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Keeping Luck Under Lock and Key

July 8, 2005. New York Times.

A feng shui master has already checked the new Commerce Bank building that will open today at 155 Canal Street in Chinatown to confirm "that everything is facing the right way," said William G. Leung, the manager of the new branch.

Befitting its prominent corner location in Chinatown, at Bowery Street, the bank will have trilingual cash machines in Chinese, English and Spanish. And its 30 employees will converse in Cantonese and Mandarin, as well as in English.

It is hardly a coincidence, furthermore, that today, the eighth, because some people of Chinese descent consider eight a lucky number, "is a fortunate day, good for business," said Mr. Leung.

Oh. One more thing.

The new bank will have 7,500 safe deposit boxes, instead of 500 in the average Commerce branch. "Culturally, this is something very different for us," said Gregory B. Braca, a senior vice president of the company who manages the 38 branches in New York City.

In fact, construction work on the bank was nearing completion in January until "we began hearing that we needed more safe deposit boxes," Mr. Braca recalled. "We didn't know. So we began rebuilding from the bottom up, until we had a brand new building - and an extra floor, just for the boxes."

Chinatown, in fact, is safe deposit box country, one aspect of the highly competitive, and escalating, bank war in the neighborhood. Across the street from the new banking interloper, the domed HSBC branch at 58 Bowery has 21,000 safe deposit boxes. And the HSBC branch at 11 East Broadway has 12,000.

What is going on here?

"There is a waiting list for safe deposit boxes in Chinatown, and that can become Commerce Bank's competitive advantage," said Charles Lai, executive director of the Museum of Chinese in the Americas at 70 Mulberry Street. A safe deposit box "gives you a sense of privacy," said David S. Chen, the executive director of the Chinese-American Planning Council, a community group that provides social services. "Chinese don't flaunt their wealth, especially the old-timers. And when you have a bank statement, anyone could know how much you have."

Some Chinese immigrants live principally in a cash economy, with many family members pooling their income, Mr. Chen said.

And immigrants sharing rented rooms "don't want to keep their valuables around," Mr. Lai said, "since keeping everything under the mattress was for the 1940's and 1950's."

Many apartments are small, and so residents entrust to the boxes items like cash, significant paperwork, bankbooks, checkbooks, sentimental photographs, mementos and jewelry, "because it's portable and can be worth a lot of money," Mr. Chen said.

"My parents are a good example," said Paul W. Ho, senior vice president for the Asian market domain at HSBC Bank U.S.A., a unit of HSBC Holdings Corporation. "Every time they get invited to a wedding, they go to the safe deposit box. They retrieve their jewelry, and go to the wedding. Then they put it back. That's my mom."

It is the first Commerce Bank assault on the neighborhood, where some other competitors are long established. For example, as the modern-day descendent of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, HSBC established its first Chinatown branch 28 years ago at 50 Bowery Street. Now it has three branches, Mr. Ho said, "and we're opening up another one soon."

Indeed, there are more than 30 bank branches in Chinatown, Mr. Leung said, and the number continues to grow. Within three blocks of the new Commerce branch are a Citibank, an Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a United Orient Bank, a Chinatrust Bank and a Bank of East Asia.

Why so many? "It's like the man said when they asked him why do you rob banks?" Mr. Braca said. "Because that's where the money is."

Financial institutions are responding to the high savings rates of Chinese-American residents, Mr. Lai said. "Saving isn't just for a rainy day - when you see your entire life as a rainy day," he added. "Saving is an important part of the safety net - in a mattress or in a bank."

Banks are also proliferating because "though Chinese may live in other neighborhoods, many open their accounts in Chinatown," Mr. Chen said. "When I came here 30 years ago, I lived in Brooklyn but I opened up my bank account on Mott Street."

Indeed, Manhattan has only 24 percent of the city's Chinese-Americans, or 90,158, according to the 2000 census ; 71 percent live in Brooklyn and Queens. Those of Chinese descent make up the largest Asian-American group in New York City, nearly half of the Asian-Americans in the city. Three-fourths of them are immigrants.

As a consequence, "Chinatown is an important economic engine for the banking industry in the city," Mr. Lai said. The aggregate deposits in Chinatown bank branches exceed $5.4 billion, according to a study by the Asian American Federation of New York, a nonprofit public policy organization.

"Plenty of competition is good for everybody," said Mr. Ho of HSBC.The 7,000-square-foot Commerce Bank branch will feature speckled white marble floors, blond figured-anigre wood, jazzy red neon striping and the company's distinctive red logo, "a fortunate coincidence," Mr. Braca said, "since our color signifies good luck."

Deposit boxes at the new branch will cost $50 to $250 a year, depending on their size. The bank will be open seven days a week; its Sunday hours will be 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. However, "Chinatown had seven-day banking more than a decade ago because it's busier on the weekend," Mr. Chen said. "Many Chinese who moved out of the neighborhood come back on weekends to shop, to buy food, to get a newspaper, and to visit relatives."

Like some of its other competitors, Commerce Bank will provide customer-service workers to make it easy for patrons to wire money transfers and buy money orders "since many immigrants have families back home, and they send them money," Mr. Lai said.

Like its Chinatown competitors, Commerce Bank will go after retail consumers, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. "It's so important to know everyone here," said Kelvin Kan, the commercial banking director in the new Commerce branch. "In Chinatown, it's all about credibility."

Therefore, the bank has sought local expertise in hiring its personnel, including Mr. Kan, who worked for HSBC for 10 years, and Mr. Leung, who has been a manager at North Fork Bank and Citibank.

To attract customers, the bank is sponsoring a lion dance promotion today at noon, as well as clowns, balloons, free hot dogs, pretzels and, bien sūr, dim sum.

And since it's Chinatown, there will be a raffle for the luckiest deposit box of them all: 888, since "many depositors want an account with lucky number eight at the end or the beginning," Mr. Leung said.

Not to mention four raffles today and tomorrow, Mr. Leung said, "for prizes of $888 in cash."


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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