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Trafficking in Extremes

The Adventure of Working Abroad

Did you ever dream of working abroad?

I went to Hong Kong to look for stories because the city seemed an accessible frontier. It was the most modern and cosmopolitan of all cities in the world, with every convenience one might be accustomed to, from Pilates classes to chicken-ginger wraps. Those who spoke English there did so better than I. Yet it bordered China, then was handed over to China, and remained the gateway between capitalism and communism. If I was looking for a little adventure, but I still wanted to have a career in traditional business, that’s where I would move. So I went to find people who had done just that.

            No sooner did I get there than I was told this wasn’t The place to be. “Oh, you gotta go to Shenzen, in the New Territories!” “No, no, you gotta go to Shanghai! That’s where it’s really at.” The frontier is a state of mind. People who’d come to Hong Kong had grown accustomed to it, and now some other city took on the symbol of the frontier. But I wasn’t looking for the ultimate frontier. I wanted a place that anybody could move to, and be gainfully employed, yet was interesting – which I’d learned in New Orleans was created by collisions of diametrically opposed extreme contrasts. By that measure, Hong Kong was the most interesting city on earth.

Everywhere, freewheeling uber-capitalism collided with China’s state-run central plan. For one tiny example of how freewheeling it is, consider the typical $20 Hong Kong paper bill. Except you can’t, because there is no typical $20 bill. Many different banks are authorized to print currency, and their bills don’t look alike. They’re about the same size, but the Standard Chartered Bank’s twenty is in different colors and a very different pattern and typeface than the twenty from the Bank of China or the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. This didn’t bother anybody, and they all were honored as legal tender. I felt like printing some twenties myself. Multiply this concept by every layer of the economy, and you begin to imagine how entrepreneurial you might become if you lived there a few years. Business people I met carried at least a half dozen different business cards, ready to pounce whether I happened to be in real estate or semiconductors. The only reason this dynamism hasn’t taken over the planet is China stands in its way. In China, where entrepreneurism has met its match, the rules and customs for doing business there are so convoluted and arbitrary that it will sap the spirit of all but Hong Kong’s most relentless capitalists. There is no way to know how much money has to be spread around, no quoted price on bribing certain levels of bureaucrats. A deal is not a deal. Maybe your factory will get built, maybe not. The system must be worked continuously to have any chance.

So, despite the fact so many businesses want to invest in China, many grow frustrated and focus instead on Hong Kong, which has become far and away the most expensive city in the world. Your basic Mid-Levels flat without a view would set an ex-pat back $6,000 U.S. in rent every month. Out of frustration, I might move across the harbor to Kowloon and try to buy; a 1,700 square foot flat sells for $1,100,000 U.S. How can all these taxi drivers and shopkeepers possibly pay their rent? Sure, I might be able to pay it, living on a hyperinflated ex-pat salary, but how’s a merchant hocking Baby Gap denim jackets for $2.50 in an open-air-market possibly compete? The answer is, they don’t. They’re locals. The government builds housing for them and sells it at a subsidized rate. Eighty percent of the housing is non-market. The government erects endless skinny 25-story apartment towers on every possible scrap of land; each floor has two 500 square foot apartments, which are sold to locals for about $140,000 U.S.. They’re cheaply constructed. Those who can afford it hire private contractors to tear it up and redo it to their liking. Only Carl Sagan could convey how many of these skinny towers there are. As many as there are blades of grass on a football field… All the way in from the airport, a 40 minute drive, the harbors are lined with these towers, one behind the other, up into the hills. Imagine every brownstone in Manhattan a skinny 25-story tower, with no bigger footprint. Every row house in Baltimore. Every Victorian in San Francisco. There are more people per square kilometer there than anywhere on earth. I was told the populated side of Hong Kong Island was ten times as dense as Manhattan. Ten times!

This is a city in love with skyscrapers. There were almost a hundred more than 50 stories tall. In my neighborhood stood the 5th and 6th tallest buildings in the world. Yet, unlike Manhatthan, above this skyline is a mountain, Victoria Peak, twice as tall as the tallest building. The mountain is covered in a lush green tropical forest. Sixty percent of Hong Kong Island is national park. Nature competes hard with capitalism. A 15-minute cab ride through the tunnel in the mountain dropped me into a series of gorgeous small towns comprising Mediterranean-style houses gathered around perfect sandy beaches on soft aqua bays surrounded by tropical forest. The ideal South Pacific kick-it-back repose is right there, three kilometers away, butting up against the city bustle, and holding its own.

The ex-pat’s life traffics through these extremes. Spending $4 a person on lunch in the markets, then dropping $150 a person on dinner in the ultra-hip restaurants of the Lan Kwai Fong clubbing district. The workweek is spent anonymously in the concrete anthill, then the weekend is spent in a communal beach house on one of many nearby tropical islands, a quick ferry ride away. Sometimes it seems incredibly diverse, with English spoken in so many nuanced accents, from Singapore, Nepal, the Philippines, Canada, England, and regions of India. Other times the ex-pat is painfully aware of being an outsider, floating in a fat cream on top, while 96 percent of the population is Cantonese-speaking ethnic Chinese who have been burned too many times by falling in love with or becoming friends with an ex-pat who inevitably leaves after three or four years. Colonials have been coming here for four hundred years, and you’re just another in a long line who wants to break some local’s heart. 

 

There’s always a rapid turnover on the frontier, which means that even though you’re young, you can be thrust into responsibility very quickly. This was the case with Allan Matheson. A year ago he was hanging out in Vancouver with a job, living with his parents and drinking away his meager savings. On a friend’s tip, he learned of a job opening – the Membership Manager of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. Industrious but unqualified, full of potential but lacking any experience, he talked his way into the job and came to Hong Kong. Today, at the age of 24, he’s running the Chamber.

            This is a big deal. A huge pipeline of money and people moves between Vancouver and Hong Kong. Both the U.S. and Canada allow investor visas, which means if you have a million dollars to invest here, you can become a citizen. But the U.S. forced investors to choose – they could be an American citizen, or a Hong Kong citizen, but not both. Canada allowed dual-citizenship. So partly through investor visas, and partly through ordinary immigration channels, almost everyone in Hong Kong has either been to Canada to visit or has a relative who has done so. Before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese, 40,000 people a year moved from Hong Kong to Canada. They brought with them an insane amount of money. These flows have stabilized now since the handover, but the pipeline was built. In Hong Kong, there are 150,000 people who carry Canadian passports, and over 30,000 were born in Canada. The reason they’re coming back is that the top tax bracket in Hong Kong is 15 percent. I don’t know what it is in Canada, but I’d guess three or four times that rate.

            So the Canadian Chamber is not one of those rinky-dink trade groups that throws cocktail parties nobody attends. Business in Asia is done with relationships, and so every Canadian company needs introductions to Hong Kong and Chinese business partners. When they have a new product for the Asian market, they often look to Allan to make these introductions. If they want to take advantage of cheap Chinese labor, they ask Allan for manufacturers. And it is through the Chamber that Canadian companies lobby the Hong Kong government to have environmental standards enforced and racial discrimination forbidden. When the Chamber throws a cocktail party, everybody comes, and businesspeople mix freely with diplomats and government officials.

Is Allan up to it? Or will the result be the same as when 24-year-old guys took their internet startups public? It’s a scary thought. Hong Kong has that anything-can-happen vibe. Nobody’s promising the upside, but the possibility is there, even for a slacker like Allan.

“I was basically a lazy guy,” he tells me, when we go out for burritos on Elgin Street. “My only work experience was as a data processor in a hospital foundation.”

That was during college at the University of British Columbia. With graduation nearing and no clue what to do, he bought a Eurorail pass an hour before his last exam. After a few months in Europe, he went on the internet and found a language school in Bejing. He had taken one semester of Mandarin in college, which is not unusual. He arrived in Bejing and was quickly frustrated. These languages schools are set up to attract U.S. dollars. They’re filled with American businessmen and students, speaking English to each other. Allan wanted to immerse himself. So he walked over to Tsinghua University, which was full of mainland Chinese students. He asked to attend their School of Business & Management. Their classes were only in Mandarin, and they told Allan his was not good enough. He persuaded them, “Well, listen, I won’t pay you regular tuition. I’ll pay you what I was paying that language school.” He wanted to live in a dorm but they insisted on a hotel. In all other ways, he participated as a regular student, which is very unusual. At the end of the year, his laptop was stolen, which turned out to be insured, and the insurance paid him $4,500, far more than it was worth. So he came home to Vancouver to live with his parents and party on his $4,500.

Again, he had no clue what to do. Nothing seemed to pique his interest. One day he received a call from an old college friend, Stephanie (I later bumped into Stephanie on the street). She was flying through Vancouver on her way back to Hong Kong, and she was at the airport on a four-hour layover. Did he have time for a drink? He had all the time in the world.

At the airport bar, she mentioned this position was open at the Chamber. When she told him, the lightbulb went on. He wanted that job. He called and begged for four months. Finally they hired him. Which doesn’t explain how he became the Executive Director seven months later. Nothing quite explains that. He was very good at being the Membership Manager, and the Director happened to quit around the same time as one of her likely replacements also quit – the revolving door of ex-pats left a hole to fill. The Chamber’s board was recruiting from Canada, but Allan kept pushing them to hire him instead, and ultimately he convinced them. So far, everyone in town thinks he’s doing a good job.

“I know I had never demonstrated that I had it in me,” he said. “But I did. And I just had to get in the right environment, where I could really put all this energy to good use. Hong Kong turned me on. It turned me from a guy headed nowhere to a guy really doing something.”

 

In Hong Kong, they appreciate that business is a form of diplomacy. It can serve a higher purpose in the struggle against communism and warlord feudalism. Capitalism begins with the basic concept of private property, which gives everyone with property a stake, and through that stake a desire to fight for individual liberty. Eventually, capitalism can create a middle-class and bring prosperity. This isn’t without significant tradeoffs, of course, but many businesspeople in Hong Kong saw their work on these terms. They paid close attention to the political changes in Southeast Asia, and they felt that their work contributed, sometimes directly, to the weaving of an economic fabric that could hold these countries together despite political turmoil. One of those who thinks in this way is Brooks Entwhistle, who is 34 and is a banker for Goldman Sachs.

            During the ‘90s, Brooks worked for the United Nations with the Carter Center, helping to administer the first democratic elections –in Cambodia in 1993, in Liberia in 1995, and in Mozambique in 1997. He flew to these countries and was assigned a precinct. He ran get-out-the-vote efforts, then helped to validate the results. It was enormously satisfying work, to see democracy in action, to watch people get to vote for the first time in their lives.

            “But Cambodia and Liberia did not stay democracies for very long,” he said. “They quickly fell back into the hands of warlords and the military. To the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and to Charles Taylor in Liberia. We learned that democracy cannot sustain itself without an economy, without people having a financial stake in it remaining free. Business is a huge democratizing force in India and Northern Asia.”

            Brooks had put in two years as an analyst with Goldman right out of college. “But, you know, I didn’t learn anything as just an analyst, didn’t know any better. I learned to use the copy machine.” So he went back to Goldman, both to learn how business was done, and to help them seed capitalism throughout undeveloped Asia. Their Hong Kong office has been open eleven years; it’s grown from a couple dozen to a couple hundred.

            “Doing business here is not one-dimensional like back in the States,” he said. “You have to learn languages, or learn to work with translators and communicate despite the language barrier. You have to understand economic policies. You have to be willing to work with local governments. And mostly, you have to be willing to have genuine respect for other people’s point of view. You can’t be bullheaded here. You wear many hats and draw on many disciplines.”

            The shelves in Brooks’ home are not filled with marketing primers, they’re filled with political biographies.

            “One of my greatest joys is getting together with our friends on Friday night. During the week, people have been off doing interesting work. One guy has come back from Vietnam, and he has a story to tell. Someone else has been in Indonesia, and a friend of my wife’s has been in Taiwan on a deal. When we get together to talk, it’s interesting.”

                He said this with a little regret, a sadness. I probed, and he admitted he was considering moving back to the States. His daughter was the same age as my son, and his wife preferred to raise her back home. Brooks was visibly torn. He would only hint at it, but I could tell what he was hinting at, since I’d had this conversation with many other people who had as much talent as he did. In his heart he knew that his years at Goldman were not intended to be the pinnacle of his career. He meant them as training for his future contribution to the big picture, a stepping stone to a bold venture that might more directly push democracy into Asia. He didn’t know what that might be, but he was trying hard not to forget those vague ambitions.