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Fluency in Mandarin becomes key to Hong Kong bankers' success

Experienced expats lacking language skills for mainland Chinese clients shut out

Hong Kong's financial community is finding that Mandarin language skills are becoming more important.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- In a sign of changing fortunes in Asia's financial hub, it took almost a year for one experienced foreign private banker in Hong Kong to land a job after he was let go by his previous employer in early 2019.

The reason: Most employers said they preferred -- and were easily hiring -- Mandarin speakers for such positions.

The banker, who is originally from the U.K. and has more than a decade of experience in wealth management in Hong Kong, was stunned when companies did not even consider him for roles in which he expected to be a shoo-in.

Eventually, a candid conversation with a friendly recruiter cleared the air for him.

"That was an eye-opener," said the banker, who requested anonymity, and who now works for a European bank. Last month he enrolled in a business Mandarin class in an attempt to catch up.

"To be honest, I didn't face such hurdles five years earlier when I was looking for a role change," he said. "The trend is accelerating and isn't surprising, as Mandarin speakers now also possess skill sets, such as product knowledge and deal structuring, that I offer."

The preference for Mandarin speakers is another aspect of China's growing influence in the former British colony and epitomizes the changing characteristic of the city.

This so-called "Chinafication" is set to hinder expats more than locals in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, given school curricula in the city have encouraged Mandarin for well over a decade.

International residents make up 5% of Hong Kong's population and are a dominant force in the banking and investment sector.

The trend toward Mandarin picked up pace well before the latest round of pro-democracy protests that started last year and the recent imposition by Beijing of the national security law, according to recruiters.

More than two-thirds of client-facing positions in areas such as equities, asset management, research and advisory require Mandarin speakers, compared with about 40% four years ago, they say.

Areas such as private equity, mergers and acquisitions, research, fixed income, equities and asset management are the fields that have or demand more Mandarin speakers, according to data compiled by eFinancialCareers, a financial services website.

Operational roles such as technology, risk management and product design have a smaller proportion of Mandarin speakers, the data show.

"Increasingly, it is becoming more challenging for anyone who doesn't speak Mandarin to find the right roles in Hong Kong," said Sid Sibal, regional director at recruitment firm Hudson.

"This is quite acute in front-line client-facing roles such as sales and research," he said. "Earlier, talent was needed to tap Western capital markets, but now institutions are finding Mandarin speakers have acquired that talent as well."

HSBC Holdings, which supports the national security law and is the largest global bank in the region, has earmarked greater China for growth even as it slashes staff in Europe and the Americas.

Standard Chartered plans to add more than 1,600 positions over the next three years at a new center in China's southern Guangdong Province, which borders Hong Kong and which Beijing wants to transform into a technology hub to rival California's Silicon Valley.

Other recent initiatives could also call for more Mandarin speakers in Hong Kong. China unveiled a Wealth Management Connect program in June that would allow mainland investors in nine cities in Guangdong to buy investment products distributed by banks in Hong Kong and neighboring Macao, and vice versa.

The plan is similar to the Stock Connect and Bond Connect programs set up between 2014 and 2017 that link Hong Kong to the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock and debt markets. The two programs have attracted billions of dollars of foreign capital into mainland equities and bonds, and Chinese capital into Hong Kong-listed stocks.

In addition, more than 95% of initial public offerings in Hong Kong this year have come from mainland companies, and mainland Chinese corporations accounted for nearly 80% of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange's market capitalization of more than $5 trillion.

Most Chinese family offices, handling investment management and wealth management for rich families, also pick Hong Kong as their investment hub because financial institutions prefer to have local-language staff dealing with clients and prospective customers.

The shift in language requirements has also been spurred by global banks increasing their recruitment of Chinese graduates in their analyst and graduate programs over the past decade and the rise of Chinese investment banks in the region. That has lured more students to take up finance-related courses, giving managers the room to hire.

"Mandarin knowledge has been sought for many years in Hong Kong SAR along with the rise of China," said Eric Sim, a former managing director at UBS Investment Bank and founder of Singapore-based Institute of Life, which trains professionals in career and life skills.

"A decade ago those with the language fluency didn't have as deep an experience as Western expats," he said. "That began to change, as a lot of junior-level hires progressed through the ranks to head up teams, and their banking and financial skills develop strongly with time. The trend will only increase and the supply side is now matching up."

Fourteen of the top 25 investment bank fee earners in Hong Kong so far this year are units of mainland banks, compared with half that number in 2015, data compiled by Refinitiv shows.

"Fluency in Mandarin is a critical skill set in greater China today," said Amanda Lote, managing director at search firm Lote & Partners, which specializes in placing private-equity investors and hedge-fund analysts.

"My clients also value the 'guanxi' of connections" -- or enhanced relationships -- "across the mainland as this can be particularly relevant in sourcing opportunities and being able to conduct effective due diligence on prospective investments," Lote said.

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