Creating the Post-Colonial Bank: HSBC in the 1960s

8 01 2013

AS: I recently heard that my paper has been accepted by the Business History Conference, which means that I will be presenting at their 2013 annual meeting, taking place March 21–23, 2013, at the Hyatt Regency Columbus hotel in Columbus, Ohio. I’m pretty happy when I heard that my paper had been accepted because I know that the BHC is very selective. Anyway, here is an abstract of my paper:

The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation was founded in 1865, during the heyday of British imperialism in Asia. Until the early 1960s, the bank’s workforce was divided into three ethnic tiers: European or “Foreign Staff” recruited in London; an intermediate tier of Portuguese clerical workers; and native or Chinese workers who operated under the supervision of a comprador.  The Chinese staff were responsible for interaction with Chinese clients, whereas English-speaking clients dealt directly with the Bank’s European employees. Non-European employees had very limited authority to act on the bank’s behalf. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the bank eliminated this system and implemented the modern idea that individuals should be promoted on their individual merits rather than membership in an ethnic group. In 1964, an ethnic Chinese individual was appointed joint manager in Hong Kong. A system of personnel management that embodied the values of the colonial era had been swept in the rubbish bin of history.

At no point did HSBC issue a public statement explaining precisely why it had decided to eliminate this system. The minutes of the company’s board in Hong Kong indicate that this change was not discussed by the bank’s directors. In explaining why the system was eliminated, we therefore need to consult other primary sources, such as oral histories. This article, which is based on such sources as well as material in the HSBC archives, will situate HSBC’s decision to end the old human resources system within its geo-political and cultural context. This context included the Cold War, growing social integration between Chinese and whites in Hong Kong society, and the passage in 1965 of anti-discrimination legislation in Britain, the country from which senior HSBC managers were recruited. Much like other British firms faced with decolonization, HSBC understood that ensuring its survival required eliminating all vestiges of colonialism from its employment practices. This paper will also show that the decision to eliminate distinctions between the Chinese and European staff and customers was partially motivated by more prosaic considerations of efficiency and the rapid expansion of the bank’s branch network in Hong Kong.  The mechanization of certain clerical activities and the pending introduction of computers were also a factor.



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