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My life: Phillip Kim

The writer tells Mark Footer about his source material: the heady days of Asian banking

 


Photo: Jonathan Wong

 

KOREA TO CAREER I was born in Seoul, Korea. My father's family comes from a village in the Andong area of Korea, a traditional enclave of Confucian scholar gentry. Though socially conservative, he was intellectually curious. By the time he had received a doctorate degree in nuclear physics from the University of Birmingham, in the UK, his lifestyle had leapt across centuries, from the 16th to the mid-20th. My mother was also well-educated, and more creatively minded than my father. When I was one year old, we emigrated to the United States, moving first to Berkeley, California, then Washington DC.

Unlike my father, uncle and two siblings, I grew up never having much inclination towards science. Instead, I became the family's "black sheep" by pursuing economics. After I graduated from college in 1983, I became mesmerised with investment banking. This industry straddled all others, populated with high-powered people wearing monogrammed shirts and expensive neckties. I was recruited into Lehman Brothers in 1985 and joined their mortgage securitisation division. Back then, the business was in its nascency, long before it became the beast that swallowed the financial world.

AT HOME IN HONG KONG In 1992, I was approached to join Lehman's Hong Kong office. I had been growing weary of trying to befriend regional bank clients based in places such as Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. I therefore signed on to move to Asia. I have a wife, an early teenage daughter and an arthritic half-blind shih-tzu. My wife is an American who studied modern Chinese history during her school years. She spent a year studying in Shanghai long before it was the "in" place for Americans to be. Her love of China was a key reason we moved to Hong Kong. She currently works as a senior banker at a major global institution. My daughter was born in Hong Kong and considers the SAR her home.

THINKING SMALL I left the world of large investment banks (Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley) a dozen years ago. Since then, I have attached myself to boutique investment banks that fill advisory niches and focus on younger, higher-growth companies.

(The financial meltdown) was a terribly frightening time. Though the crisis was epicentred in the US and the UK, the entire world's financial system teetered on the verge of collapse. Banking business across Asia very quickly ground to a halt. I no longer was working at a global bank in 2007 but many of my close friends were, some of them at Lehman Brothers. Asia had more than its share of shell-shocked bankers, since they were so immersed in the go-go mentality of "Chindia". The mortgage debacle in the West blindsided many of them. Ironically, the ones who ended up breathing the biggest sigh of relief were Lehman's Asia staff, who received guaranteed pre-crisis pay packages when Nomura bought the franchise.

Working in smaller and more flexible organisations has given me the freedom to pursue a lifelong passion - creative writing. In mid-2010, I began penning my first novel, Nothing Gained, which draws heavily on my Asian banking experience.

A WEALTH OF CHARACTERS Each of the main characters (in the book) is a composite of individuals, rather than any specific person, I have encountered over the years. Each one is an archetype - the powerful banker overwhelmed by greed, the tai tai oblivious to what is underpinning her charmed life, the talented but morally fragile sycophant and the earnest, hard working do-gooder. Asia is incredibly vast, with a huge range of people. The collision of cultures sometimes leads to surreal experiences. I remember a particular meeting that took place one hot summer night in Seoul. The building's air conditioning had been shut off to save energy. To beat the heat, we bankers took off our jackets and Hermès neckties. The clients one-upped us; they removed their pants and sat through the rest of the meeting in boxers and tighty-whities.

The unsavoury characters are also composites of personalities I have encountered. Big money draws in big personalities, with outsized character traits. Asia is crawling with them. There are cocksure Westerners whose bluster blinds them to local ways of doing things. There are tycoons not afraid of negotiating by any means necessary; the episode (in the book) where a character pulls a bullet from his pocket during a tense meeting is real. And of course, there are the playboy hedge-fund managers for whom "morality" is a four-letter word.

CLAWS FOR THOUGHT Like most Hong Kong-based bankers, I've had to fly to a different country almost every week of the year. There have been years when I've embarked on two or three global roadshows that involved hosting investor meetings for clients in up to 20 countries over an exhausting three-week stretch. On one roadshow, I asked my client which meal had been their favourite among the many Michelin-starred restaurants we had visited. The answer - Singaporean pepper crab, with ice-cold cans of Tiger Beer! For my book, I naturally drew heavily on my travel experiences. However, for the scenes in Macau, I did make a special trip - with my family, mind you - to catch up on the new casino venues, measure walking distances and check out restaurant menus.

Frankly, private nightclubs are an all-too-common feature of late-night business entertainment throughout Asia. The wealthiest and most powerful have access to more exclusive, and sometimes more outrageous, indulgences. To come up with the scene that takes place in Singapore (in a private club where anything goes), I combined real elements - including the hostess with the angel wings who levitates (sans underwear) above the guests - from various nightclubs that I have either encountered or heard about.

THOSE WERE THE DAYS I maintain a blog (www.asiaonepercent.blogspot.com) that comments on the fortunes and foibles of Asia's wealthy. I am currently writing a prequel to Nothing Gained. This story focuses on the heady days of Asian banking pre-crisis, when China's deals were the biggest in the world and Asian wealth creation seemed boundless. This generation may never see the likes of such an incredible boom again. I want to capture that period, with the ambitions and emotional rivalries that it spawned. I feel fortunate to have been a small part of this period in history. There are so many amazing stories, settings and characters yet to be chronicled.

 

Nothing Gained (Viking) is available in bookshops now.

 

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