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The right moves

Published on Friday, 04 Apr 2014
Stanley Wong
Photo: Lau Wai

Veteran banker Stanley Wong now has an all new routine as chairman of the Hong Kong Dance Company

What would you do if you were a retired CEO of one of the biggest banks in Asia? Monthly trips to the Caribbean perhaps? Morning rounds at the golf course every day? Neither was the choice of Stanley Wong – a former China CEO at Standard Chartered Bank and executive director at ICBC Asia – who instead decided to take up an offer of becoming chairman of the Hong Kong Dance Company.

Wong’s wealth of financial and management knowledge made him the perfect choice in the eyes of the previous chairman, William Leung Wing-cheung, himself a former executive director of Hang Seng Bank and a friend of Wong’s. “William invited me to join [the company],” Wong says. “Although I didn’t know what the company was about, he was so persistent, so in the end, I said ‘ok, fine, I’ll join.’ I knew nothing about dance, but I was pretty impressed by the dancers and the whole team’s passion for art and Chinese dance.”

He points out that many of the dancers are from the mainland, but with a starting salary of around HK$12,000 a month – and no housing allowance – they wouldn’t be there were it not for their passion.

A not-for-profit institution, the Hong Kong Dance Company is one of nine major performing-arts groups funded by the government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Wong’s mission is to run the company cost-effectively while respecting the uniqueness of traditional Chinese dance in Hong Kong. However, with local productions rarely registering as box-office hits, and major performances costing up to HK$2 million each, this is not the easiest of tasks.

“We really want to make a difference,” Wong says. “Our mission is to make sure that our performances centre around a whole variety of Chinese traditions and culture.”

Wong hopes to leverage his finance and management experience to build strong brand recognition. “[I hope] that when our regular audiences come to watch performances, they can immediately tell these are from the Hong Kong Dance Company, and not the Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou [dance companies],” he says.

To achieve this goal, the company injects Hong Kong elements into its traditional Chinese performances. “For example, we have produced performances adapted from three different pieces by [best-selling Hong Kong author] Louis Cha. This falls exactly within our mission statement – we are nurtured in the cultural tradition of China and combining it with the creativity of contemporary art to impress the world with Chinese dance of a Hong Kong character,” Wong says.

Soft spoken and modest, Wong is the epitome of the can-do Hong Kong spirit and the belief that success is possible, no matter how humble your background.

He grew up on a public housing estate after living in a squatter settlement until he was 10. “I was the eldest of four sons in the family, and only my father, a printer, was working. My mother stayed at home looking after us. My family wasn’t able to support me in continuing my studies at tertiary level. I needed to get a job and provide income for the family right after Form Five,” he says.

His first job, at 17, was as a clerk at the Danish shipping company Maersk Line, where his boss soon spotted his talents. “After a year, my Danish manager said, ‘Our company is not going to expand fast in Hong Kong, so you’re going to remain a clerical staff member [if you stay]. Why don’t you look at other organisations which are big and have future prospects?’ So I wrote to three different banks – HSBC, Standard Chartered and Hang Seng – and was hired by Standard Chartered.” 

Twenty-seven years after starting his banking career at the bottom, he became CEO of Standard Chartered’s China operations in 2001, and later executive director and deputy general manager of ICBC Asia.

Wong believes that morals and ethics are crucial for a banker. “When I was a banker we upheld the principle that I kept within me: ‘whatever I do, whatever role I’m in, I’m going to do good and contribute to the community’,” he says. “Where possible, I would not lend to undesirable businesses: the gaming industry, tobacco companies or firearms manufacturers.”

In 37 years of banking – including 20 years in the high-risk treasury business – Wong says he cannot recall a single transaction which violated any rules or regulations. “Of course, people do things very differently now. Banking is not a career, but a means to a decent life. Perhaps some financial institutions have relaxed compliance standards in the pursuit of bottom lines. That’s why you had Lehman Brothers and all the rather obscure derivatives or financial products. These were all in the name of greed, the bottom line and, ultimately, a big bonus cheque,” he says.

A familiar face on TV news and in the newspapers, Wong holds several non-executive roles on government boards, such as the Hong Kong Town Planning Board and the Housing Authority’s Subsidised Housing Committee. He attributes his success to the social skills he forged at a young age.

“At that time, in the mid-’60s and ’70s, public housing estates actually provided a very good environment for grassroots families to raise their kids in a community. There was a lot of vibrancy there because these poor young kids were less materialistic and rather creative in terms of how they spent and maximised their days,” he says.

One example of such creativity is how Wong himself dealt with the problem of limited study space at home. “I studied in the cemetery with my friends during the day. It was really nice and quiet,” he says.

Wong advises young people to follow their hearts when choosing a career. “Don’t be swayed by the money [a job] pays,” he says. “If you don’t want to be a banker or a lawyer, don’t be one. [What’s the point] of being paid a million, but doing something you don’t like at all? Better to take half the pay and do something you really enjoy.”

Wong also encourages people not to let their happiness be dictated by their environment. “When I was working for the shipping company in 1973, I was paid HK$400 a month. After paying half to my family, I would buy five books every month and go hiking, as it didn’t cost much. I wouldn’t say I was much happier when I was a dealer earning much more. It’s more or less the same. So how much difference is the dollar value going to make in the way you enjoy life?” he asks.

Wong’s success is also the result of his constant thirst for knowledge – a thirst that is showing no signs of letting up. He is now studying for a master’s degree in history at Chinese University, and gets does some organic farming every Sunday morning. “You get to know how vegetables are planted – it’s so magical [to learn about] life and the planet,” he says. “I don’t know why, but I seem to have an interest in everything, a childlike curiosity. Otherwise, life and work would be too boring.”


TRYING TO BE BETTER THAN YESTERDAY

Stanley Wong explains the beliefs that have shaped his working life.

Count your blessings “I was probably fortunate in being poor. It is a blessing because you are able to enjoy everything.”
Share knowledge “It’s give and take in every single role on government boards. My input is from the commercial background, but I also take a lot. Now I understand outline zoning plans and how government housing policy is drafted.”
Stay curious “I don’t know why but I seem to have an interest in everything: archaeology, history, Chinese art and culture. Otherwise, life and work are boring.”
Constantly improve “I have a very humble definition of success. I always want to be better than yesterday – for example to treat my family and friends better, or to drive the Hong Kong Dance Company to have bigger audiences.”


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