Brought home by noodles, broker eyes through train
James Sun of Charles Schwab moved to Hong Kong in 2004 because he missed the food. Now he's ready to help investors trade in Shanghai stocks
A bowl of eel-and-prawn noodles led Beijing-born James Sun to decide a decade ago to move from the United States to Hong Kong, where he could enjoy good food and Chinese culture while developing his career as head of a leading brokerage firm.
Sun, managing director of Charles Schwab Hong Kong, is busy as the US firm, along with many other international brokerages and the city's 450 local brokers, gears up for the through train stock trading scheme, a milestone reform announced by Beijing last month.
The scheme, to begin in October, will for the first time open the gates for Sun and other Hong Kong-based brokers to help local and international retail investors trade Shanghai-listed stocks. Mainland brokers will be allowed to help investors there trade in Hong Kong stocks.
Sun said foreign retail investors would be interested in exploring their first opportunity to invest in the mainland market.
"The stock through-train scheme, which will link up the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock markets, will offer investors a greater choice of investments by allowing US investors to trade A shares listed in Shanghai.
"Charles Schwab is working very actively to capture this opportunity, and you can count on us to continue to explore ways to offer investors more and better choices," Sun added.
The company's Hong Kong office helps local and other Asian investors trade in US stocks and fixed-income products.
It does not have direct access to trading in Hong Kong stocks, but has partnership arrangements with other brokers so it can help US clients trade in Hong Kong.
Charles Schwab clients in the US made 35 per cent more trades in Asian markets in the first quarter of this year than in the same period last year, with an increase in gross value of 62 per cent year on year.
The US brokerage house entered the Hong Kong market in 1997, the year of the handover and the Asian financial crisis.
That might not have been perfect timing, but Sun said the Asian crisis did not hurt the development of his firm, because its focus was more long term.
"Seventeen years on, it's proved that we made the right choice to use the Hong Kong office as a hub for our Asian business," he said. "It is an ideal place, because it is close to all Asian countries and is close to mainland China.
"The strong economic growth, the increasing number of affluent and sophisticated investors in the region over the past decade, meant there has been a strong demand for investment.
"We help these Asian customers to invest in the US stock and fixed-income markets, to diversify their risks and to capture the strong growth of the world's largest economy."
More than 58 per cent of all new clients' money in Charles Schwab's international business came from Asia last year, up from 44 per cent in 2012.
"This shows a pretty clear picture of the growing interest in the US market among our Asian investors," he said.
Sun was born into an academic family in 1968. His father is a professor of history, while his mother is a professor of literature. While a world away from stock trading, that background helped him build up his network and social contacts when he studied and worked overseas, and to learn the social aspects of dealing with clients.
"Customers do not only want to make money, but also value a good human touch," he said.
"Some of them like to have their financial consultants hold their hand for their investment decisions, social activities, as well as other sport or leisure events," he added.
"My parents' academic background has helped me to learn a lot about how to handle the complex cultural and social differences, which go beyond what financial textbooks can offer."
Sun went to study in the US in 1994 and gained a master of business administration degree from the University at Buffalo, New York. He started his career as a financial consultant at Charles Schwab's Manhattan office in 1996 and eventually became a branch manager in New York, serving wealthy clients from China and other countries.
He married a woman from Beijing who was also working in the financial sector in New York.
He recalled that one beautiful Sunday afternoon, he and his wife were lying in Central Park, reading a book that gave instructions for cooking a traditional Hangzhou dish - eel-and-prawn noodles.
"When I read it, I really missed all the food and the culture of my country," he said. "Suddenly, I really wanted to go back to my culture."
Sun successfully applied for relocation to Hong Kong in 2004, and now has a three-year-old daughter, born in the city.
He is responsible for all Charles Schwab's Asian business. He also served for the past two years as chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce.
"Hong Kong is good place to work. It allows me to work in an international firm while at the same time being close to my cultural roots," he said.
His job also allows him to fly around Asia and try all sorts of noodle dishes. But the one that called him home is still his favourite.
"I just visited Hangzhou last month and had eel-and-prawn noodles. It was very delicious."