"Working in Chinese finance was traumatic for me, but more Singaporeans should do it"

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Singaporean finance professional Matt Huang wants more of his compatriots to experience working and living in China after he spent seven "turbulent" years in Beijing trying to navigate the "bewildering" business environment there. 

“Compared with people in Hong Kong and Taiwan, I don’t think enough Singaporeans, including those working in finance, are embracing the huge opportunities in China,” says Huang, who's now based in Hong Kong. “I hear too many people say they’d never do business there because they might be cheated out of their money, for example. These negative perceptions need to be broken down.”

Huang, who’s now at a global financial institution in Hong Kong, has recently tried to demystify the mainland by writing an English-language novel based on his “fascinating but traumatic” experiences working in Chinese private equity.

Young China Hand was published in 2016 and co-authored by former Straits Times China correspondent Grace Hsu. It tells the cautionary tale of a Singaporean PE professional who moves to China to manage his firm’s first investment in the country: a duck-farming empire. Both a “corporate thriller and a guide to China”, the book was a best seller in Singapore and has now become compulsory reading for students taking Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s China Readiness module.

“It’s an insider’s case study that involves a large bank, a PE firm, and a listing that ultimately fails. But it’s not just about finance; it’s also a story of treachery and double dealing,” say Huang, who uses a pen name at the request of his employer. The young hero comes up against angry farmers and hired hoods as he soon realises that in China success can’t be taken for granted, even for a Mandarin speaker with a Stanford degree.

“As a Singaporean, you need a range of new skills just to get by in the world of finance in China. It’s not just about language; you must understand China’s history and the reasons behind its recent phenomenal rise,” says Huang.

You must also get to grips with who the real decision makers are among your clients and counterparties, and you might even have to cede some control over your deals. “Above all, you need staying power. You have to be in China for several years and take a lot of hard knocks to start to understand it.”

Huang took the book’s title from a term used to describe China-based American diplomats, journalists, and soldiers who gathered intelligence in the country during and after World War II. “While they weren’t young like my modern China Hand, they also struggled with the complexities of China.”

All the characters in the book are based on real people, says Huang. “Writing fiction rather than an autobiography allowed me to disguise identities, reach a much wider audience, and make the dialogue a bit livelier. But the business and finance world I was part of in China was so vivid and interesting that I didn’t need to make big changes.”

At Ngee Ann, about 100 students have read the book so far. “I’ve been encouraged by the response. Instead of being put off working in China – like some Singaporeans are – they have more open minds and see the book as providing useful insights into dealing with Chinese entrepreneurs,” says Huang.

Image: ispyfriend, Getty

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