The OCBC Centre at Chulia Street turns 41 in 2018.
Completed in 1976, the 52-storey tower was deliberately designed to symbolise strength and confidence.
Today, it remains one of the most recognisable features in Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD).
Considered a masterpiece when it was completed, it is still a source of pride that the OCBC Centre building is designed by I M Pei.
Pei is the famed architect behind the Louvre’s glass pyramid in Paris.
Amazingly, when the OCBC Centre was completed, Pei was already 60 that year.
It is perhaps hard to imagine a time when another building occupied the site where OCBC Centre stands today.
That building was smaller, but it was no less iconic.
OCBC has always occupied its present CBD site on Chulia Street throughout its 85-year history.
When the bank first started out on Oct. 31, 1932, with an authorised capital of $40 million and paid-up capital of $10 million, it was headquartered in what was known as the China Building.
It was designed by international architecture firm Keys & Dowdeswell. They were the same folks behind the Fullerton Building and Capitol Theatre.
The building itself began life in early 1932, housing the Chinese Commercial Bank and the Oversea-Chinese Bank.
But later that same year, it housed OCBC as we know it today, after both banks merged with Ho Hong Bank.
With elaborate decorations adorning its exterior walls, the China Building had a distinctive Peking style.
And its pagoda-style roof imbued it with an aristocratic aura, which gave the building an eminence that distinguished it from its surrounding shophouses.
In the early 1950s to 1960s, the who’s who of the Chinese business community in Singapore would often be hosted to lunch by former OCBC chairman Lee Kong Chian at the Garden Club located at the top floor of the building, where they would discuss everything from business to politics.
For nearly 40 years, the China Building served as OCBC’s headquarters.
But by the late 1960s, it became clear that the bank needed a larger building for its headquarters because it had grown so much over the years.
So, land and shophouses around the China Building were bought up by the bank, and plans for a new and larger building to be built on the same site were made in 1969.
A total of 6,565 square metres of land were bought for the new building.
Before the new building could be built, however, there was the little problem of relocating OCBC’s existing staff and operations to an interim building.
This nearby building at Upper Pickering Street served that purpose from 1970 to 1976.
But moving house, even to a temporary one, was a really difficult task in itself.
Over five weekends in late 1970, the China Building was vacated and OCBC’s employees, documents and valuables were moved over to its temporary home.
The moving of the bank’s huge safes were a sight to a young DPM Teo Chee Hean, as he notes in OCBC’s commemorative book Wind behind the Sails: The story of the people and ethos of OCBC:
“Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean remembers the day he was brought to the bank to witness the huge safes being moved. Teo recalls his father, Mr Teo Cheng Guan, who was then an assistant general manager of the bank, taking his family to witness the historic event. That morning, the younger Teo watched as massive cranes arrived outside the bank. Their task: to lift and transport the huge safes that had been stored in the
building for decades. Part of the China Building, including its roof, had to be first removed to make space for the cranes to haul the safes up and out of the building.
‘It was quite a sight. Cranes hauling these massive safes up into the Upper Pickering Street
building,’ said Teo.”
The China Building was demolished in November 1970 for a new masterpiece of a building to take its place.
An ambitious $100 million project, the OCBC Centre was a quest for perfection, which saw I M Pei coming on board to design it.
The bank had the foresight to engage the American-Chinese architect long before he had even started on his most well-known work that saw the erection of the great glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris in the 1980s.
But Pei was already a famous architect, nonetheless, when he worked on the OCBC Centre, having designed famous buildings like the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the John F Kennedy Library in Boston.
According to Wind behind the Sails:
“Pei’s task was to build not just a regular office building but a building of the future, one that would revitalise and regenerate the surrounding areas, which remained marked by numerous shophouses and old offices. As Pei told the Harvard Asia Pacific Review in 1998:‘The OCBC Building has nothing to do with the shacks along the Singapore River.’”
And indeed, it rose up as a modern building among the many old shophouses in its surroundings.
When the towering masterpiece was finally completed, some 3,000 guests including then National Development Minister Lim Kim San, attended the opening ceremony on October 1, 1976.
At 52 storeys tall or 198 metres above sea level, the building was one of the tallest in Singapore in its early days.
Beneath its smooth granite exterior are the following features, when it was first opened:
“It had a banking hall that was 12.2 metres high and 1,300 square metres large. The building had 27 lifts that could travel 366 metres per minute, making them the fastest lifts in Singapore at the time. At the top of the building, there was a helicopter pad — OCBC Centre was one of the few buildings in those days to host one.”
A Straits Times editorial in 1976 put it succinctly:
“Its purity of form was compared by one architect to the prestigious Cartier lighter — part of the accoutrement of the well-dressed, conservative and world-wise managers who work in the building.”
Today, the building remains one of Pei’s first major works in Singapore, and stands as a testament of OCBC’s reliability as one of the strongest banks in the world.
It is also a unique symbol of the transformation of OCBC from a traditional Chinese bank in Singapore to a financial institution of national importance and international reach.
You can read more stories on OCBC’s history in the book Wind behind the Sails: The story of the people and ethos of OCBC available at the National Library.