GBA Brief

Helen Wong, HSBC’s chief executive in China, talks about how history helps the GBA

Helen Wong is excited about the commercial prospects in the Greater Bay Area. But she says the history of the region matters too, as she gives the Brief four areas for focus for the bank

Personal connections: 

There is a lot of debate about the need for closer links between the various cities of the GBA but many of these relationships are deeply rooted in the history of the region. Indeed, Helen Wong’s background is a personal testament to the long-term ties that already exist.

“I have strong family connections to Guangdong,” she tells the Brief. “Although my parents met in Hong Kong, they came originally from Dongguan and Huizhou. Later, my grandmother travelled from Guangdong to Hong Kong to look after my siblings and me while our parents were working. That was very typical for my generation.”

Wong can even recall her first trip back to Guangdong. “The journey is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood as we travelled first by train, then by bus to the township, and finally by oxcart to our village. It felt like such an adventure. I remember that I was even carried in a wicker basket for part of the journey!”

Opening HSBC’s newest branch in Meizhou a couple of years ago, Wong took the time to visit the local Hakka museum and recalled conversations in the Hakka language that she once spoke with her grandmother.

“There were exhibits on how the Hakka people had moved from the north into Guangdong and acquired their name, which means ‘visitors’ or ‘guest people’. When I saw them, I remembered the stories my father told me about our origins and history in Guangdong as well,” she remembers.

A changing economy:

Wong’s career at HSBC has coincided with the emergence of the Greater Bay Area as an export economy. 

She started out as a junior banker involved in the negotiations for the financing of projects between foreign firms and the region’s local governments. Businesses from Hong Kong were more likely to invest in industries like toys and textiles, she recalls, while for the Taiwanese there were big shoe factories working for global brands like Nike and Adidas. 

By the mid-1990s she was running HSBC’s capital markets desk, supporting larger clients that wanted to invest in Guangdong, including state-owned firms from China that had listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange. “Many of these clients were ‘red-chip’ companies like Guangdong Enterprises, China Travel, COFCO and China Merchants,” she says. “They were already well established in Hong Kong but they wanted help with capital for their activities overseas, including some of their projects back in China”.

Later Wong’s client base widened again, incorporating the next generation of Chinese entrepreneurs. By then HSBC had established commercial relationships with some of the leading private enterprises from the region, including companies like Huawei. “We had an advantage in Shenzhen, where many of the newer firms were based, because HSBC was one of the first foreign banks to set up a representative office in the special economic zone there. The office was then formalised as a branch in 1985, our first in Guangdong.”

Why Qianhai is important:

HSBC is partnering with Qianhai Financial Holdings in a new securities joint venture based in Qianhai, a special zone in Shenzhen focusing more on financial innovation than manufacturing. 

“What’s important for HSBC is that this allows us to be involved in areas like capital raising, M&A activity and research and sales onshore in China. That’s not just for our customers in Qianhai – the venture is applying for a national licence that will allow us to help clients in other parts of the country,” she says.

The focal point of another of the new zones – Nansha, on the opposite side of the Pearl River – is going to be different. “It looks very promising for maritime and logistics businesses. It’s a much bigger parcel of land with its own port and there’s plenty of space for warehousing. We think that Nansha will serve as one of the key entry points into the Delta,” Wong reckons.

Closer together: how HSBC is at home in the region

Wong is bullish about the bank’s broader ambitions in the GBA, especially in facilitating two-way flows in trade and investment. “One of our core competitive advantages is supporting cross-border business,” she explains. “As a privately owned company in the Pearl River Delta you may already be an exporter or perhaps you have aspirations to do more overseas. Our global footprint means that we can connect you with rest of the world, help you to set up in new markets, and even advise you on M&A options if they arise.”

HSBC also hopes to capitalise on the common culture across much of the region. “Some of that interconnectedness comes from the family ties that I mentioned earlier,” Wong says. “But there are other ways that we are already more connected. People in Guangdong tend to know the HSBC brand better than those in other parts of China, and its residents have access to Hong Kong’s TV channels, which isn’t the case for other provinces.” 

Other trends are working in favour of an integrated future, including massive investment in roads and railways, which is reducing travel times. “In the past it could take hours to get around the province but this is changing. I can already get from Shenzhen to Hong Kong in about 40 minutes – and this greater proximity between the Pearl River Delta’s towns and cities will be another boost for business,” Wong adds.