Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Hong Kong House, Dalhousie Square South

Photographers, who place a subject off-centre in a photograph, will often attempt to balance the frame with something else on the other side. Something similar happens in Calcutta’s Dalhousie Square. The entire Northern side is dominated by one single building, Writers’. It is the supreme, the ultimate of Calcutta’s heritage buildings, perhaps challenged only in importance by the Victoria Memorial. The Southern side, says author Brian Paul Bach, in his book Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City, forms an impressive “jawaab”, so to speak. Dalhousie Square South contains four or three buildings, depending on how you count. There is the CTO complex, which may be counted as one, or as two separate buildings, one older, and one newer. There is the Standard Life Assurance Building, which is one of the most flamboyant buildings in the area. And finally, there is Hong Kong House.

Hong Kong House

The roots of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank in India are entwined with the formation of the Mercantile Bank of India, London and China in 1853 in Bombay. Six years later, through mergers and acquisitions, it came to be part of HSBC, and in 1867, HSBC opened its first Calcutta branch. The site that Hong Kong House currently occupies was formerly in the possession of Mackenzie Lyall & Co., auctioneers, who had a monopoly in the auction of opium. Montague Massey, who wrote one of the most popular reference books on old Calcutta, was himself connected with a firm which was acting as an agent of Hong Kong House.

Built by Calcutta’s Sir Rajen Mookerjee’s firm Martin & Co. at the astronomical cost of Rs. 12,00,000 in 1922, the buildings stone façade has held up rather well. It appears muted, compared to some of its neighbours, but that is perhaps, deliberate. A Bank can hardly be expected to be flamboyant. Instead we expect it to be safe, secure, conservative and boring. The Edwardian and neo-Georgian façade does a rather good job of maintaining that image. Going by the architectural style, it would be safe to assume that the people behind the design were Palmer & Turner of Hong Kong, who also designed the bank’s Shanghai Bund branch (1926) and the main branch in Hong Kong (1935) both of which are predated by Calcutta.

In keeping with the practices of the time, the bank originally only occupied part of the building, and the building also played host to The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (India) Ltd. the Burmah Shell Oil Co. Ltd. and the Asiatic Petroleum Co. (India) Ltd. The building today is still in the possession of HSBC, who have maintained it, modernized it, and on its walls painted an ominous looking slogan, “A clean city has clean walls”.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City - Brian Paul Bach
Calcutta 1940 – John Barry
Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century – Montague Massey

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