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.
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.