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