banks in the Philippines

Why Chinabank is special to Henry Sy’s family – and what we can learn from it

Isagani de Castro Jr.

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Why Chinabank is special to Henry Sy’s family – and what we can learn from it

BRAND AMBASSADOR. Miss Universe Philippines 2023 Michelle Dee is flanked by Chinabank chair Hans Sy (2nd right) and Chinabank vice chair Gilbert Dee (left) in a photo opportunity on February 14, 2024.

When you think about why the minority Chinese-Filipino community is more prosperous than the larger Filipino community, think about the late billionaire Henry Sy’s first loan

In last week’s event wherein China Banking Corporation (Chinabank) introduced Miss Universe Philippines 2023 Michelle Dee as its first brand ambassador, Chinabank chair Hans Sy stood beside her and smiled for the photo opportunity. 

Hans is the second son of SM founder Henry Sy, who served as honorary chair of Chinabank until he died in his sleep on January 19, 2019 at age 94. 

Chinabank held a special place in the late tycoon’s life. It was Chinabank, then owned by the forebearers of Michelle, who lent Henry his first bank loan. Henry Sy would end up buying more shares in Chinabank until he became its biggest shareholder in mid-2000.

Sy traveled by ship from Xiamen, China to the Philippines when he was only 12 years old. He joined his father who had a small “sari-sari” store in Carriedo, Manila. 

In 1942, during the Japanese occupation, their store burned down, and his father returned to China after the war. Henry, however, opted to stay. He sold surplus G.I. boots which allowed him to open his first Shoe Mart store in Carriedo. 

How much did Chinabank lend to Henry Sy? 

Chinabank’s website says that “in order to grow his business, he needed more capital,” and the bank lent him P1 million in 1949, “his first credit line.” 

Henry would explain the significance of this loan using a Chinese term. 

“The loan facilities given to me by the Bank gave me ‘pinsin’, a Fujianese word meaning ‘trustworthiness’ or ‘credibility’, in the Chinese community. It established me as trustworthy. It built up my credit. It proved that I was considered a very trusted customer by the Bank, and that helped my business. If China Bank considered me a good credit risk, then other people would also. That’s why I appreciate that loan so much,” he said in another book that celebrated Chinabank’s 90th anniversary. 

According to the book “100 Years of Trust: The China Bank Story,” written by Raul Rodrigo and Nancy Pe Rodrigo, that was in 1949 when Sy was just 25 years old, and they explain the significance of the funding. 

“That clean loan was a crucial step in the building of the Sy business empire. On top of badly needed capital to expand, the loan gave him tremendous credibility within the Binondo business community. Henry had arrived in the country in 1936 as a twelve-year-old boy, with literally no money in his pocket. But a twenty-five-year-old who could access an unsecured loan from the likes of Albino SyCip and Dee K. Chiong was someone that the rest of Binondo had to take seriously,” they said in the book, which was published in 2021 on the occasion of Chinabank’s 100th annversary. 

“So Henry Sy would have a soft spot for China Bank ever after.”

FAST FACTS: Remembering Henry Sy Sr

There’s another word used in the Rodrigos’ book on Chinabank that has the same meaning: xinyong

I found the best definition of this word in an article in The Conversation on China’s social credit system in 2018.

“The word ‘credit’ in Chinese – xinyong (信用) – is a core tenet of traditional Confucian ethics, which can be traced back to the late fourth century BC. In its original context, xinyong is a moral concept that indicates one’s honesty and trustworthiness. In the past few decades, its meaning has been extended to include financial creditworthiness,” the article reads. 

Gilbert Dee, son of one of the early Chinabank leaders, George Dee Se Kiat, explained the word in the China Bank story book: “My father believed in xinyong. Xinyong is all about trust. The older generation—when deals were made, it was just a handshake, a purely verbal agreement. That was enough. No need for a receipt, no more documents—just your word. Your word is your honor. Of course, after so many generations, things are not the same any more. But during my father’s time, that was normal. That’s how things were done before, when it came to getting credit. What mattered [to my father] was if you were trustworthy or not. He wanted to know people well, to know if they had a good family background.”

Social capital

Filipinos often wonder what makes the Chinese-Filipino community so successful, especially in business, and one reason for this is what’s called “social capital.” 

As defined by Oxford Languages, social capital is the “networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” Trust is an important element in social capital. Once broken, trust is often difficult to regain.

A number of political and social scientists have written articles on social capital, and they’ve linked this to successful communities around the world. 

The higher the social capital of a community or country, the more progressive it is, and vice-versa. 

It’s also been linked to why people in some communities live longer than those who live in other communities within the same country. A clear example of this is the small province of Batanes in northern Philippines, where the social networks are strong and people help each other all the time, enabling the Ivatans to live longer than those who live in other communities in the country such as in Maguindanao in southern Philippines.

This has also been depicted in the Netflix series, “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones,” which is based on the books on the Blue Zones by Dan Buettner. 

Why Chinabank is special to Henry Sy’s family – and what we can learn from it

So, when you think about why the minority Chinese-Filipino community is more prosperous than the larger Filipino community, think about Henry Sy’s first loan. – 


  • China Bank Corporation website
  • 100 Years of Trust: The China Bank Story, by Raul Rodrigo and Nancy Pe Rodrigo, published by China Banking Corporation, 2021

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Avatar photo


Isagani de Castro Jr.

Before he joined Rappler as senior desk editor, Isagani de Castro Jr. was longest-serving editor in chief of ABS-CBN News online. He had reported for the investigative magazine Newsbreak, Asahi Shimbun Manila, and Business Day. He has written chapters for books on politics, international relations, and civil society.