Mandarin's growing clout in HK job market

Since the financial centre was handed over to China in the late 1990s, Mandarin skills have increasingly become a must for job seekers in certain banking segments.

In a sign of China’s mushrooming importance in Hong Kong’s financial services sector, an analysis of 600 banking job vacancies in the city by a financial careers web portal found that 53% of investment and corporate banking positions now require Mandarin proficiency.

“This is something that’s been talked about in the industry for quite some time, so the study’s findings were not massively surprising,” said Neil Clark, marketing director Asia Pacific for eFinancialCareers, which conducted the study in March this year. “The hard data supports anecdotal evidence of a rising demand for Mandarin speakers, particularly in the wealth management segment.”

Clark said the financial recruitment firm plans to begin tracking the linguistic trend on a quarterly basis. “We’re seeing a strong preference for Mandarin speakers in private banking in Singapore as well,” said Clark, who is based in the city-state.

English and Chinese are the official languages of Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region of China governed under its own mini constitution known as the Basic Law. While Cantonese is the dominant regional Chinese dialect in Hong Kong, the use of Mandarin has increased significantly since 1997, when China took control of the former British colony.

A government census carried out back in 2012 showed that Mandarin had officially surpassed English as the most commonly used language among Hongkongers after Cantonese, evidence of the growing presence of Mandarin in classrooms, in business and in the media. Almost half, or 48%, of Hongkongers reported they could speak Mandarin, compared to 46% who could speak English.

Private talk

Clark stressed demand for Chinese speakers was not across the board but narrowly focused on several segments within the broader financial services sector. The eFinancialCareers study singled out investment and corporate banking, trading and private wealth as segments that put a premium on strong Mandarin skills.

More than one in four, or 41%, of trading jobs now demand Mandarin, especially since the launch of the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect programme last November.

The proportion of Mandarin speakers entering the workplace for the first time is also on the rise at between 60% and 80%, figures which reflect an influx of mainland Chinese whose language skills often put them at a distinct advantage over Cantonese-speaking Hongkongers.

"With a growing focus on business towards Chinese clients we are seeing an increasing trend in the market for Chinese language capabilities," said a Deutsche Bank representative, adding that there has been "a definite increase in the requirements for [job] candidates to speak Mandarin, not only for front office hires but for support functions too."

The central government in Beijing has long tried to enforce linguistic uniformity throughout China, launching numerous campaigns over the years to promote the use of Mandarin. The efforts have run up against fierce loyalty to hometown dialects in places like Hong Kong and Shanghai, rendering the campaigns futile, though Hong Kong has witnessed a steep rise in Mandarin speakers since China regained sovereignty in July 1997.

Mandarin is itself a Chinese dialect, forming a major branch of the language which includes Beijing dialect. It was the standard spoken language of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties and takes its name from the word denoting the senior bureaucratic class of the periods.  

This article has been updated to reflect that Chinese and English are the official languages of Hong Kong. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Cantonese was an official language.

¬ Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.
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