You have to wonder what is happening at HSBC these days. It appears to have swung from one extreme of absurdity to another. It used to be the bank of choice for Mexican drug cartels to launder their money. Now Hong Kong couples looking to set up a joint account in Hong Kong are being given the hard word and are being asked to explain the source of their funds. You would have thought HSBC had had plenty of time to sort the bank out, but apparently not. An acquaintance recently left the HSBC branch at Pacific Place feeling he’d been through a Kafkaesque experience tinged with Monty Python characteristics.

He is a UK national who we will call William. He has lived and worked in Hong Kong for ten years. Since he was planning to marry his Hong Kong born and bred girlfriend, William thought it would be a good idea to open a joint bank account from which to pay household expenses.

scream hsbc

Since he had half a dozen business account with HSBC and a personal account with Hang Seng Bank, and his fiancée had had a personal account with HSBC for many years, HSBC seemed to be the logical bank to approach to set up a joint account.

Since he was aware of the difficulties people were encountering with HSBC and to be fair, other big banks around town, he set off with a lingering sense of apprehension. He arrived at the bank well-prepared, or so he thought, with his Hong Kong ID card, UK passport, bank cards for all his accounts with HSBC, and a photocopy of his latest Hang Seng Bank account statement with balances redacted. In addition he had two letters from the UK government sent to him at his Hong Kong address. One from the Department for Works and Pensions, and another from National Savings and Investment, a state-owned savings bank.

Matters at HSBC did not get off to a good start, with the Hang Seng Bank statement getting short shrift as a proof of address because the balance had been redacted and the bank wouldn’t open an account using an altered document. This was despite the fact that William also had a cheque book with him for that account so that he could make a deposit in the new joint bank account in the event of it being approved.

None of his other identity documents were apparently good enough to provide proof of address in Hong Kong. So William started to mention the fact he had six business accounts with HSBC, but was cut short by the young woman attending to him who said that the bank didn’t allow business accounts to be used as proof of identity for opening a personal account.

Photo: Reuters.
Photo: Reuters.

So William produced the two letters from the British government departments. The teller studied the letters for a moment and then pronounced that they were not acceptable.When he enquired why not, the woman said the letters were addressed to W.R. Smith and you are not W.R. Smith. “Yes I am, said William pointing to his Hong Kong ID Card and passport. “No you are not replied the woman . “You are William Richard Smith.”

By this time William was feeling more than a little testy and pointed out to the woman from HSBC that she had lost sight of the point of the process and that she was perfectly aware who he was, and demanded to speak to someone more senior.

An older more experienced woman duly appeared. She studied the documentation and said the bank would do the preparatory work for the account immediately and activate it when he brought in the original Hang Seng Bank Account statement. William agreed to this and the woman went off.

Then the original assistant asked him what kind of bank account he wanted. William said he didn’t need a Premier account for running household expenses and a regular account would do. “How much money are you going to deposit?” she demanded. When he asked what the minimum amount was she just repeated her question. So after a few more of these exchanges he told her HK$10,000.

People walk past a branch of HSBC bank in central London, Britain June 09, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Neil Hall
People walk past a branch of HSBC bank in central London, Britain June 09, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Neil Hall

Then he was asked what the money was for. When he replied it was for household expenses,  she asked, “What kind of transactions will you be doing.” Slightly taken aback by this line of questioning he repeated his previous answer several times. Then he felt the discourse take a Monty Pythonesque shift and he heard himself saying to the woman, “Well I often go to the Gage Street market and buy a lot of cucumbers, spinach and lettuce.” The woman remained expressionless and asked what other transactions there would be. By this time William had his head in hands in disbelief and was beginning to get seriously angry. At this point his tormentor changed tack and asked where the money was coming from.

He told her it would be coming from his Hang Seng Bank Account, from his savings, and from income generated by the companies whose accounts she could see on the screen she was looking at. “But we need to know where the money is coming from.” If only she had been the one dealing with those Mexican drug cartels, HSBC would have escaped that particular mess. William insisted that she could see perfectly well from the information she had in front of her where the money came from and as a red mist was beginning to descend he suggested she find someone senior again.

Mexican drug cartels
Money seized from Mexican drug cartels. Photo: Wikicommons.

The woman returned a few minutes later to announce with barely suppressed triumph that the joint account could not after all be opened as there was an error with one of his business accounts. This was despite having said earlier that business accounts and personal account were not linked for the purpose of identification. She refused to mention the account or to say why.

But William said he knew what the problem was and produced a letter which had been sent him by HSBC, announcing it was closing one of the business accounts which had been dormant for over a year and had run up an unauthorised overdraft for the princely sum of HK$56. The bank said that “after a thorough review” which hadn’t included speaking to William, it had decided to close the account and charge him HK$500 for doing so. The woman looked at him impassively and said nothing.

At this point he felt that the absurdity, pettiness, and mean spiritedness he had endured for the past 90 minutes was not worth it and left. The next day he want to Hang Seng Bank with his fiancée’s HKID card and a letter showing her address, and opened a joint bank account within half an hour. As they say, you couldn’t make it up.

Howard Winn

Howard Winn

Howard Winn has been a journalist for more than 25 years working mostly in Asia. He was until recently Lai See columnist for the South China Morning Post, a column that focused on the lighter side of business and more. He was previously Deputy Editor and Business Editor of the Hong Kong Standard. His work has been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. His latest work can be found at