The Mystery of the Art Deco Lions

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Written by Billy Potts and Justina Chong

Standing to attention behind a thicket of foliage, two lions wait, their geometric shoulders bunched powerfully, haunches tensed like clock springs. They share a grinning, mischievous countenance, their large lolling tongues framed by cubic teeth. The lions’ clean Art Deco lines cut striking figures, best appreciated from the safari vehicle of a tram negotiating the gentle curve on Des Voeux Road that skirts the grand Bank of China Building.

Bank of China Building lions seen from the ding-ding tram.
The lions guarding the east wall of the Bank of China Building on Des Voeux Road Central, Hong Kong, as photographed by Justina hanging out the back of an eastbound tram. Photo by Justina Chong.
Hong Kong Bank of China Building Art Deco lions by Rodolfo Nolli
A closer view of Rodolfo Nolli’s lions guarding the Bank of China Building. Reflected in the window is the Lippo Centre. Photo by Billy Potts.
Rodolfo Nolli's Art Deco lion at the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong
An Art Deco lion grins from its guardpost at the Bank of China Building, Hong Kong. Photo by Billy Potts.

These curious lions playfully combine Chinese motifs and tradition with flowing modern curves, complementing the granite edifice which they protect. Turning the corner, however, we find the bank’s front entrance guarded not by another cheeky Art Deco duo, but by a pair of lions sculpted in the ubiquitous traditional Chinese style. Their snarls expose sharp canine fangs and their chests puff out giving them the air of pumped-up leonine bouncers. As dictated by tradition, the male lion on the right rests his paw on a ball while the lioness on the left wrangles a cub under hers. The male and female lions symbolise yin and yang like the scores of stone guardian lions that have been in China since their introduction from Persia during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

Hong Kong Bank of China Building's traditional Chinese lion sculptures
Traditional lion sculptures guard the main entrance of the Bank of China Building like a tough pair of bouncers. Photo by Billy Potts.
Male lion guarding the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong, Des Voeux Road Central
Do not enter! This traditional male lion is far more intimidating than his Art Deco predecessor. Photo by Billy Potts.

But what became of the charming, unorthodox lions that originally occupied these granite plinths? And why were they banished from their guardpost? To begin the hunt, we looked to the lions’ creator.

Who created the Art Deco lions, and why?

The eccentric lions are the work of Italian sculptor, Rodolfo Nolli. Born in 1888 in Lombardy, the young architect and sculptor followed his uncle, Vittorio Novi, to Bangkok in 1913. There they created stonework for the palace Throne Hall for the King of Siam, alongside other Italian artisans. In 1921, Nolli moved on to Singapore. In the Lion City, he spent the next four decades creating sculptures for numerous buildings and infrastructure projects, including the Allegory of Justice on the tympanum of Singapore’s Old Supreme Court building (now the National Gallery).

Notably, Nolli created a set of eight Art Deco lions: four for Hong Kong and four for Singapore. More languorously curved than their pared-down Hong Kong counterparts, the Singaporean lions retained more of the details that one might expect from traditional Chinese sculpture. All these lions, save two, would soon take their places guarding buildings for the recently formed Bank of China.

Rodolfo Nolli's Art Deco lion sculptures at the Singapore Bank of China Building
Two of Rodolfo Nolli’s lions guard the entrance of the Bank of China Building in Singapore at 4 Battery Road. Photo by Galen Crout.
Singapore Bank of China Building lions on Battery Road
Cool street photo of the lions guarding the Bank of China Building in Singapore. Photo by Galen Crout.

Founded by Sun Yat-sen in 1912 at the advent of the newly minted Republic of China, the Bank of China was to embody the spirit of a new, modern nation. In 1934, the bank commissioned Hong Kong’s oldest architecture firm, Palmer & Turner, to create high-rises in Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Architect Luke Him-sau set about designing these three edifices in the height of 1930s Art Deco style. Nolli was brought in to create lions for the Hong Kong and Singapore branches, but not, it seems, the Shanghai branch.

The Shanghainese tower on the Bund was completed in 1937, but progress in Hong Kong and Singapore was hamstrung when the Japanese invaded in 1941 and 1942, respectively. By the time construction resumed in 1950, both the bank and China were under new management. The bank’s new Communist masters ordered construction to continue with the original designs, ignoring that time and style had moved on. Thus an anachronistic masterpiece of prewar architecture emerged incongruously amidst Hong Kong’s sleek 1950s skyline, complete with its now unfashionable lions.

The Hong Kong Bank of China Building as seen from the back of a tram.
Part of the Palmer & Turner–designed Bank of China Building, as seen from the back of a tram. Photo by Justina Chong.

Does the history of the Bank of China Building shed light on the Art Deco lions?

For background on the building and Nolli’s lions, we turned to architect Sandi Pei Li Chung. Pei restored the ground, second, and eighth floors of the Bank of China Building in 2017, converting the main hall into a private banking facility. The Bank of China holds particular significance for the Pei clan; the bank is more than a simple client, it is also a part of the family’s history and tradition. In the 1980s, Pei worked with his father, I.M. Pei, to design the iconic Bank of China Tower. Pei’s grandfather had been the general manager at the bank at one point: “[My father] was very pleased that we were doing [this project], and remembers when his father occupied the building and used to work in it. [My father] used to go there quite a bit when he was a young student and he used to get his allowance there.”

Of the old bank building, Pei is effusive: “The building occupies a very significant site in Hong Kong. The rest of Central has been pretty much turned into a lot of modern skyscrapers. But the Bank of China [Building] today is probably the only one that continues to remain as an iconic building of that period. The fact that it’s a free-standing building, not encroached upon by [others], gives it a certain integrity that buildings with party walls do not have.” Throughout 2017, Pei and his team worked towards preserving and converting the bank hall to its new purpose, surmounting various design challenges and enhancing aspects that worked well: “We uncovered a beautiful ceiling mosaic.”

There’s just one problem: Pei’s brief was purely concerned with the building’s interior. When it came to the question of the missing Art Deco lions, the veteran architect was unable to offer his help.

Rodolfo Nolli Art Deco Lion at High West, HKU
A “missing” Art Deco lion chuckles from his hiding place. Photo by Billy Potts.

Can Hong Kong’s history buffs help solve the mystery of the lions?

Luckily, Hong Kong’s army of amateur historians have been on the lions’ trail. Posts on the Hong Kong history website Gwulo and the Hong Kong Heritages Facebook page indicate that they now reside at the University of Hong Kong, and many speculate as to why the bank dismissed the lions in the first place. A travel guide (paywall only) in an edition of the Chicago Tribune from May 13, 1956, contains a photograph labelled “Lions Living in Limbo.” It states that the ‘“reactionary lions” were removed from “a communist bank” in 1951, suggesting that China’s new political masters were not fans of Art Deco modernism.

In the face of this continuing enigma, we reached out to Lee Ho Yin, Director of the University of Hong Kong’s Architectural Conservation Programme. He confirmed that, upon the bank building’s completion, in 1951, the lions were promptly removed and donated to the university. He says they were placed outside the western side of the Main Building until 1973, when they were moved to the new High West staff quarters.

HKU High West Senior Staff Quarters Art Deco Lions
The banished lions guard the HKU Senior Staff Quarters at 142 Pok Fu Lam Road. Photo by Billy Potts.

Stacey Belcher-Lee and Garfield Lam at the University of Hong Kong Archives joined in the hunt by digging up information in The University of Hong Kong: An Informal History (Vol. 2) by Bernard Mellor, former registrar at the University of Hong Kong. In a brief passage, Mellor describes the circumstances under which the two lions arrived on campus: “‘Foolish, reactionary lions, made by foreigners’—they were criticized and offered to the University, but only two, he writes. “The others were structural as well as ornamental and could not be moved.” If you examine the lions at the eastern face of the Bank of China Building, you’ll notice that their rear ends are indeed built into the stone wall.

Hong Kong Art Deco Lion at Bank of China Building
The Art Deco with his bum built into the stone wall. Photo by Billy Potts.

While the Chicago Tribune depicts an unhappy exile for the lions “brood[ing] with [their] tongues hanging out,” Mellor describes a lively campus life full of student japery: “their tongues [were] now and then painted red by mischievous students and eye-balls given squints and scowls and blinks and disdainful looks.”

HKU Rodolfo Nolli's lions at High West Staff Quarters, Art Deco lions
Imagine these stone lions with their tongues painted red and eyes squinting > D <. Photos by Billy Potts.

Wait. More Art Deco lions?

Lam unearthed a particularly surprising article, headlined “Novel Lions Will Guard Bank House,” in an issue of The China Press from June 13, 1937. Predating the debut of Nolli’s lions by about a decade, the article describes a pair of “novel lions” outside the first Bank of China Building on the Shanghai Bund with “straight lines and simple abstractions” and “block teeth.”

Can Pac Swire's photo of Bank of China Building Shanghai stone lion
One of W.W. Wagstaff’s Art Deco lions guarding the Bank of China Building on the Bund. Photo by Can Pac Swire on Flickr by CC BY-NC 2.0.

Despite the strong familial resemblance, these creatures are not the creations of Rodolfo Nolli. They are the work of W.W. Wagstaff, who is more famously known for another pair of sentinel lions sitting less than five minutes from the Bank of China Building on Des Voeux Road. These lions are Stephen and Stitt, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank’s own iconic bronze cats named after early Chief Managers of the bank and bearing the same name as their cousins in Shanghai. Even though they are the work of two different sculptors, Nolli and Wagstaff’s modernist lions appear to share a common design lineage.

W.W. Wagstaff's Stephen and Stitt bronze lions guard the HSBC Building
The famous bronze lions Stephen and Stitt guard the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, sculpted by W.W. Wagstaff. Photos by Billy Potts.

The article in The China Press goes into some detail about Wagstaff’s references and methods in creating his modernist Bank of China lions. While Nolli would certainly have gone about it in his own way, the article may shed some light on the original conceptualisation of the Art Deco pride: “The two stone lions are copies of ancient stone lions in Peiping (modern-day Beijing), but with the curves reduced to straight lines in modernistic style. To accomplish this, casts were first made of the Chinese lions. A second cast was then made of the modernistic lions. The features of the two were then combined and the third cast made, producing a lion of clean-cut design.” The Nolli lions seem to share design DNA with Wagstaff’s pair. Perhaps the Italian was inspired by Wagstaff’s work, but we will never know for certain.

We meet the missing lions

On a crisp November afternoon, we finally make our pilgrimage to see the exiled lions at HKU, our taxi makes its way up a nondescript drive just off Pokfulam Road. Emerging from a tree tunnel and cresting the top of a hill, the banished lions suddenly heave into view. After tracking their story across China and Southeast Asia, it is odd to finally make their acquaintance.

Billy Potts photographs Rodolfo Nolli's lions at High West at HKU
Billy meets Clementi and Lugard for the first time. Photo by Justina Chong.

Their names are Clementi and Lugard – after two of the novelist Stella Benson’s bulldogs, according to Bernard Mellor. The lions greet us like old friends with cheerful grinning faces. Once derided by Peking and chased away by bank officials, they now stand watch over High West, an unremarkable bit of 1970s architecture. Incongruous in style and scale against the building they guard, the lions bask in dappled sunlight. Standing watch alongside the lions, security guards smile and encourage us to admire the statues. “We don’t know anything about them, but they’re very beautiful,” one says.

Cute smiling stone lion sculpture by Rodolfo Nolli at HKU's High West
Clementi (or Lugard?) grins at the security guards in their booth. Photo by Justina Chong.

A little further up the hill stands University Hall, a gothic mansion formerly known as Douglas Castle. A malign pair of sculptures guards the men-only dormitory. With the bodies of lions and heads of elephants, these are leogryphs.

HKU University Hall leogryph pair
Do not touch!: The cursed leogryphs outside University Hall at the University of Hong Kong. Photo by Billy Potts.

A passing resident hurriedly explains: “If you touch these two statues, you get bad luck. You fail all your exams.” Chris McCann, a fellow hall resident on exchange from University College Dublin, lingers and kindly invites us into the gothic pile. In the course of wandering the dark halls, McCann offers a possible remedy to the curse of the leogryphs. “Those lions down the hill bring good luck if you touch them”.

We haven’t read anywhere else of Clementi and Lugard’s ability to bestow good fortune, but why not? This is, after all, the way myths are born.

One of Rodolfo Nolli's Art Deco Lions, Clementi or Lugard, at HKU High West
Lugard (or Clementi?) and Justina. Photo by Billy Potts.
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4 Replies to “The Mystery of the Art Deco Lions”

  1. An excellent piece of research. Lions may not have ever been found as far east as China, but they are named in folklore and placenames to a surprising degree. Lion rock for example. I remember being told the story behind that when I was a little boy, but I cannot remember it. Perhaps something for a future article?

  2. I read the article as published on Zolima magazine website, and then when googling for further photos, it’s my luck to bump into your authors’ posts here, with more funny photos! It is quite a pleasant reading!

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