Jason Donahue, the savvy investment banker protagonist in Phillip Y. Kim's financial thriller Nothing Gained (2013), is thriving in Asia's economic center of Hong Kong. Yet his sudden death at a banquet celebrating a lucrative investment in Macao leaves his wife, Cheryl, with more questions than answers. As the dust settles, Cheryl's investigation reveals the murky underbelly of an exclusive sector defined by greed, betrayal and redemption.
Kim, a first-time writer and veteran banker, has been bombarded by thorny questions during book tours promoting his thriller set against the backdrop of the 2008 global financial crisis.
The toughest questions, says Kim, address the morality and ethics (or lack thereof) of bankers. "I am often in the position of having to defend a vilified but fundamental industry," said Kim, an investment banker for a boutique corporate finance firm, who spoke at Hong Kong Polytechnic University last week.
Lifting the lid
Born in Seoul, Kim grew up in the US before moving to Hong Kong in 1992. Since then, he has worked mostly in Asia for international investment banks including Lehman Brothers, whose bankruptcy was one of the early markers of the financial meltdown, and Morgan Stanley.
Despite the demands of his pressure-cooker profession, Kim's creative urge inspired him to pen short stories. As a financial services insider, his daily encounters with odd characters and comprehensive banking knowledge put him in good stead to pen a full-length thriller.
Nothing Gained, released in March by Penguin China, focuses on Asia's wealthy elite and the dodgy deals that plague financial services. Donahue, the Asia head of investment bank Barker Reed, pockets $20 million in commission for helping seal a $120-million investment deal. Winston Chan, a young and flamboyant personality, likewise follows suit.
Almost all the characters are based on real people and stories Kim has been exposed to in the industry over the past 25 years, he notes.
"Hong Kong and Asia abound with scummy, sleazy characters like Winston, whose ambitions trample their morality. There is no shortage of inspiration for colorfully-nasty characters," says Kim, 51, who is now working on a prequel to the story.
The prequel, to be completed by the end of this year, is set in the early 2000s on the Chinese mainland.
So, to what extent did greed in the financial world contribute to the global financial crisis?
"Obviously a lot," Kim admits. "The global financial system went completely overboard in neglecting to self-regulate or maintain any long-term vision."
Rather than landing himself in trouble by upsetting his banking peers, many of Kim's cohorts in the financial world have praised his thriller.
The reason, Kim says, is that bankers love depictions of their profession in film or literature, no matter if their portrayal is favorable or not.
"It's like the Mafioso watching The Sopranos or The Godfather," Kim offers.
Phillip Y. Kim's debut novel Nothing Gained (inset) was inspired by his banking career. Photos: Penguin China
As is often the case for first-time writers, Kim struggled initially to tell a captivating story that appealed to a readership wider than Wall Street suits and Asia's banking elite. The most difficult part of unraveling the financial services sector, says Kim, was satisfying readers' fervent curiosity about insider practices.
But Kim gained confidence as the story developed, saying his novel is "as much about human characteristics as about investment banking."
Casting technical jargon aside, Kim walks readers through the banking world by using simple terms. The financial services sector is like the circulatory system of the human body, he claims.
"It (the circulatory system) has a symbiotic relationship with the body. If any one particular system dominates the others, the whole body suffers. This is what has happened to banking relative to the economy over the past 20 years," he says.
Kim self-published Nothing Gained under the name A Hidden Moon before it was republished by Penguin China earlier this year.
Although self-publishing has become a more popular route for writers nowadays, Kim notes Penguin allowed him to better pinpoint his readership and tell a more compelling story.
"Finding a wide audience is incredibly difficult, even if you are willing to give it away as an e-book," he says.
Under Penguin's wing, Kim was able to focus on writing a better quality story without having to worry about editing, marketing and distribution.
"The author does not need to do much else other than write and help publicize the work," he says.
Working for a boutique bank rather than a global institution has given Kim more flexibility and time to work on his writing.
Unlike his protagonist Donahue, who works around the clock, Kim has a far more leisurely routine.
"There is no typical day [for me], other than the need to relentlessly communicate with people - in person, by voice or e-mail. Bankers have to spend as much time internally focused as externally, since gathering coordination and watching your back against rivals ... is vital," he says.
Despite his 25 years in banking, Kim shuns the slick Gordon Gekko appearance in favor of jeans and a T-shirt on his days off.
"Banking is a very demanding, competitive business populated by smart, ambitious people. To survive, I've had to maintain a strong sense of self, stay on my toes and work really hard," he explains.
"The industry is not as corrupt as it was, say, 20 years ago. The improvement is mainly due to tightening enforcement of international laws to curtain influence peddling."