The sexy world of bean counting

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 May, 1999, 12:00am

A survey in the early 1990s showed one group of professionals in Hong Kong were considered to have a high sex appeal: accountants. It cannot be, I hear you say. Besuited, bespectacled and beyond consideration in the 'macho job' stakes, these toilers in the fields of ledger books have always been a byword for boring. When questioned further, the women in the street being surveyed confessed that they considered accountants marriageable because they were likely to be reasonably rich and they all knew how to get foreign passports.

The Hong Kong Society of Accountants, that group of sexy studs, has been busy celebrating its 25th year of existence. Let us turn the clock way, way back and see how their game got started. Some of the world's earliest documents are a set of stone tablets found in Mesopotamia, dated to about 4000 BC. Praise to the creator gods? No, income records from temples - in other words, 6,000-year-old accountancy filings.

A few years later, at the dawn of recorded history, people in China developed an automatic number-cruncher. If you bought 13 sheep from your cousin and 17 sheep from your uncle, a financial services professional would move 13 beans from your cousin's tray and 17 beans from your uncle's tray into your tray, and then count all the beans you had. He would then tell you the total and keep some beans as his commission (and quite possibly his lunch). The nickname 'beancounter' derives from this. Really.

In 876 BC, an Indian came up with the concept of zero. This might not seem like a big idea today, but it was important, because it made multiplication possible.

Chinese mathematicians regained the initiative in 100 BC, when they did the first sums using negative numbers, and maintained their lead with the computation, in AD 190, of pi to five decimal places; 3.14159. In AD 1170, the Chinese invented paper money, finally having something decent to calculate with all their formulae.

So much for the development of calculation and paper money. But the defining step in the history of accountancy was a book written by a monk from Italy in the middle ages. In Summa de Arithmetic by Luca Pacioli was published in Venice in 1494, and was the first textbook of modern accountancy. This caused widespread excitement - well, at least to business people who discovered that it was a really good tool to identify which companies were profitable.

When Hong Kong started to become a place of business in the 1840s, there were two schools of accountancy in use. The Chinese used the abacus, the foreign traders used formal double-entry bookkeeping methods originally developed in Italy.

In 1911, the British-run Hong Kong Government enacted a law calling for all company accounts to be kept in English, so they could be examined by those in power. Since the population could not speak or write English, this was a pretty silly rule - as a brave businessman named Chou Siu-kei pointed out. The Government compromised, specifying only certain documents need be kept in English. A formal accountancy examination was held in 1913, and 17 or 18 candidates passed and were registered as accountants.

Through the middle decades of this century, Hong Kong accountants had it good. The law said that all companies had to have their books audited, yet there were few people qualified. They could charge big fees and take as long as they like.

But there was no rush for people to go into this lucrative job for one simple reason: You could not. It was too complicated. There were no accountancy training facilities in Hong Kong. If a boy woke up one day and said: 'I want to spend the rest of my life checking other people's sums,' he would have a tough job. He would have to become qualified overseas. Some did this through correspondence courses. Others got on board ships and sailed to Britain for a few years, working as articled clerks - tea-makers - in London offices until they had learned the basics.

In the 1960s, two accountants - Gordon MacWhinnie (now Sir Gordon) and Dr Peter Poon Wing-cheung, both still work in Hong Kong - started working on a plan to set up the Hong Kong Society of Accountants, so the colony would have its own certification system. In 1973, the HKSA was officially opened, and the laws were changed; no one was allowed to practise accountancy unless certified by the society.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the society made visits to China, to see how accountancy was done there. In those days, few Cantonese spoke Mandarin, and the mainlanders spoke no Cantonese. So all meetings had to be held in the language of the departing European oppressors, English - a bit of an embarrassment all round. Peter Wong Hong-yuen, the long-serving accountants' representative in Legco, recalls watching one mainland accountant doing a calculation on an electronic calculator on his desk - and then whipped out his abacus to check that the calculator had got the sum right.

We have come a long way since the days when there were 17 men doing the books for all Hong Kong. Today, the number of accountants in Hong Kong has topped 15,000. Or perhaps things have not changed that much. I was at the Luk Yu Tea House in Central recently, and there, on the cash desk, was an abacus. I am not sure what happened to the aged beans, but I rather suspect they were served to me for lunch.