Do you want to work for a Chinese bank in Hong Kong? You’d better be able to handle your liquor. I like a drink or two, and that’s helped me become successful in equity sales since I joined one of China’s top investment banks as a graduate in 2015.
The drinking culture at my firm is more extreme than at Western banks in Hong Kong, even though we’re all just a few minutes’ walk from each other in Central (I have friends at Western banks and I’ve interned at two of them myself, so I know what I’m talking about).
I’ve heard that US and European banks here in Hong Kong could be very alcohol-fuelled in the 80s and 90s, and they still are now to some extent for people working in client-facing roles. But I think Chinese banks have overtaken them in the front-office drinking stakes, especially since the Lehman collapse.
It all comes back to the overall culture at Chinese banks, which emphasises the importance of personal relationships to win deals and get things done internally. Western banks, by contrast, focus more on products, pricing and other technicalities. At my firm, you have to keep your relationships strong with clients, colleagues and even counterparties – that’s how information flows. And keeping relationship strong involves…drinking.
Why? Because in Chinese culture (not just in banking), being able to drink a lot as a man (without passing out) really means something. At our annual company dinner, for example, drinking heavily is one of the ways I get people to look up to me as a male banker.
But my drinking abilities mainly come to the fore when I meet clients (both mainlanders based in Hong Kong and Chinese high-rollers visiting the city) after work. These clients are invariably male. I typically go out three times a week, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Sometimes I leave at 9pm or 10pm; often I leave much later. By contrast, my friends at Western banks in Hong Kong tell me they spend less time out entertaining clients.
Sometimes my mainland clients like to take the lead and tell me where they’d like to go for drinks. More often, I set the agenda, so I always have a list of cool new venues in my pocket to impress clients. If it’s a small-group or one-on-one outing, we’ll go to a bar. If it’s a larger group, we’ll usually opt for a KTV club – where we can sing and drink at the same time. The older bankers at my firm sometimes come along, because they’re expected to drink with clients too – just not to the same extent as us juniors.
If I had to pick the most popular drink among my Chinese clients, I’d say whisky. But they pretty much chug anything with alcohol in it.
Is going out for drinks with new clients awkward? No. It’s actually a short-cut way to get to know them and build up business with them. Personally, I’m ok with three-nights-a-week drinking. When I’m drinking with clients I like, I enjoy it – and that’s most of the time. But when I go out with people I don’t get on with, no amount of drinking will make up for it.
Percy Huang (not his real name) graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2015 and joined a leading Chinese investment bank in September of that year. He works in equity sales.
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