed operation a few days after 26 September 1914.14 Subsequently, a conservative policy of maintaining high cash reserve to ensure safety rather than having large profits was adopted.15

On 18 March 1916, under the lead of Lim Boon Keng, the bank’s directors contributed 500 Straits dollars to the purchase of the “Malaya 16” airplane of the Malayan Aircraft Squadron16 in aid of the British forces during World War I.17

New bank building
In 1929, Chulia Street saw the erection of the five-storey China Building, which was jointly owned by Oversea-Chinese Bank and Chinese Commercial Bank. Designed by architectural firm Keys and Dowdesdell, the building was a fusion of Eastern and Western contemporary styles.18 On 21 December 1931, the Chinese Commercial Bank held their first annual general meeting at their new building which cost 64,385.60 Straits dollars for their share; the other half was owned by the Oversea-Chinese Bank.19

During the decade-long global economic crisis spanning the 1930s, the Chinese banks were affected as many of their customers were rubber plantation magnates who were severely hit by the Great Depression.20 Chairman Chee Swee Cheng of Ho Hong Bank, Vice-chairman Lee Kong Chian and Managing Director Yap Twee of Chinese Commercial Bank, and Managing Director Tan Ean Kiam of Oversea-Chinese Bank then mooted the idea of a merger of these three Hokkien banks so as to pool together resources and tide over the economic storm together.21

The name “Oversea-Chinese” appealed to the banks’ directors, and “Corporation” was added to distinguish the new entity from the former Oversea-Chinese Bank.22 On 31 October 1932, Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) was formed with an authorised capital of 40 million Straits dollars and a paid-up capital of 10 million Straits dollars. It was headquartered in the China Building.23

The merger agreement between Chinese Commercial Bank, Ho Hong Bank and Oversea-Chinese Bank was signed on 14 December 1932,24 and the new company commenced operations on 2 January 1933.25

Seow Peck Ngiam

1. Dick Wilson, Solid as a Rock: The First Forty Years of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (Singapore: Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation Ltd, 1972), 9. (Call no. RCLOS 332.12095957 WIL)
2. “Chinese Bank Amalgamation,” Malaya Tribune, 15 September 1932, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Wilson, Solid as a Rock, 1.
4. “The Chinese Commercial Bank, Limited,” Straits Times, 27 November 1912, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “The Chinese Commercial Bank, Limited,” Straits Times, 1 May 1913, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Chinese Commercial Bank,” Singapore Free Press, 27 November 1913, 342. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “The Chinese Commercial Bank Limited,” Malaya Tribune, 8 July 1914, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Bank Suspends,” Straits Times, 23 November 1913, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Chinese Commercial Bank, Limited,” Straits Times, 16 December 1913, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “The War and the Banks,” Straits Times, 24 September 1914, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “The Situation in Malaya,” Straits Times, 7 August 1914, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Chinese Commercial Bank,” Malaya Tribune, 27 August 1914, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “War and the Banks.”
14. “The Chinese Commercial Bank Limited,” Malaya Tribune, 26 September 1914, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “Chinese Commercial Bank,” Straits Times, 26 November 1917, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Malaya Aircraft Squadron,” Malaya Tribune, 18 March 1916, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Mayalan Air Squadron. No. 15 Partly Subscribed,” Malaya Tribune, 23 February 1916, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “New Bank Building,” Singapore Free Press, 1 July 1929, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Chinese Commercial Bank,” Straits Times, 21 December 1931, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Wilson, Solid as a Rock, 10.
21. Aaron Low, Wind Behind the Sails: The Story of the People and Ethos of OCBC (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2017), 21 (Call no. RSING 332.1095957 LOW); Wilson, Solid as a Rock, 10.
22. Low, Wind Behind the Sails, 21.
23. Low, Wind Behind the Sails, 23.
24. “Chinese Commercial Bank Meeting,” Singapore Daily News, 30 December 1932, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Low, Wind Behind the Sails, 23.

The information in this article is valid as at 6 February2018 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Banking and finance
Banks and banking, Chinese--Singapore
Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation--History