Even for a nonstop worker like Barbara Thomas, it has been a busier week than usual finalizing her most important deal in Hong Kong, the rescue of one of the colony's larger Chinese businesses from bankruptcy.
In her paneled office overlooking the city's dramatic harbor, she takes calls from anxious suppliers to the company seeking reassurance that her bank's rescue package will take off. A young Chinese colleague drops in to check on a coming meeting. More calls interrupt her. Throughout it all, Thomas speaks with humor about the changes in her life since she moved here from Washington to work for a British merchant bank, while her husband Allen opened an office for the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison.
"I had always been an international securities person, and this was a chance to work professionally overseas," she said. "Also, I had been in Washington in a commuting marriage with Allen working in New York, and this was a chance to live together and take on a new challenge."
To those in Washington who remember the talented lawyer, now 38, as the youngest-ever commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission under President Carter in 1980, her quick adaptation to the financial capitals of Asia will come as no surprise.
Now she has spent two years with Samuel Montagu and Co. Ltd. as the first woman director of a London merchant bank and president of the bank's U.S. subsidiary, Samuel Montagu Holdings Inc. Instead of her familiar stomping grounds of Washington and New York, she is working with local Chinese clients and colonial expatriates, not to mention those from the well-entrenched ranks of the City of London.
She spends as much as 65 percent of her time here, another 25 percent in London and New York, and 10 percent in Japan.
"I have to say, in truth, that I wasn't terribly worried. Perhaps I ought to have been, but I wasn't," she said. "The hard part was deciding whether to go with an American firm or an English firm, and as my husband was coming here to set up an office, we couldn't both set up new operations. As a couple, we needed more structure."
Personally, Thomas has few reasons to complain about her situation in Hong Kong; she and her husband have an apartment atop Victoria Peak, a Chinese driver named Patrick and an English nanny named Allison to help care for 2-year-old son Lloyd. Her gripes are mild ones and have mostly to do with adjusting her workaholic nature to match Hong Kong's own notoriously hectic pace.
For example, stuffier British business acquaintances frown on her American enthusiasm for doing business over breakfast, but they make no apologies for the colonial six-day work week.
"I say to people, 'You'll have to excuse me, but I'm American, and I like breakfast meetings,' and people say, 'Well, I will come because it's you, Barbara, but it's against my will.' But then everybody comes in on Saturday, they dress casually, they don't schedule any meetings, and it's just a waste of time. For me that is very frustrating. Look, we work at breakfast, work all day, have business lunches, and most evenings are spent at some kind of business entertainment. If you work Saturdays, then you don't have Friday evening off, and essentially you have just a day and a half on the weekend."
She has quickly run up against another time-honored Hong Kong colonial tradition: spending most Sundays on a sailboat or a Chinese junk. The Thomases have surprised many in Hong Kong by declining almost all such invitations.
"It's essentially just a cocktail party that starts at 10:30 in the morning and doesn't end until 5:30 in the afternoon. We don't go, and some Hong Kong people find this very strange."
She also eschews much of the colonial club life that some expatriates find essential to survival in the East, saying, "We joined all the clubs people thought we should join when we came, and one of Hong Kong's leading taipans merchants even arranged for us to join the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, and that was very nice, but we rarely go."
Professionally, there were some other surprises for Thomas, to whom being in the forefront of opening financial doors to women had become second nature.
"I don't think I understood how much prejudice there is against women outside the United States," she said. "In the States, we have such a strong women's movement and there's been such a rise of the number of women to senior positions. I think England is about 10 years behind America in terms of the position of women, and in that sense, it's horrendous that I should be the first woman director and that it was only in 1983 that I was appointed."
She has, however, found a warm welcome from the very separate financial circles of Hong Kong Chinese.
"The Chinese do have a lot of respect for women in business and it's not unusual to find a Chinese company has a woman treasurer," she said.
"I think the fact that when I arrived in Hong Kong the Democrats were running a woman for vice president was not lost on Hong Kong people. A lot of the Chinese are educated in America, and their orientation is increasingly towards America. The Chinese here may still perceive the British as style-setters, but they see America as a more likely place than Britain for them to go before 1997 when China takes over Hong Kong. So America is taking more prominence here."
Thomas also believes that the Chinese view her previous stint at the SEC with a special regard. Nevertheless, she has learned quickly that nothing takes the place of personal relationships and trust in the world of Asian finance.
"I've spent a lot of my time getting to know and be trusted by the Chinese community here. That's one of the reasons why I work with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hong Kong Academy of Ballet. Those are not expatriate institutions, they're Chinese institutions."
When asked what she, with a background in financial securities in the United States, has learned about the Chinese way of business, she said with a laugh, "Oh, I've learned a bunch."
"An old Chinese businessman told me when I first arrived that the Chinese view of issuing new stock is that his family is offering the public a chance to invest in them because you believe in the family's management, and that they don't really owe the public any information on the company. I think in Hong Kong, where you have companies run by Chinese families and Chinese investors, that's right. You can't apply the American regulatory philosophy to the Chinese mentality."
One unexpected plus about life in Hong Kong has been the way in which its position as the hub of Asia has enabled Thomas to keep in touch with old friends from her New York and SEC days, and to meet new contacts just as beneficial.
She calls the Hong Kong community "small and close-knit, but not closed to newcomers."
"People in Hong Kong read a tremendous amount of newspapers and magazines and they know what's happening in other parts of the world, because it's essentially the crossroads of Asia. Significant international financial and government people from the States and the U.K. come through here all the time -- people I'm not so likely to see at such close range in New York and Washington. I see friends of mine from the State Department, like Ambassador Richard Fairbanks, or people such as Nancy Reynolds, or Sen. Jake Garn, or Joe Allbritton from the Riggs Bank, and the Doles were through this week," she said.
"And I try to go back to Washington every time I go back to the States because I loved the city, and there are a lot of interesting things going on in Washington that have relevance to Hong Kong."