'As Fast as a Calculator' : Things Still Click With Abacus for Bank's Depositors

Times Staff Writer

Yin Shih walked up to a table in the Cathay Bank to fill out a deposit slip, frowned momentarily at his stack of checks, then reached for a small rectangular rosewood tray filled with lines of beads.

Cathay Bank still helps its mostly Asian clients count their money the old-fashioned way--with an abacus.

Coexisting with such modern amenities as automatic tellers, computerized signature scanners and drive-up windows at the South Atlantic Boulevard depository is one of the world's first computing machines.

The abacus was invented in China more than a thousand years ago and is still widely used throughout Asia. Yin, a 60-year-old textile importer from Taiwan who was in town to do some business, said through an interpreter that he was not surprised to find an abacus because they are standard equipment in many Chinese banks.

Indeed, Yin said he prefers the abacus to a calculator because he is used to it. "To me, it's more convenient," he said.

By manipulating the wooden beads which represent numbers, calculations into the trillions may be made on one of the bank abacuses.

"If you're really good, you can use it as fast as a calculator," said Mason Seto, a 62-year-old Monterey Park accountant who learned to use the abacus as a boy in the mainland Chinese city of Canton. "Just like with a calculator, your fingers have to be alert and smart."

Bank operations officer Gary Jung said the abacuses were installed when the bank was built two years ago, but are not a new service. Cathay Bank's Chinatown headquarters has had them since it opened in 1962, Jung said. And its latest branch office scheduled for opening in Alhambra in July also will be equipped with the devices, he said.

Although a few Chinatown merchants keep abacuses next to their cash registers, Jung said, abacuses are not widely used in Southern California. "No other banks have them in their lobbies. I think Cathay is one of the few banks that have them at all. It's mostly the older people who use them."

On an average day about 10 patrons use the abacuses, another bank official said. "They really get clicking on them," he said.

"It's hard to break an old habit, especially one that's efficient," Seto said, adding that abacuses last virtually forever and do not need electrical power.

But Seto's children, who include two accountants and a real estate broker, have been reluctant to follow in their father's fingersteps.

"I have three sons who won't learn it," Seto said a bit wistfully. "They use calculators."

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