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Obituaries

Henry Y. Hwang, 77; Bank Executive, Benefactor, Father of Noted Playwright

October 11, 2005|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 relations.

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 1951.

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 Chinatown.

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 police.

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.

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