By Lawrence White
HONG KONG (Reuters) - HSBC Holdings Plc (HSBA.L) toned down celebrations for its 150th anniversary on Tuesday, centering events on Hong Kong where it was founded, after being rocked by allegations its Swiss unit helped clients dodge taxes.
Celebrations include a light show beneath its Norman Foster-designed Hong Kong headquarters, two giant grain of rice sculptures and the issuing of a commemorative HK$150 note. But it has not advertised the events in mainstream financial or local media in its two "home" markets of Hong Kong and Britain.
Senior executives at HSBC <0005.HK> discussed scrapping the plans, after CEO Stuart Gulliver said last month the tax scandal had brought shame on the bank, bank insiders told Reuters. But they decided to go ahead given money had been spent and clients invited.
The bank is downplaying publicity especially in Britain, where opprobrium was highest over the Swiss scandal, one of the insiders said.
A 40-foot-high grain of rice sculpture was unveiled by Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver outside the Hong Kong office, while Chairman Douglas Flint presented a matching one inside the London headquarters.
The grain of rice acknowledges the bank's roots as a trade finance bank founded in Asia. The HK$150 note marks HSBC's position as one of four banks that print the territory's currency.
A 784-page history of the bank entitled "The Lion Wakes" will be published on Thursday.
HSBC opened for business in March 1865 in Hong Kong, still its most profitable market. The bank, whose name derives from the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, moved its HQ to London in 1992 following its takeover of Britain's Midland Bank. Since then it has grown to become Europe's largest bank, with assets of $2.6 trillion at the end of 2014.
Gulliver and Flint last week rejected calls from UK lawmakers for them to quit over the Swiss problems, saying they were having to clean up after a "terrible list" of control and compliance failings..
HSBC has admitted failings in its Swiss private bank after media reports said it helped wealthy customers conceal millions of dollars of assets. Gulliver and other executives are expected to be called before a panel of UK lawmakers next week to discuss the issue.
Gulliver has attempted to streamline HSBC since becoming CEO in 2011. He is axing $3.5 billion in costs, closing or selling underperforming units and focusing, according to its annual report, on becoming "the world's most respected international bank".
(Additional reporting by Steve Slater in London; Editing by David Holmes)