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Fluency In Mandarin Becomes Key To Hong Kong Bankers' Success

Experienced expats lacking language skills for mainland Chinese clients shut out
HONG KONG -- In a sign of changing fortunes in Asia's financial hub, it took almost a year for one experienced foreign private banker in Hong Kong to land a job after he was let go by his previous employer in early 2019.
The reason: most employers said they preferred -- and were easily hiring -- Mandarin speakers for such positions.
The banker, who is originally from the U.K. and has more than a decade of experience in wealth management in Hong Kong, was stunned when companies did not even consider him for roles in which he expected to be a shoo-in.
Eventually, a candid conversation with a friendly recruiter cleared the air for him.
"That was an eye-opener," said the banker, who requested anonymity, and who now works for a European bank. Last month he enrolled in a business Mandarin class in an attempt to catch up.
"To be honest, I didn't face such hurdles five years earlier when I was looking for a role change," he said. "The trend is accelerating and isn't surprising, as Mandarin speakers now also possess skill sets, such as product knowledge and deal structuring, that I offer."
The preference for Mandarin speakers is another aspect of China's growing influence in the former British colony and epitomizes the changing character of the city.
This so-called "Chinafication" is set to hinder expats more than locals in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, given school curricula in the city have encouraged Mandarin for well over a decade.
International residents makeup 5% of Hong Kong's population and are a dominant force in the banking and investment sector.
The trend toward Mandarin picked up the pace well before the latest round of pro-democracy protests that started last year and the recent imposition by Beijing of the national security law, according to recruiters.
More than two-thirds of client-facing positions in areas such as equities, asset management, research, and advisory require Mandarin speakers, compared with about 40% four years ago, they say.
Areas such as private equity, mergers and acquisitions, research, fixed income, equities, and asset management are the fields that have or demand more Mandarin speakers, according to data compiled by eFinancialCareers, a financial services website.