Life across the border

Jeremy Chan
Members share what it’s like to work and live in the Mainland

Institute members have long embraced the vast professional and commercial opportunities open to them in Mainland China. For some, the possibilities have even made them move to the country for good. Jeremy Chan talks to members based in China about what they had to learn, adapt to, and eventually, come to love

Loretta Lau in Guangzhou

I don’t feel much pressure from the people in China,” says Loretta Lau, Head of Tax, Greater China and ASEAN at Publicis Groupe, the world’s third largest communications group.

Another thing keeping her in China is the vast opportunities there. “The job market is really good, especially for CPAs,” says Lau. “My boss told me that she prefers a tax manager with sound accounting knowledge, as CPAs are also skilled in tax.”

She moved to Guangzhou from Hong Kong in 2006 as a tax manager at KPMG’s Guangzhou office. In 2008, she made the switch to the corporate world but stayed in China and joined Publicis.

In addition to providing tax advisory, she helps her company minimize tax risks, provide tax advice on mergers and acquisitions and assists with internal restructuring. “It’s very challenging learning about different taxation systems in Greater China and South East Asia. For example, the tax system in China is one of the most complicated in Asia, in my opinion,” she says.

She tells how hard work and effective communication skills are also key to being successful in the Mainland. “Fluent Mandarin helps a lot. I only learnt during middle school, and with my fluency in Mandarin, I am able to better adapt to the culture in China,” she says. “I can also speak a bit of Japanese since I worked in Japan for a short time at a Big Four firm.”

Being multilingual has proven to be an indispensable skill for Lau – who also puts her skills to use during meetings. “Good English helps too, especially if you work for a foreign company,” she says. Lau adds she still had to assimilate into the work culture. “You need to adapt to the culture here, as people here work very hard, and the work atmosphere is very competitive.”

Good food also plays a big part in Lau’s China experience. “There are eight major types of cuisines in China. My favourite is Cantonese food.”

“My boss told me that she prefers a tax manager with sound accounting knowledge, as CPAs are also skilled in tax.”


Cashless Chongqing

“Right now, I don’t even need to bring my wallet when I go out. I only bring my phone because it can handle all my payments,” says Steven Yuen, Chief Executive Officer of Qinyuan Bakery, a bakery chain under Swire Foods. Indeed, Mainland China is recognized as an advanced market for mobile payments thanks to mobile payment apps such as WeChat Pay and Alipay, and Chongqing-based Yuen witnesses first hand, why.

Yuen left Hong Kong in 2004 and moved to Shanghai to work at food company Heinz, and then paint and coating company AkzoNobel in 2009, both as chief financial officer. After AkzoNobel brought him back to Hong Kong for three years, Yuen had a revelation. “I realized that the market in China was much more interesting,” he says. “China is much more dynamic, and there is more momentum – and because of this, if you capture opportunities, a lot of things can happen.” After working with AkzoNobel for four years, he decided to return to food. “I was also more engaged in that industry, and I wanted to return to China.” He joined Campbell’s, the world’s largest soup company, following its joint venture with Swire to expand the reach of its business in China. He then worked for Swire as general manager for a year before starting at his current role in January 2015, in the southwestern province of Chongqing.

At Qinyuan Bakery, Yuen is in awe of the ways Mainland consumers, and their insatiable appetite to integrate digital technology into their lives, has impacted his business. “Just three years ago in Chongqing, over 90 percent of our customers were paying in cash, but right now, half of them are using WeChat Pay or Alipay to pay at my outlets,” he says. For example, Yuen and his team works with the apps on many integrated campaigns. “We first create advertising on WeChat which our consumers will share,” he explains. “We then create the digital e-coupon which consumers can send to their friends, who are then able to access to the online shopping mall on the app. They can also send e-coupons to their friends or family. With the integrated online and offline marketing campaign, we were able to increase sales of mooncakes by almost 40 percent in 2017.”

Yuen, also a dog lover, highlights another example of how tech-driven his adopted home is. “All I have to do is go online, find a groomer, and he or she can come to my house to groom and clean my dog. It’s that convenient,” he says.

With his heart and mind set on growing the company further within the next five to 10 years, Yuen plans on staying in Chongqing. Partly keeping him is the abundance of housing space compared to Hong Kong. “The size of a basic local apartment here is around 800 or 1,000 square feet,” he says. Ample room for growth, that he believes, came with taking the plunge and immersing in an opportunistic environment. “Before I entered China, I didn’t think I would ever leave Hong Kong. You just have to adapt.”

“All I have to do is go online, find a groomer, and he or she can come to my house to groom and clean my dog. It’s that convenient.”

Learning to adapt

It all boils down to guanxi,” says Alfred Lai, Director of Finance at China Xintiandi. A subsidiary of Shui On Land, China Xintiandi is an investor, operator and manager of premium commercial properties in the Mainland. Lai supports the group in Shanghai by helping his team meet their strategic objectives and by delivering value to shareholders. Guanxi refers to relation-ships that help facilitate business dealings in Mainland China, and is perhaps overused in discussions about doing business in China. But to Lai, the concept should never be overlooked. “Before getting any real support from the other side of the table, you need to drink a lot of baijiu,” he says, referring to a popular rice liquor in China as he explains what guanxi means to him.

“You need to make sure the whole network of people is kept in the loop and aware of what is going on,“ he says. “They want to be sure we are not jeopardizing their objectives.” By bonding over food and drinks, the tension would ease and feelings of trust would build up, he adds. “This creates a relationship between us before we would start talking about serious business matters – that’s the sort of effort you need to put in.”

Like Lai, many CPAs are experiencing how mobility is a distinguished characteristic of the profession, after deciding to make a life for themselves in the Mainland. They find that their CPA qualification, diverse expertise and business acumen make them sought-after not only locally but globally, including across the border.

Drawn by the career opportunities, Lai has spent more than 20 years working in and around the Mainland. His first brush with China was in 1996, when he was working in Shandong province, located on the eastern coast, and he has not looked back since. “There were many businesses looking for people who were willing to work in China, and many opportunities for qualified accountants,” remembers Lai, who was director of nance at spirits and wine distribution company International Distiller at the time.“Because China’s economy is growing, there is still a lot of demand.”

Adjusting to the local customs in China took some time for Lai, but was all part of a learning process, he says. “I really had to adjust how I dealt with people in the work environment, as they have different agendas,” he says. “We couldn’t just look at our own objectives – we had to consider what they were after as well.”

Putting his family first, Lai plans to stay in Shanghai in the long term. “My family and kids are here,” he says. “And they are happy staying here.”


Traditional vs. modern

Born in Beijing, Ada Yan has seen the Mainland evolve with the times. “Over the last 10 years, you can really see a lot of up- and-coming talent,” she says. “The country is attracting a lot of people with an international view – people who know how to work with multinational companies, international brands, and those who are competent in many languages.”

As Regional Finance Manager of Royal Dutch Shell, Yan is in charge of supply chain in Asia Pacific and the Middle East for its lubricants business. The company sells lubricants for internal combustion engines and power generation plants. Her career spans over 25 years, having worked for many companies that specialize in the automobile industry. She worked for petroleum company ExxonMobil Hong Kong Limited in 2000 for two years, and at the same time, attained her CPA qualification. She then transferred to ExxonMobil Chemical (Shanghai) Service Co., a subsidiary under ExxonMobil Chemical Company, Inc., for five years and then spent five more years working in Beijing for global auto-parts company Delphi.

With over a decade of working experience in Beijing, she points out the distinct qualities of both Beijing and Shanghai, adding that opportunities have grown over the past 20 years. “Beijing is a bit more traditional but there’s more culture, and thousands of years of history which you can really explore,” she says. “I like bringing my family to go skiing in the winter.”

“Beijing is a bit more traditional but there’s more culture, and thousands of years of history which you can really explore.”

Yan, however, misses working in Shanghai. “I prefer Shanghai – it’s very metropolitan, modern and open to the Western world. When I lived there, I would bring my family to places nearby and explore the cultural heritage,” she says. “In terms of the resources and the quality of talent, working in Shanghai is great.”

Shanghai’s location, at the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta, means residents are not too far from natural landscapes, she adds. “You can visit Zhejiang, Anhui, and Jiangsu. These places are closely related to the development of modern Chinese history, and it’s where I could reflect on my own cultural journey,” she says.

She points out that members don’t need to live in Hong Kong to feel the support of the Institute. “The Institute organizes many well-run events that provide a lot of value to Hong Kong members working in Beijing and I participated in many of them.” 


Mainland China is where most work is undertaken for more than 3 percent of the Institute’s total membership, the majority of which specified working in Shanghai, according to Institute statistics as of 29 June 2018. 

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