Hong Kong Currency
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About the Collection

“Currency” is a medium of exchange that has a purchasing power and can be used to buy necessities when required. Hong Kong’s currency reflects its unique history and culture. When Hong Kong first opened its ports to foreign trade, the currency in circulation mainly comprised metallic money from China, such as copper cash coins and silver sycees. As the volume of commercial transactions increased and the circulation of commodities expanded, traditional Chinese metal currency that had to be weighed and inspected each time it was used became more and more inconvenient. At the same time, the global trading network that came into being in the nineteenth century triggered a leap in commercial activities between China and the West, and machine-struck coins and machine-printed banknotes began to circulate in trading ports. Entering the twentieth century, currency that was not issued in the city gradually took its bow from the stage of Hong Kong’s history.

Hong Kong’s first currency of its own appeared in 1846 when the city’s first bank, Oriental Bank, issued banknotes in Hong Kong dollars, but it was not until 1863 that the government issued the first Hong Kong coinage in the denomination of one-mil and one-cent bronze coins and ten-cent silver coins. Paper money in Hong Kong is literally known as yin zhi (“silver paper”), a name derived from Hong Kong’s adoption of the silver standard between 1862 and 1935. At that time, all banknotes were backed by silver, and note-issuing banks had an obligation to pay the bearer the amount of silver denominated by the banknote “upon demand”, that is, upon presentation of the note at the bank. All of the city’s coinage, except the one-mil and one-cent bronze coins, was minted from silver. Following the abolition of the silver standard in 1935, the government stamped coins with alloy instead of silver, and added anti-counterfeiting features to maintain the credibility of the local coinage. For the banknotes, foreign currency instead of silver was used as security, which was administered by the government via the Exchange Fund.

The pattern of the coins remained more or less the same before the introduction of bauhinia coins in 1993, although changes could be observed in their metal, weight and size, the arrangement of the words and the British monarch’s portrait. Unlike the coins which are issued solely by the government, the design of the paper money came with great varieties. In Hong Kong, banknotes are not issued by a central bank, but by commercial banks granted note-issuing rights by the government; these banks in turn commission note-printing companies to design their banknotes. At least ten different companies have undertaken the printing of banknotes at various times throughout Hong Kong’s history. A huge variety of themes have been used in the design of banknotes, including Chinese scenery, characters from European mythology and even the coats of arms and headquarters of the note-issuing banks. These beautiful and magnificent images earned Hong Kong banknotes their own colloquial nicknames: HSBC’s five hundred-dollar banknote from the early twentieth century featured a picture of cattle ploughing a field and was affectionately known among Hong Kong people as da niu (“big bull”). Over the years, banknote printing has undergone significant changes owing to substantial advances in note-printing technology: ordinary paper was used in the nineteenth century, while wadded paper and even polymer are used today. Anti-counterfeiting features on banknotes have evolved from watermarks and metallic strip in the early years to today’s dynamic colour-changing and fluorescent transparent patterns and invisible denomination numerals.

As Hong Kong’s currency provides fertile ground for historical research, the Hong Kong Museum of History (HKMH) has been actively expanding its currency collection since it opened in 1975. Today, with over 5,000 items in its possession, HKMH has the world’s most systematic and complete collection of Hong Kong currency. In 2012, with the support from the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, Standard Chartered Bank (Hong Kong) Limited, The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited and Bank of China (Hong Kong) Limited, and help from Hong Kong currency collectors and institutions, both local and overseas, the “Hong Kong Currency” exhibition was held at HKMH, displaying a rich variety of unique exhibits.

This collection presents the contents and materials of the exhibition under the same title to allow the general public to have an extensive overview of the different types of currency that have been used in Hong Kong in different eras. Intricately related to Hong Kong people’s everyday lives, the items reflect not only how the Hong Kong dollar has developed, but also the change in its purchasing power over the years.