Caught in a Torrent of Change

In the present era of dark suited financial high-rollers, the ilk of whom roam the streets in Central, with a blackberry on one hand and designer suitcase or handbag on the other, the new breed of stockbrokers or investment bankers appear faceless, shielded by their international employers’ brand name or their own uppity family name. They seem to lack the personality that can strike a chord in people’s hearts and stand in glaring contrast with those I used to know over twenty years ago.

In those days, the local stockbroking arm of The Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corp., Wardley Ltd., stood the middle ground between the still influential local brokers (a mix of Chinese and British nationalities) and international names like Barings, Merrill Lynch, W. I. Carr, James Capel, Vickers da Costa and Jardine Fleming who were beginning to make a foray into Hong Kong to tap the new riches made from real estate. Together they played the role of movers and shakers in the local investment banking scene.

Of the local brokers, there was one very low profile family-owned firm called Lee On Securities which used to handle trades for some of the wealthiest local tycoons. The firm only hired a handful of staff but was fiercely efficient and profitable, because it was fortunate enough to have some of the most hardworking, honest and loyal employees in Hong Kong. The owner of the firm was a second generation boss who achieved success not only by leveraging on his father’s social network, but also by treating his employees well, in terms of both monetary rewards and humanity.

Ms. Lee was one of Lee On’s long-time employees and worked as her boss’s right-hand woman. She was responsible for taking, executing and confirming share buying and selling orders from clients over the phone, exhibiting utmost efficiency and precision. Yet her voice was always gentle, reassuring and calm. At the end of each trading day, she would call her clients to reconfirm the day’s transactions and then type out the transaction notes for hand delivery with cheques or share certificates to clients the next day. Day in day out, it would be hard to find a mistake in the paperwork that Ms. Lee prepared.

Another outstanding brokerage firm was owned by a well known local Eurasian family called Z and whose clients straddled the local British and Chinese upper classes.

Of lasting fame were the four charming, intelligent and beautiful Z sisters who ran the family’s broking business at the Far East Exchange. These sisters were always impeccably dressed and made up and were all drop-dead pretty. If you think that one would need to be an MBA or some financial genius to be able to successfully sell one’s broking services, the Z sisters were living proofs to show that a level-headed approach, personal charm and human touch could do the job just equally well, if not better.

Having grown up locally, the four sisters whose mother tongue is English can speak fluent Cantonese and love Chinese food. One (Z2) married the director of a British broking house, one (Z3) married a British lawyer, and the youngest sister (Z4) married the son of a wealthy Chinese tycoon L who had been romantically involved with a Cantonese opera diva.

Z2 was tall and goddess-like and had ravishing long blond hair and blue eyes. She liked to wear perfume and always exuded great warmth and vivacity. Underneath the bubbly appearance was a sharp business talent who had a knack for figures. A true beauty in her own right, Z3 was of a slim build and had naturally curly, shoulder-length reddish brown hair and big brown eyes. She was a fast talker and never failed to make people laugh over her funny stories. Z4 had long golden hair, tame brown eyes, porcelain skin and a statuesque body and she could sweet talk anybody into doing whatever she asked. Z1 used to wear perfectly coiffured red hair and smart designer dress suits and always held herself in cool aplomb.

Z2 and Z3 were the pillar of their broking firm as they took over from their aging father, who had once been a holder of great influence in the financial circle of the colonial days. Their warm, outgoing personalities, their ability to speak Cantonese like a native and their professional manners often won them new Chinese clients. But as more foreign stockbrokers started to set up shop in Hong Kong, they began to feel the strain of competition, having to rival with those heavily capitalized and manpowered internationals. One of these big shot companies was smart enough to train and promote a foxy female account executive, a Ms. W, to engage in snatching Chinese tycoon clients from the Z firm and other local brokers.

Then came the 1987 stock and futures market crash, which dealt a big blow to the Z firm. Although it managed to survive, with the subsequent much tougher regulatory regime brought on by the Hay Davidson report and ever increasing competition in the stock broking industry, not only from international firms but also from local banks, the firm’s and many others’ glorious days were gone forever.

Be it the work ethics of the likes of Ms. Lee or the sheer personal charm of the likes of the Z sisters or both that seemed to characterize this generation of stockbrokers, they were unquestionably a unique species that was destined to witness monumental shifts of wealth and power from the colonists to the local Chinese tycoons. Riding the waves of change, they have left their colorful imprint on Hong Kong’s history and culture.

I had the pleasure of being acquainted with Ms. Lee and the four Z sisters in the 1980s when I was working as a tycoon’s assistant. I wish them well wherever they may be!