Working in Hong Kong’s financial sector is everything you’d expect it to be
There are drugs, there are prostitutes
“It’s not that bankers in New York or London are less deviant, they just can’t get away with what we can.”
So writes Texan banker John Lefevre in Straight to Hell, an account of his days as a trader in Hong Kong. The book documents cocaine binges at lunch-time to prostitute maids and totaling a Maserati.
Lefevre’s Hong Kong is both a shadowy criminal megalopolis and a glitteringly wealthy city built by untrammelled market forces.
Just how true are the rumours which say European financial workers in the fabulous East play faster and looser than their colleagues in the City or Wall St?
I sat down for lunch with a young analyst called John who’d recently worked there. From a provincial background, a talent for mathematics had taken him to Hong Kong and then to London.
Did you always want to go into finance?
On the first day of year seven I remember the teacher going round the class and asking everyone what they wanted to be. You got the usual answers: pro-footballer, video game designer, astronaut. I said wanted to be an accountant. Everyone was like what.
Tell me about Hong Kong.
I was working for an investment fund, they usually only took on experienced hires with twenty years of experience. Most of the people working there were in their forties. I wanted to go there because of its international scope. China has been the place to be for twenty years now.
How ethical an environment was it?
The work I was doing was. I interviewed with a firm the other week – who aren’t allowed to operate in the UK – who pressure people to put their pension funds into worthless investment opportunities. They rob commission out of old people. Compared to that, the company I worked for in HK was fair. We didn’t use pressure tactics or sell bullshit to vulnerable people.
What did you expect out there, in terms of the work hard play hard reputation it has?
I didn’t have any childish expectations like that. You can get away with hookers and drugs in any big city. On the first day we managed to get a gram of very strong coke. Is it unique to HK – I’m not sure. One of the guys I worked with scored coke and hash all the time. It wasn’t my scene but if you wanted it, it was there.
Did anything happen out there which wouldn’t happen in the UK or US?
A guy came up to me and my mate and asked us if we wanted to go to a party in a hotel. He was offering us €500 an hour to do it. The brief was to have drinks and chat to girls. He was a really sketchy little guy, he seemed dodgy and gangsterish.
I thought he might have been a Triad representative trying to organise a kidnapping or something. The real reason behind it was more straightforward – it was legit. There’s a huge amount of manufacturing in China. A lot of the factory owners are constantly working. Their kids, expensively educated abroad, come home over the summer and they’re bored as fuck.
So what they do is get these organisers – my sketchy little guy – to rent out whole hotel suites, whole floors and organise these parties for these kids. A lot of them want European guys there, who are actually quite hard to find in HK.
Is it easier for Europeans to get laid over there?
Yeah, I’d say we’re nearer the top of the sexual food chain. There’s a culture for liking Westerners out there. My mates who work on the mainland get treated like celebrities – if you’re a 6ft 2in blonde guy with a square jaw you’re going to stand out a mile.
My roommate once burst into my room in the middle of the night, looking for condoms. “I’ve matched with a 35 year-old Asian woman mate, she wants to bang me now!” Was what he said. It was pretty funny.
What about prostitution?
People have told me the city is a massive front for it. There’s a western military base not too far from the city and occasionally they’ll all pile into a place called Wan Chai and just fuck loads of hookers.
The whole red light district is massive. In Chinese culture there’s a lot about loss of face, a lot happens behind closed doors. The hookers can be incredibly blunt, they’ll say shit like “You want boom boom?” to you in the street. It’s more overt than it is in London, far more accepted.
Did you ever travel anywhere while you were based in Hong Kong?
I’ve seen a few shady places, but nothing can touch Macau. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen hookers wandering around during the day. The casinos there are fronts for corrupt Chinese businessman to have their currency converted into dollars. It’s a big money laundering operation.
People give the Chinese government a bad reputation but they’re decent people in my view. They’ve started cracking down on the operations in Macau and they go after actual criminals.
Would you say you learned anything from your time there?
If you give young people a lot of money in a place like HK you’re going to end up with some stupid stuff going on. In London they’re cracking down on people who fuck around. The problem is people watch stuff like Wolf of Wall Street and they want to get involved in finance for all the wrong reasons.
Names have been changed to protect people’s identities.