hong kong and shanghai banking corporation - protocol for new employees 1886 | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

hong kong and shanghai banking corporation - protocol for new employees 1886

Excerpt from a guide printed for the internal use of a British Hong in Hong Kong in 1886

Protocols for the European Staff -

Relationships with the Local Staff

Upon being assigned to the Hong Kong Head Office, or, for that matter, any of the Corporation's other branches in Asia, a junior officer should make it his first duty to learn the customs and culture of the locality in as short a time as possible. This is in order that he may avoid the pitfalls attendant upon the unfamiliarity of the first-time European resident with the strange and quite often misunderstood behavior of the local staff that he must supervise.
Under no circumstances should a member of the European staff fraternise with a member of the local staff. In most cases, a curt 'good morning' should be quite sufficient as greeting. Any dialogue that may be necessary should be conducted so that there can be no misunderstanding that the European staff member is the superior and must be obeyed. The newcomer will often find, for instance, that among the so-called 'Portuguese' staff whom he will encounter in the Hong Kong Head Office there are some who may tend to be argumentative and even difficult. He should under no circumstances allow himself to be drawn into an argument with a member of that group, as the consequences may well prove at the very least to be embarrassing.
The 'Portuguese' staff have historically been loyal employees of the Corporation, being hardworking, steady, and honest for the most part. But as with any other group of mixed-blood individuals, they can be irascible and unpredictable, subject to occasional outbursts of ill temper that, if allowed to go unchecked, may cause them to become problematical in the course of time.
The newcomer to Hong Kong Head Office will find that there are many varying shades of skin pigmentation among the locals he will encounter. The 'Portuguese,' for example, may range in coloration from near-black to near- white, with the majority of them being of an pale olive hue quite indistinguishable from the Chinese locals. A few (indeed a very few) may be sufficiently lacking in pigmentation so that they may be mistaken for Englishmen. These tend to be counted among the leaders of this hybrid community, and may profess themselves to be of 'pure' European descent.
The habits and customs of these 'Portuguese' are quite unlike those of the population of that backward mother country that most of them have never seen and know very little of. Unlike the majority of the latter, the local 'Portuguese' have at least a moderate level of schooling that make them ideal for the positions of clerks to which most of them aspire. They have some knowledge of the English language, as well as a passing acquaintance with the local dialect of Chinese, and are therefore of much use as translators. Though their spoken English may have an odd singsong intonation, and may include some local interjections that sound strange to the European ear, in general their speech may be understood with little difficulty. They are moreover, like their namesakes in Europe, strongly attached to the Papist religion, even if many do not attend church with any measure of regularity. In this respect they shew an affinity toward the inhabitants of Ireland.
In their food, they have shewn a preference for the more pungent and highly spiced victuals of the Orient than the bland diet of the European, which is why they have their own mess facilities, quite separate and distinct from those of both the European staff and the Chinese staff. Their staple is like that of other Asiatics, namely boiled rice. However, they do not use the Chinese chopsticks, but rather the European table utensils: spoons, knives and forks.

It has been noted by some of our more perspicacious senior staff that the locals tend to be quite as conscious of hierarchy (which is to say, class) as we Europeans are. We therefore think it appropriate that this issue be addressed fully in this guide, since the recognition and the preservation of class will give management the tools to control the rank-and-file in the way that will effectively maintain the status quo.
The top-ranking 'Portuguese' is the 'Chief Clerk.' Note that, although the Chief Clerk may enjoy some of the perquisites of the European staff, such as a low, polished teak desk and a swivel armchair, he is still a 'clerk.' He may be addressed as 'Mister' by junior members of the European staff; however, by the time of the junior's second tour of duty in the East, the Chief Clerk may be addressed by his first name, in the same manner that the senior European staff have always done. The Chief Clerk must, however, address all members of the European staff as 'Mister' or 'Sir' as circumstances may warrant.
All other members of the ‘Portuguese’ staff, as well as the Chinese staff must observe the same rule, when addressing the European staff. The Chief Clerk has responsibility for all of the 'Portuguese' staff, including but not limited to matters of employment, assignment, promotion, wage increases, financial loans, discipline, issuance of meal tickets for late work when required, stationery and hygienic supplies, tobacco sales, conduct and cleanliness of the 'Portuguese' staff mess, inter-staff relations, and special events such as the annual cricket match between the European staff and 'all others.' This last responsibility bears some elaboration. On several occasions in the past, when the 'Portuguese' staff have won matches, some of our younger European staff members have complained of gloating by members of the 'Portuguese' staff. It is also the responsibility of the Chief Clerk to ensure that the members of his staff do not gloat after winning a cricket match. He has to remind his people that it is not cricket to gloat.

The top-ranking member of the Chinese staff is the 'Compradore.' This is a term that came into the business vocabulary of the East through the Portuguese, but it has been proven a useful addition and it is universally recognized as pertaining to the leading member of the Chinese staff.

The Compradore has the same responsibility towards his staff as the Chief Clerk has towards his. Because in the hierarchical order of the Corporation, the 'Portuguese' rank above the Chinese, so the Chief Clerk ranks above the Compradore.

The Corporation's 'Portuguese' employees make up the clerical staff. The Chinese employees are either 'shroffs' (from the Hindi word for money- exchanger), 'boys,' or 'coolies.' 'Shroffs' and 'Boys' are not addressed by name. They are summoned by calling out 'Shroff' or 'Boy.' In the hierarchy, shroffs rank above boys, and boys above coolies. European staff do not address coolies. If they require a service that can only be provided by a coolie, they must ask a clerk, who then asks a shroff, who then asks a boy to transmit the request to the coolie. In such a circumstance, the boy is likely to summon the coolie by using the mandatory form of address: 'Wai.'
Use of W.C.'s
All newly arrived European staff must be made aware that water-closets are segregated, as standards of hygiene in the East are quite different than one is likely to encounter back home. Doors to W.C.'s are appropriately labeled in gold letters for their use by the different staffs. No matter how urgent the need, a European staff member must never risk his dignity by using a W.C. assigned to the other staffs. This is especially important if, as often happens, one has partaken of a curry tiffin that may be rather too rich for one’s system.
Transportation and Excursions
In the matter of transportation, it should be noted by senior members of the European staff who are domiciled upon the lower reaches of Victoria Peak that the funicular Tramway, now under construction, is to be opened in the year 1888. Until that happy occasion comes to pass, junior members will occupy bachelor quarters on Upper Albert Road, which are situated within a reasonable walking distance of the Corporation's premises on Queen's Road Central.
In inclement weather, members of the European staff may engage sedan chairs or palanquins for the trip to the office. Reimbursement for sedan chair and palanquin transportation may be claimed from the office of the Chief Accountant, by submitting a chit in the manner prescribed in the Appendix to this guide.
On weekends, the Corporation's motor-launch "Thimble" shall be placed at the disposal of senior European staff for outings to nearby islands. The maximum capacity is 25 persons, including the crew of three. Reservations by senior European staff for selected weekends may be made through the Chief Accountant's Department in the manner prescribed in the Appendix.
Junior European staff may accompany an excursion at the invitation of a senior member, provided room is available. However, one weekend in June and one in August will be reserved for exclusive use of the motor-launch by junior staff.
Newly arrived members of the junior staff are asked to register their names with Mr Hutton of the Chief Accountant's department, so that they can be sure of securing a berth for one of the outings.
The approved dress for motor-launch excursions will be white flannels and straw boaters. In hot weather, cravats may be dispensed with, provided the collar stud is properly fastened. Wives of senior staff may wear lighter clothing, as bustles and crinolines may be too cumbersome to be accommodated within the cramped space of the motor-launch.
Gentlemen who choose to bathe in the sea will be required to wear the appropriate bathing attire. These must be of the type that covers the torso from neck to knee, and halfway down the upper arms. Wives of senior members are discouraged from bathing, because of the lack of suitable changing facilities aboard, and particularly because of the danger of strong currents.
If, however, senior members' wives who are strong swimmers desire to bathe, they should be allowed to do so under the watchful eyes of gentlemen who are able to act as lifeguards should an emergency arise.
Ladies who wish to bathe should be attired as appropriately and as modestly as if they were taking tea with their friends at the Club. While it is not the purpose of this guide to cover the correctness of feminine habiliments, it should be emphasized that decorum in dress, particularly in mixed company, is much to be desired. It should further be remembered that the Chinese crew members, who will also serve tiffin and tea as appropriate, may never have seen a white woman en deshabille.


Thank you. Wonderful stuff. The bits about the Portuguese gloating after winning at cricket and WC use after curry tiffin are priceless.

May I have the actual title of the source document and where you found it ?  My friends are claiming it must be satire.

this was copied from a lively discussion forum by a friend so i can't answer your queries . if you want to search through the massive thread at facebook (hk in the 60s) you can find more titbits of info from later years regarding the bank and its segregation dining policies


It did cross my mind that this might not be original. The American spelling of 'behavior' is a bit suspicious, and the overall tone isn't very 19th century. But if it is satire, it's very well done.

reading through articles on roy eric xavier's website he mentions a pamphlet that was written and published by josé pedro braga in 1895 about rules of conduct - it could well be the above document even though the dates are different:)

Wikipedia has recorded a good history of the HSBC. They noted that in the early years HSBC stood for Heart and Soul Breaking Corporation because of the strict rules regarding marriage conditions. This of course was all changed long before WWII.

I wonder if the HSBC marriage rules were changed long before WW2 because I distinctly recall my father (who was Head Archivist of HSBC for a while) talking about these rules as if they still existed in the 1950s and early`60s.

Hello Richard, it seems like the marriage rule of old was abolished in the 1950s, according to the history of the bank. I will try and enclose an extract on this subject, if not here, I will upload a copy separately.


Here is the wording:

In the bank's earlier days, junior officers had to wait 10 years before marrying - a period known as being on "ice". This was not only a means of guaranteeing the mobility and flexibility of the banks's staff but also a cost-saving measure since married staff required housing. Officers who married early or in secret risked dismissal, earning HSBC the nickname "Heart and Soul Breaking Corporation". In special circumstances, the chief manager would make exceptions, but generally employees had to resign themselves to a period "on ice". The marriage rule was gradually relaxed to four years by the the 1950s before it was phased out completely.

Richard, you are quite right in your comment. Regards

Thanks Bob for your reply.

Most interesting and Informative reading when I am researching on Cemetery 2B ( all bones exhumed in 1947-48) around Albany Road and Upper Albert Road ( my precinct since it is only stone throw away from the Arbuthnot Road where I grew up ) - thank you for opening much wider the window for us to look back to the strict class system based on race of our Colonial past when the Brits still had an Empire where the sun never set. Some influence and protocol still remain such as my colleagues and I are being addressed as Mister by our staff while we called them by their names.

I believe that when the colony was ceded to Britain in 1841, it was named Hongkong - one word. Some time after the Second Opium War the Colonial Secretary changed its name to two words as we know it today - Hong Kong. However, the bank retained the single single word and this is evident even today when you look at the Bank's logo and bamknotes - it reads HSBC "Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation". Can any readers verify this historial note? 

Hi Bob

I worked for the HSBC (in HK) from 1967-1974, when I left HK.

While I was there there were a lot of archaic rules in play - when I first worked there, I was in the Securities Department. My first boss was Willie Purves, who ended up being Chairman, however the guy who replaced him was married to a Chinese girl and he told me that his career was at a standstill because of that. This was mid-late 1960s.

I was called an "expatriate lady staff" and we had our own mess to have lunch. The expat men had their own messes (classed by seniority), the Portuguese staff had their messes, as did the Chinese staff.

It was ridiculous to be classed as an expatriate lady staff as there were no perks for us apart from having lunch and playing squash at the court in the old building!  If we were celebrating Christmas on a weekday, we could order champagne (or get it from Dairy Farm) and occasionally we girls (sorry, lady expats) would gatecrash the Junior Men's Expat mess and boy, what a difference to ours!  Looked more like a gentlemen's club in London 's West End with all the big, clunky chintz furniture. Never had the chutzpah to gatecrash the Senior Men's mess, though!  LOL.

So - I'm afraid all the old pre-war rules and regs were still pretty much in force in the HSBC when I left in 1974!

Photo of my HSBC ID  card

HSBC_ID_Card.jpg, by Nona

Photo below is of lunch in the Expats Ladies' mess!! 

Ladies Mess.jpg
Ladies Mess.jpg, by Nona

Until the late 1960s (I can't remember the actual date), we had to work on Saturday morning (5 1/2 day week) and we were allowed to order alcoholic drinks from the mess to our office on the Saturdays. Then we were allowed to wear trouser suits, but only on Saturdays! And then, they finally abolished Sat mornings for us who didn't work where the public were (like the main banking hall)!  Hallelujia ;)

The Chief Manager (= today's Chairman ) of HSBC in the early1950s, Sir Arthur Morse was the President of the then Boy Scout Association, Hong Kong Branch, I heard from my elderly seniors in scouting ( both Chinese, Portuguese and Eurasians) that they sometimes had meeting in his Boardroom and was treated to the Expatriate Senior Mess too.

I seem to recall that the HSBC's rules on marriage were fatally dented in the mid to late 60s when an expatriate in the Calcutta office decided to marry a Chmse lady. There was much consternation about this untiit was discovered that the lady's father was a large shreholder in the HSBC. The marriage went ahead and the maraige policy in effect until that time disappeared.