As the hit romcom Crazy Rich Asians tops the US box office and flaunts the lifestyles of Asia’s mega-wealthy elite, spare a thought for the bankers who serve the region’s real billionaires.
Bankers in Western markets are typically lumped among the blue-blooded classes, but in Asia many of them lack the social status of their business-owning clients. As a result, bankers are upping their personal spending in an effort to gain the respect of the wealthy families and company CEOs upon whom their careers depend.
“If you want to become extremely wealthy, banking isn’t the way. The new Asian elite are first-generation entrepreneurs and business owners,” says Hong Kong finance professional Matt Huang, who recently published Young China Hand, a fictionalised version of his own stint dealing with wealthy tycoons and financiers in China. “And banking isn’t a traditional career choice in Asia if you’re already from an established ‘crazy rich’ family.”
It’s a sentiment echoed in Kevin Kwan’s original book version of Crazy Rich Asians. “The only acceptable majors were medicine or law (unless you were truly dumb, in which case you settled for accounting),” writes Kwan when describing the early life of a key character, the beautiful Singaporean socialite Astrid Leong.
Astrid, who hails from Singapore’s wealthiest family, is at one point in Kwan’s novel wined and dined (and fawned over) by her private banker during a lavish Parisian ball. This part of the story seems not so far removed from reality. “Some bankers live a luxury lifestyle to impress clients by putting themselves on a par with them – that could be anything from a golf-club membership to a flashy car,” says a Hong Kong banker who asked not to be named.
Former Deutsche Banker Benjamin Quinlan, now a consultant in Hong Kong, adds: “There’s a cultural side to this – it’s about keeping face. When I dealt with Chinese bankers, some of them would show off about their amazing wine collections, for example. The more extravagant bankers are almost always men in their 20s and 30s. You see them splashing the cash at clubs with girls who’d be way out of their league if they weren’t a bit wealthy.”
Crazy Rich Asians boasts its own 30-something banker character, Eddie Cheng. While Eddie’s parents are among Hong Kong’s wealthiest property investors, he loathes their deliberately modest lifestyle and spends time hanging out with “dubious Chinese billionaires”. “People like Eddie become bankers as a channel to meet more rich people and hope to share their success,” says Huang.
Eddie may be a work of Kwan’s imagination, but his longing to ‘look the part’ in front of rich clients is a common enough desire in the industry. “Many senior bankers don’t think twice about spending US$50k on a watch, and Patek Phillippe is an obvious choice if they don’t go for an Audemars Piguet,” Eric Sim, a former Hong Kong MD, who now works as a careers coach, wrote on this site recently.
Ultimately, though, bankers in Asia are just there to service the billionaires. Eddie may own five cars, 70 watches and live on Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak, but he’s locked out of his family’s fortune, relies on his banking job for money, and feels “extremely deprived compared to most of his friends”. In the novel, Kwan describes the “envy” coursing through Eddie’s veins when visiting his friend’s new triplex penthouse (complete with computer-control wardrobes) in Shanghai.
“When bankers visit rich people in China, they’re often confronted with staggeringly blatant displays of wealth, which can cause them to feel inadequate,” adds the Hong Kong banker. “In this early stage of China’s development, success is measured by your ability to show off your wealth in the houses you own, the cars you drive and the luxury brands you wear.”
Kwan’s comic novel also provides an Asian spin on the Western phenomenon of ‘banker bashing’. Bankers are maligned in the story for being too poor, not too rich. When a group of young women from wealthy families gathers on a tropical island, the talk soon turns to whether one of their rank should marry her banker boyfriend. One of the characters scoffs at his likely net salary – $500k – and then ruthlessly breaks down the astronomical annual costs of living in style in Singapore. The marriage, she says, is “impossible” because the banker just doesn’t make enough money and there are plenty of “eligible Beijing billionaires” waiting in line.
But there is one way to be crazy rich and still stay connected to the finance sector: come from a family that owns a bank. Some of Kwan’s minor characters fall into this category and the author himself is the great grandson of a founding director of OCBC, Singapore’s oldest bank.
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