Kota Bharu – Mercantile Bank – The Kerapu Bank

Bank Kerapu, Kota Bharu

On my recent visit to Kota Bharu I was interested to visit the War Museum, housed in the former premises of a Mercantile Bank branch. This building was completed in July 1922. The branch was downstairs and the bank manager lived upstairs. The original room layout of the manager’s flat has been retained and it is easy to imagine that it must have been a spacious and elegant residence.

In the grounds of the Museum is another building which appears to date from the same period.

Kota Bharu

Perhaps this was accommodation for junior assistants working at the bank or quarters for domestic staff.

The sign over the Museum entrance says Bank Kerapu and the plaque outside says that Mercantile was known locally as Kerapu Bank in reference to the rough textured exterior of the building. Strange – my Malay dictionary (and Google Translate) says that the word kerapu means ‘grouper’ (the fish). Perhaps it means ‘rough’ in Kelantanese dialect.

I have a different theory for the origins of the word. In World War II the Japanese invasion first came ashore at Sabak beach  a few kilometers from Kota Bharu. My theory is that a Japanese officer came to Mercantile Bank to cash his travellers cheques and was told to queue up like everyone else. He became angry and complained bitterly about the service. “This is a kerapu bank” he shouted. Just joking – I am sure that Mercantile Bank’s service was never kerapu.

More seriously the safes were converted to prison cells during the war and torture was carried out on the premises by the notorious Kempeitai, Japanese military police. After the war the building was used again as a bank. Mercantile Bank was taken over by The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in 1959.

Bird Cage at the War Museum

4 thoughts on “Kota Bharu – Mercantile Bank – The Kerapu Bank”

  1. Hello. My father was the manager for that branch in the late 60’s. We (Dad, Mum, my brother and I) lived on the top floor. The buildings at the back are where the household servants, supplied by the bank lived.
    I’m not sure about the date of the takeover by HK&SB (1959). I’m sure my dad worked for the Mercantile Bank and we were there in the late 60’s. I saw the same date on another site too.
    I can’t ask him as he’s no longer with us.
    I remember locals with their goats on the front steps.

    1. Very interesting. Yes, HSBC acquired Mercantile in 1959 but the two banks retained separate identities for some years afterwards so it would still have been called Mercantile in KB when your father worked there. I am still in touch with a few Mercantile old timers. I’ll ask them if they remember your father when I next speak with them.
      Thanks for commenting.

      1. Thank you. His name is/was Bill (William) Warburton.
        We knew it was used by the Japanese as an HQ.
        It’s a but scary knowing we lived in a house that was used by the Japanese as an interrogation building.
        The locals who worked there were very nice. I played with their children sometimes.

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