How the nearly 100-year-old China Bank building was restored 2
From left: China Bank when it was built in 1924; the bank has been restored to its old glory. Photos courtesy of Mr. Manolo Noche and China Bank

How the almost 100-yr-old China Bank building in Binondo was restored to original glory

Now the historic building even has its own museum inside
RHIA GRANA | Dec 05 2022

Banks play an important role in a country’s history, as well as its trade and commerce. In the Philippines, one of the pre-war institutions that helped propel the economy to post-war progress was China Bank, founded in 1920 by Dee C. Chuan, a leading business leader and philanthropist, Don Albino Sycip, known as the Dean of Philippine Banking, and ten other prominent businessmen of the era.

China Bank’s first home was a modest structure on No. 90 Calle Rosario, now Quintin Paredes St., in Binondo, Manila. In 1924, the bank’s five-story head office would rise on a 737.84-sqm property on Calle Juan Luna corner Calle Dasmariñas. The edifice, which later extended to seven levels, was designed in the Neoclassic- Beaux Arts style by German architect Arthur Julius Niclaus Gabler Gumbert. Gumbert was known for working with the Chinese government on the Tientsin-Pukou Railway System. He also helped design the Tianfu-Shandong Train Station (1908– 1914), considered the biggest and most modern train station in China at the time.

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Marble cladding installed in the 1960s covered the arches prior to the structure's restoration. Photo from China Bank website

The China Bank building in Binondo has a storied past. It was used as headquarters of the Japanese army during World War II and was destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945. It was later restored and served as the bank’s head office until 1969, after which the Bank moved its key operations to Makati.

China Bank provided the first loans to some of the country’s foremost business tycoons—including Henry Sy Sr., founder of ShoeMart (SM), whose chain of super malls eventually changed the country’s retail landscape, and John Gokongwei Jr., founder of JG Summit Holdings, now one of the Philippines’ biggest business conglomerates. 

Also among the bank’s notable clients were construction mogul David Consunji, Century Pacific Food founder Ricardo Po Sr, and the Cojuangcos of Tarlac, who established their sugar milling business in the late 1920s.

China Bank has been an important part of Filipino culture, not only in terms of banking but also because of the principles and values it has maintained over the last century, says Marian Pastor Roces, noted curator, author, and founder and president of Tao, Inc., a museum development corporation.

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Noche implemented a genuine restoration of the building, achieving the Neoclassic-Beaux Arts design of German architect Arthur Julius Niclaus Gabler Gumbert. Image courtesy of Ar. Manolo Noche

Among these values are resourcefulness, efficiency, integrity, commitment, and concern for the people—“values that speak to all of us and not just to the Filipino-Chinese community,” adds Roces. 

“After World War II, when Manila was destroyed, banks were not obliged to return the depositors’ money. But [China Bank] did. Yung ganyang mga prinsipyo ng loyalty and fairness, these are values that are really important to [the bank’s leaders].” 

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China Bank began the restoration in time for its centennial celebration in 2020. Photo courtesy of Ar. Manolo Noche

With the goal of preserving the company’s rich heritage and legacy, China Bank’s Chairman Hans Sy and CEO William Whang embarked on the immense undertaking of restoring the original 1920s look of their Binondo office and establish the bank’s museum in the building in time for its centennial anniversary. “Because if we do not know our history, we do not know our future,” said Whang during the museum’s launch last month.  

As early as 2016, there have already been discussions about the restoration of the bank’s Binondo building, says Architect Manuel Maximo Noche of Noche Architects which was part of the Binondo Heritage Restoration Project team. The team was headed by China Bank’s then Senior Vice President Alexander Escucha and also included Tao, Inc.’s Roces and Sonia Santiago Olivares and Associates, Inc. interior designer Maja Olivares-Co.

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Peeling the layers revealed elements that even the building occupants and the management didn’t know were there. Photo courtesy of Ar. Manolo Noche

But it was only in 2018 when Noche officially started the work, documenting all the elements of the building. Noche is the president of Grupo Kalinangan, Inc., which promotes awareness on the country's built cultural heritage. 

“It cannot be done simply because there's structural concern,” Noche told Philstar. His team also had to do different tests and trace all the wiring. “This was compounded by the fact that there is another building beside it that is umbilically attached to [China Bank].”

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Removing the mezzanine exposed the impressive six-meter floor-to-ceiling height of the building interior. Photo from China Bank's website

It was a challenging undertaking, to say the least. “Fortunately—or unfortunately—[the China Bank management] doesn’t have any materials available except for some archival photographs, which were blurred to begin with,” he said.

Since he wasn’t provided with any historical plans, the architect and professor had to do a forensic examination of the building. “We did a lot of investigation—looking for details, looking for elements that crawl through tiny cracks, so that we could find design elements,” he shared in the same interview.

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One of the goals for the restoration was to make the structure “stronger, resilient, and sustainable for the next century,” thus the installation of a steel retrofit in all the seven floors topped with shock-absorbing rubber damper by Sumitomo. Photo courtesy of Marian Pastor Roces

Peeling the layers revealed elements that even the building occupants and the management didn’t know were there. “When we began the work, that entire facade was covered in marble slab,” Pastor recalled to ANCX. Chipping the marble slabs revealed magnificent arches and beautiful grillwork. “It was really shocking to see what was underneath the cladding.” Removing the mezzanine exposed the impressive six-meter floor-to-ceiling height of the building interior.

“The building itself speaks of a time when Binondo was part of a regional complex,” says Pastor. “It was already international from the very beginning. It had these wonderful elevators. The vaults, which were made of brass, were brought in from Germany.”

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The restored building reveals magnificent arches and beautiful grillwork. Photo from the China Bank website

The Binondo Heritage Restoration Project team went for a genuine restoration, and it was done meticulously and scientifically, says Noche. They were careful not to put design details if there were no documents to prove they were in the original structure. They restored the inaugural look of the lobby, the ceiling, and even the 1930s-style elevator.

Beyond the restoration of the architectural details, the bulk of the construction work involved retrofitting the building to improve energy efficiency. “The building is designed to use energy efficient LED lights and inverter air-conditioners. The ground floor fixed windows use Low-E Double glazed panels,” reads an article on the China Bank website. “The Low-E glass provides a higher level of heat reduction while the double glazing provides better sound insulation than ordinary single glazed windows.”

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The bank’s museum has also been completed and now occupies almost the entire fourth floor. Photo courtesy of Marian Pastor Roces

China Bank also introduced the Sumitomo Rubber Damper to the structure, an earthquake countermeasure system. Its vibration control technology reduces everything from wind-generated swinging to large-scale earthquakes.

China Bank’s original head office in Binondo was officially reopened to the public on January 28, 2021, with the transfer of the Binondo Business Center (BBC) Cash Department to the restored lobby of the historic building. The bank’s museum has also been completed and now occupies almost the entire fourth floor.

“I saw in the course of working with China Bank that they remain true to their core values of resourcefulness, efficiency, integrity, commitment, concern for the people,” says Pastor. “Ganoon ang buong leadership nila. I’m not normally impressed, but I am.”

Escucha said the restoration effort is part of China Bank’s Disaster Preparedness and Resilience initiatives and is likewise aligned to the goals of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) and ARISE Philippines. It is meant not only to restore an important heritage building to its original architectural design but also to make the building “stronger, resilient, and sustainable for the next century.”