CHINA Banking Corp. (China Bank), one of the Philippines' oldest and most respected banks, recently accomplished a feat of faithful heritage conservation combined with state-of-the-art engineering retrofitting plus construction of a museum in its first and original office building in Binondo, Manila.
This is the same China Bank which gave the first bank loans to generations of rugged self-made entrepreneurs like Henry Sy Sr. and John Gokongwei Jr. who eventually became business legends. Other notable legendary clients of China Bank include the Cojuangcos of Tarlac (financing their first sugar mill in 1927), construction mogul David Consunji, tuna king Ricardo Po Sr., among others.
China Bank building gets a retrofit
The building was completed in 1924 and it had a storied history. It originally had five floors but it was later extended to seven. During the Japanese Occupation, it was used as a headquarters of Japanese forces and, during the Battle for Manila in 1945, it was destroyed. After the war, it was restored and used as the office of the bank in July 1945. The building served as the bank's head office until 1969 when China Bank moved its key operations to Makati.
Though it remains structurally safe, the Binondo building has lost its historic character due to the renovations done over the years and general weathering and aging. Extensive structural, architectural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and insulation works needed to be undertaken to restore and preserve the historic building, and meet modern building requirements and codes.
This is where the Binondo Heritage Restoration Project came in as they aimed to preserve the bank's original headquarters and its place in the history of the Chinese Filipino community for future generations.
On March 14, 2018, to mark the 100th anniversary in 2020, China Bank decided to restore building, and the Binondo Heritage Restoration Project team, led by Senior Vice President Alexander Escucha, was tasked with the job. For the restoration, they engaged the services of heritage architect and author Manuel Noche, former secretary of the Heritage Conservation Society, which advocates for the restoration and renewal of the Binondo area.
Among the many unique and exemplary features of the China Bank restoration was the ultra-modern and safest structural engineering retrofit. The structural engineers had originally suggested a traditional retrofit, but China Bank Chairman and SM Prime Holdings Inc. Executive Committee Chairman Hans Sy, himself an engineer, said: “I know what you are trying to propose, but I want you to try something else which I know will be more expensive but will make me sleep better at night.”
The engineers recommended that all the floors be retrofitted with a Japanese technology of rubber dampers — the first of its kind in the country,” Escucha recounted.
Due to the guidance of Sy, “China Bank is the first to use the Sumitomo Rubber Damper in the Philippines as an earthquake countermeasure system,” said China Bank Vice President Baldwin Aguilar, the project manager. Sumitomo Rubber's vibration control technology reduces everything from wind-generated swinging to large-scale earthquakes. When the damper expands and contracts in response to seismic shocks, the special viscoelastic rubber installed in the damper drastically mitigates a building's vibrations by converting seismic energy to thermal energy.
Besides making the building earthquake-resistant, the building had to conform to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. Much of the construction work entailed extensive structural, architectural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and insulation work to strengthen the building, make it energy efficient and bring it up to modern building codes and safety standards.
Due to its close proximity to the Pasig River and it was built below its level at high tide, a modern pipe system and a cement barrier was installed in the ground floor to mitigate flooding during the rainy season.
The original grills and arches, previously walled in for the last 70 years, were meticulously restored, giving the refreshed building an elegant and nostalgic vibe. In the interior, the high ceiling, beautiful granite floor and natural light streaming in from the arches opened up the space and made it look grander. Professionally designed exterior lights were installed to light up the building at night.
Major contribution to Philippine architecture
The centerpiece of China Bank's centennial celebration in 2020, the restoration project was aimed restoring “the bank's original headquarters to its former grandeur and make it stronger and resilient for the next 100 years.”
This enormous undertaking affirms Hans Sy and management's commitment not only to preserve the China Bank Building, but also to help revive Binondo and help beautify downtown Manila. This inspiring China Bank restoration project is a major contribution to Philippine architecture, culture, heritage preservation, urban renewal and tourism.
On Nov. 19, 2022, Sy timed his first visit to the century-old former headquarters building with the visit of officers from the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc. (FFCCCII) led by Vice President Delfin Letran, who came in place of FFCCCII President Dr. Henry Lim Bon Liong. This was a special tour of the building to show how much has been achieved in the restoration efforts.
Also present to welcome the visitors along with Sy was China Bank President William Whang and other bank executives. The tour guide who explained the remarkable architectural, historical and engineering project was Escucha himself.
Letran read the speech of Lim where he cited the great vision of 1920 China Bank founder, then Philippine Chinese Chamber of Commerce (pre-war predecessor of FFCCCII) President, then Philippine “Lumber King” and philanthropist Dee Chuan. Both FFCCCII and China Bank are vigorous exponents of entrepreneurship and socioeconomic progress.
This was followed by the exchange of gifts and a tour of the premises and the museum that houses memorabilia of the bank, which showed how much they appreciated their history and are willing to preserve it for generations to come.