We're interning at Chinese banks in Hong Kong: this is the reality

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Chinese banks aren’t just challenging global firms in the Asian revenue tables – they’re also competing to hire the best summer interns. But what’s it like to actually work as an intern at a Chinese bank in Hong Kong?

To find out we spoke with two current interns: James Wen is interning for Bank of China in Hong Kong, while Nigel Jiang has experienced both ICBC and BOC (we’ve used pseudonyms to protect their identities).

Here’s what they had to say.

What kind of work are you doing during your internship?

Wen: It’s all real work, I’m not just scanning documents. It’s mostly project-based work and at the end of my current project I have to create a PowerPoint and make a presentation. This is my first internship in the financial sector, so everything’s really new to me – I’m finding it challenging.

Jiang: I’ve been here a month and my core task is to conduct research about the markets: interest-rate and currencies trends, industrial updates, and regulatory information which might affect our fixed income, currencies and commodities business. It’s my responsibility to optimise my colleagues’ operational efficiency – so I do the Excel stuff to help their decision making, for example. And while I do also give administrative support, I haven’t made any coffee for my colleagues...yet!

What are the hours like?

Wen: My hours are usually from 9am to 6pm, with a one-hour lunch break. The longest day is only until 7pm.

Which aspects of the internship are you enjoying the most?

Wen: The opportunity to talk with other employees, which allows me to understand their daily routines and the daily operations of the bank. My colleagues have also explained what the bank and the industry in general wants from candidates during job interviews. Working on my current project has also improved my technical skills as it involves big data analysis and game theory, which are two important trends driving the future of banking.

Jiang: I think Chinese banks value their interns and put a lot of resources into them. For example, some of the trainers at my bank’s training centre are business executives rather than HR people. The bank is also paying my flight and hotel costs so I can experience working across their different offices.

So what are the downsides of your internship?

Jiang: There’s a strong sense of hierarchy here, especially among the senior management. Even though people are nice and willing to help you, they don’t really consider you part of their team. And I don’t generally have access to the firm’s internal drive or its internal documents. My colleagues also come from different provinces in China, and they have different tones and pronunciation for Mandarin. It’s sometime not easy to catch what they’re trying to say.

Wen: I haven’t been assigned a mentor, which is disheartening because I’m not able to know whether I'm doing my project correctly.

What are the other interns like? Do you socialise together?

Wen: The other interns are really friendly – we went through the same training together. It’s not too competitive among us because we’re not all working in the same department. It’s a good teamworking environment. But most of our time is dedicated to work, work and more work. So there’s not much socialising or networking.

Jiang:  My internship programme is not very structured, and there are no organised social or networking events. But because my office isn’t large, it’s not too hard to meet people from other departments.

What’s your key advice for succeeding as an intern at a Chinese bank?

Jiang: Be very open-minded. Most of your colleagues will have a mainland Chinese background – even if the internship is in Hong Kong or overseas – and will have mainland ideas on many issues. This has the potential to cause conflict if you don’t agree with their beliefs, so I’d suggest not arguing with them. Better still, try to put yourself in their shoes to understand their point of view.

Wen: Step out of the boss-employee comfort zone and ask for help. Unlike Westerners, Chinese and Asians generally feel a bit uneasy opening up to others. If your senior colleague doesn’t initiate a talk or guide you, it doesn't mean they’re unfriendly. So proactively ask for their advice – that’s the best way to learn at a Chinese bank. You should also really keep up with your Mandarin because language is an obstacle for some interns, especially those from different parts of China where they speak different dialects.

Where would you rather be an intern: a Chinese bank or a Western bank?

Jiang: It’s a great idea to do your first internship in a Chinese bank because their businesses are still developing and expanding quickly, so you can get more hands-on experience, but with less work pressure than at a global bank. After that you’ll probably know whether you really want to dedicate yourself to the banking industry – and if you do, I’d then recommend applying to a Western bank.

Wen: Neither is better or worse than the other – it really depends on what you’re looking for in your career. In a Western bank, the ethnic diversity is much greater than at a Chinese bank, so during the internship you gain more exposure to different cultures and you build up your ‘adapting’ skills. On the other hand, it’s undeniable that Chinese banks will be conducting more and more business in the future as China implements its ‘One Belt One Road’ strategy. If you work for a Chinese bank, you can be part of this big change.

Image credit: tuaindeed, Getty

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