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[R.I.P.] Henry Y. Hwang (10/08/05) Founder of Far East National Bank

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  • madchinaman
    Henry Y. Hwang, 77; Bank Executive, Benefactor, Father of Noted Playwright By Elaine Woo, Times Staff Writer http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 18, 2005
      Henry Y. Hwang, 77; Bank Executive, Benefactor, Father of Noted
      By Elaine Woo, Times Staff Writer

      Henry Y. Hwang, a Shanghai immigrant who founded the first federally
      chartered Chinese American bank, died Saturday at his San Marino
      home. He was 77. The cause was colon cancer, said his son,
      playwright David Henry Hwang.

      Hwang launched Far East National Bank in Chinatown in 1974 with $1.5
      million in capital. After a troubled start, the chairman and chief
      executive took over as president in 1976 and during the next two
      decades built the institution into one of the region's top Asian
      American banks, with assets that exceeded $500 million when he sold
      it in 1997.

      Now a subsidiary of Bank SinoPac of Taiwan, Far East has grown into
      a network of 15 California branches and operations in Beijing, Hong
      Kong, Taipei and Ho Chi Minh City. Hwang, who retired from the bank
      board in 1999, spent the last five years as an advisor to American
      firms seeking to conduct business in China.

      The gregarious banker was often touched by controversy during his
      career. In 1976, he was the victim of an unsolved kidnapping in
      which he was drugged and robbed of $300,000. Years later, as a major
      political donor, he became a central figure in a 1989 ethics scandal
      that embroiled then-Mayor Tom Bradley.

      The son of a textile entrepreneur, Hwang left China in 1948 as the
      Communists were preparing to overtake Shanghai. He and his family
      joined the refugees streaming to Taiwan and he studied at National
      Taiwan University, where he earned a degree in international

      Fascinated by the America he had glimpsed in Hollywood movies, he
      moved to the United States in 1950. To familiarize himself with
      American culture and the English language, he spent a year at
      Linfield College in Oregon and earned a political science degree in

      When his father's business failed and the family fortune was lost,
      Hwang began a long and frustrating job hunt. Advised by a potential
      employer to move to Los Angeles, he said, "I don't know where L.A.
      is, but I'm going!"

      He found work in Los Angeles operating a laundry, which gave him a
      foothold in the city as well as the opportunity later to regale
      others with his rags-to-riches rise "from laundryman to banker."

      He also enrolled at USC, where he studied accounting and met Dorothy
      Huang, a piano major and Philippines native, whom he married in
      1955. Hwang became a certified public accountant and in 1960 opened
      a firm that served small businesses in the San Gabriel Valley.

      By the early 1970s he wanted to open a bank in Chinatown but could
      not obtain a California charter because state banking officials
      believed that Chinatown already had too many financial institutions.
      Hwang applied instead for a national charter and in 1974 opened the
      doors of Far East National Bank on Sunset Boulevard on the edge of

      The first years were difficult. Hwang, as chairman, fired two
      presidents and in 1976 took over the job of day-to-day management
      himself. Asked why he dismissed the executives — both professional
      bankers — Hwang replied, "I don't like bankers. They tend to be
      snobby, and they're always playing games — like bureaucrats."

      He admitted that he knew little about running a bank, but within a
      month Far East was operating in the black for the first time in its
      two-year history. He told an interviewer that he accomplished the
      turnaround by reducing expenses, attracting large deposits from
      corporations and governments, and offering exclusive services to his
      customers, including opening on evenings and Saturdays. He was fond
      of saying that the bank's initials, FENB, stood for "Fast,
      Efficient, Nicest Bank."

      He embraced his adopted country with such enthusiasm that when he
      could afford a fancy car he put "I Love USA" on the license plate
      frame. He titled one of his bank's annual reports "Fulfilling the
      American Dream." And he had Far East underwrite the costs of
      printing what Hwang said was the first Chinese translation of the
      U.S. Constitution.

      In December 1976, the bank president reported a bizarre event to
      police. Hwang said he was accosted at gunpoint at his San Gabriel
      Valley accounting office by an Asian man who forced him to drink a
      substance that made him disoriented; the assailant then demanded
      money. Hwang called one of his officers and instructed him to bring
      $300,000 in bank funds to a downtown hotel where he was being held.
      The bank official handed Hwang the money in the lobby, according to

      Hwang later told police he could not remember giving the money to
      his abductor or any other details of the assault and robbery. No
      suspects were ever identified.

      An abduction later found its way into one of his son's plays, the
      comedy "Family Devotions." One of the characters is a banker who
      survives a kidnapping and bores everyone with his recounting of the
      traumatic event.

      During the 1980s the banker with a reputation as a maverick began to
      raise his profile in political circles through large donations. A
      registered Republican, he was appointed by President Reagan in 1984
      to the White House Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations. He
      also supported Democrats, however, contributing at least $16,000 to
      Mayor Tom Bradley's campaigns during that decade.

      Hwang also had political aspirations of his own and briefly explored
      a run for California lieutenant governor in 1989.

      That year, however, reports surfaced that he had employed Bradley as
      a paid advisor at a time when Far East was seeking city business. An
      investigation by the city attorney's office found that the city
      treasurer made two $1-million deposits with Far East without any
      competitive bids, a violation of city policy.

      The inquiry led to the biggest political scandal of Bradley's career
      and a two-year federal grand jury investigation into the mayor's
      political and financial dealings, including his ties with other
      banks. Bradley was never charged with any crime, nor was Hwang found
      guilty of any wrongdoing, but the mayor ultimately returned the
      $18,000 in consulting fees he earned from Far East.

      Hwang told investigators that he had hoped Bradley would introduce
      the bank to potential corporate customers, but when asked later how
      beneficial the relationship had been, he replied, "Frankly, not

      In 1997, Hwang sold Far East to SinoPac, one of Taiwan's largest
      banks, for $94 million.

      By then, the bank that he started with one small office had grown to
      10 branches and $514 million in assets. Under his leadership, it had
      aggressively courted business in China, where the bank helped to
      finance hotels, office buildings and other large developments.

      In 1998, Hwang gave $1.5 million to Claremont Graduate University to
      establish the Henry Y. Hwang Deanship of the Peter F. Drucker and
      Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management. He also was a board
      member of the YMCA, Huntington Hospital, the Japan America Symphony
      and the Boy Scouts.

      A major supporter of East West Players, the preeminent Asian
      American theater troupe, Hwang and his wife contributed $150,000 to
      help build its new home in Little Tokyo. The gift earned them naming
      rights: The 220-seat house was called the David Henry Hwang Theater
      after their son, whose "M. Butterfly" in 1988 made him the first
      Asian American playwright to win a Tony Award. The new theater
      opened in 1998.

      The elder Hwang at first had scoffed at his son's interest in
      writing plays.

      He refused to read David's first play, written when he was an
      undergraduate at Stanford University, in part, he said, because "I
      was an illiterate. I'd never read an English book from beginning to

      But his attitude was transformed after he attended the first
      performance of the work at David's dormitory.

      The play, "F.O.B.," took its title from the derogatory term often
      used to describe new immigrants — "fresh off the boat" — and
      explored the conflicts in the newcomers' world.

      "I didn't have a clue what I was going to see, but for the first
      time in my life, I was so touched, so moved, that I was crying like
      a baby," the senior Hwang recalled in the New York Times several
      years ago. "It's something I'll remember the rest of my life. I said
      to my wife, 'Maybe we should back [David] up.' "

      "F.O.B." won an Obie for best new American play of 1980-81. Eight
      years later, "M. Butterfly," a play about gender, race and culture,
      opened on Broadway to admiring reviews and established the younger
      Hwang as a major American playwright.

      In addition to his wife of 50 years and his son, of Brooklyn, N.Y.,
      Hwang is survived by daughters Grace Elizabeth of West Hollywood and
      Margery Anne of Rochester, N.Y.; two brothers; two sisters; and four

      A memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Hall of
      Liberty, Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Hollywood Hills, 6300 Forest Lawn
      Drive. Memorial donations may be sent to the First Evangelical
      Church Assn., 40 W. Bay State St., Alhambra CA 91801
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