Iconic HSBC lions in Hong Kong facing long period of restoration after being set on fire by protesters

Cannix Yau

Two iconic lion sculptures that have guarded the entrance to HSBC headquarters in Central for decades will disappear from public view for only the third time in their history, so they can be restored after being vandalised on New Year’s Day.

On Friday morning, the bronze statues were covered with hoardings after they were sprayed with red paint and briefly set alight with stickers after anti-government protesters vented their destructive fury against the banking giant.

An HSBC spokeswoman said initial cleaning was being carried out on the damaged lions while conservation experts from Britain would be invited to advise on the restoration.

“We are saddened by the attempts to vandalise the lions. Our first priority is always the safety of customers and employees,” she said.

“The whole restoration process will take a period of time so now they are covered with whiteboards for protection. We are committed to doing everything we can to conserve the bronze lions, which form part of the bank’s and Hong Kong’s history.”

An anti-government protester sets fire to one of the lion statues outside HSBC's headquarters on New Year’s Day. Photo: AFP

The two lions have only been removed from public view twice before, when they were seized by the Japanese during the second world war, and in the 1980s when the bank’s new headquarters were being built.

Recently, HSBC has drawn the ire of some protesters who blame the bank for the closure of a fundraising account for protesters held by a group called Spark Alliance. In December, police froze more than HK$70 million (US$9 million) in the account and four Spark Alliance members were arrested in connection with money laundering.

The bank first adopted the sculpted lions as its icons in 1921 when Alexander Stephen, the then chief manager, decided a pair of lions symbolising protection and security would look impressive outside the new Shanghai branch, which was being built at the time.

He wrote that the inspiration for his decision came from the imposing lions outside the Venetian Arsenal.

The lions have now been hidden from view while they go through a period of restoration. Photo: Winson Wong

The Shanghai lions were cast in bronze in England from models prepared by Henry Poole, and were shipped out to China for the opening of the new building in 1923. They were named “Stephen” and “Stitt” after Stephen and Gordon Stitt, the then Shanghai manager, with Stephen depicted roaring, and Stitt in a dormant pose.

Later, when HSBC decided to build its Hong Kong headquarters in Central, it commissioned another two bronze lions from Shanghai-based British sculptor WW Wagstaff, who cast them in Shanghai.

Both lions were in place for the opening of the new headquarters in October 1935. They have guarded the bank entrance in Central ever since, except for two notable periods of absence – during the second world war, and in the 1980s for the construction of the current HSBC building.

During the second world war, Hong Kong was invaded and occupied by the Japanese army. The statues were among a series of bronze items taken by the Japanese to be melted down for munitions, but they survived because the war ended before this could happen.

They were recognised by an American sailor in Osaka in 1945 and a year later were returned to Hong Kong. One of them still bears bullet marks from the fighting in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded.

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