Banker's tale is an award winner

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2009, 12:00am

No one can say bankers lack a sense of imagination, just that they tend to reserve it for dreaming up structured derivative products or fantasising about the size of their year-end bonus.

Chen Yu-hwei, though, while still working as a high-flyer in the field of international finance, put her creative talents to better use. She wrote the award-winning Chinese martial arts story Tale of the Wanderer and the Hero, which became a runaway best seller and launched her on a second career as a popular author with a loyal readership all across Asia.

'I didn't tell my colleagues I was writing a novel,' said Ms Chen, a mother of four and one-time director of telecoms, media and technology investment banking at ABN Amro Hong Kong. 'It was very time consuming and because I wasn't working on it every day, I had to re-read the whole thing each time I started writing to make sure the story and the character of each personality were consistent.'

At roughly 800,000 words, it was considerably longer than most first novels, and involved detailed research of Chinese history, customs and sites to add interest and verisimilitude. But for Ms Chen, who is better known under her pen name of Zheng Feng, it was largely a labour of love.

Born in Taiwan, she grew up reading the Wuxia novels of Louis Cha, with whom she is now compared, but put any literary ambitions firmly on hold while studying management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then building a career with JP Morgan.

'I couldn't say that I was in love with my job or the finance industry, but it was very challenging and provided a good income,' she said. 'Since I had chosen to study in the United States, the chance of learning Chinese literature was very slim, and it was too late for me to study English literature, so I opted for something related to finance.' Having transferred to Hong Kong and married, her husband's job took the couple to London for 12 months in 1997 and, not working full time, Ms Chen wanted another outlet.

'There was not much to do except housework or going for a walk in the park,' she said. 'One day, I just sat down at my laptop and started writing. I'd had the basic story idea ever since high school but, of course, it was not well structured. I finished the draft of a first story and started a second.' Later, after landing a job with ABN Amro and returning to Hong Kong, priorities had to change. Progress on the projected novel slowed but Ms Chen somehow made time to write after work and, in particular, during successive maternity leaves.

'I finished Tale of the Wanderer and the Hero when my third child was born in 2004. The writing process had been very enjoyable, but I hadn't really thought about getting a publisher. I felt the tide of interest in Wuxia novels was probably over and that there were fewer fans than before.' Rejected by a few publishers who showed little interest in an unknown writer, Ms Chen's break came through winning an online contest. The rules required the contestants to upload between 1,000 and 2,000 words each day to keep readers using the website and, with her novel already completed, Ms Chen had an obvious advantage.

'It was a fun experience,' she said. 'I made friends with the readers through instant messages, and we shared our views about favourite characters.' When she took first prize, Hong Kong and Taiwanese publishers soon came knocking and the full-length version finally hit the shelves in 2007, with four sequels to follow.

'I thought of it like one of my children, but it had taken 10 years to appear. I had very deep feelings towards the characters and my dream eventually came true.' Naturally, life as a banker changed dramatically as her new profile demanded television interviews, media commitments and attendance at book fairs. All of that had to be squeezed in around high-level client meetings and important deals.

'It was a very special experience and very meaningful,' Ms Chen said. 'My job was very busy and I had to make sure the interviews and events didn't affect my day-to-day work.' Last year, though, after a hectic few years, she decided to focus on her family commitments and writing, while still applying some the lessons learned in banking to her other career.

'You need a lot of perseverance in both areas,' she said. 'At the bank, each deal is very different and there can be all sorts of hurdles, but you must find a way to finish it no matter what. Nobody asks me to write, but I do it for myself and could give up any time. When I have started something, I always want to finish and make myself persevere.'

This is the sixth article of the eight-part series on influential women in their chosen fields

Little-known facts

Still enjoys reading Louis Cha's novels and has the whole collection

Visits the United States and Taiwan every year to see parents and grandparents

Keeps in touch with fans through e-mails and online messages'