Coconut Brassieres Optional
By Robyn Meredith, (Forbes Asia, 5/11/09)
A GAME FOR REAL MEN
HONG KONG IS A WORK HARD, play hard kind of place. And so it was one weekend in late March when tens of thousands converged there for one of the most important annual business events in Asia: the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament.
Many dress to the nines for the occasion. Or undress. A shirtless man in an eye-catching green wig stands not far from a man wearing a red Superman cape. Two men come as surgeons. A group of four turn up as Teletubbies. Several fans dressed as clowns go wild when The Kinks' "You Really Got Me" blares from the loudspeakers at halftime, as does the man wearing a grass skirt and a bikini top made of coconuts.
Picture a grown-up version of a weekendlong frat party, except that with the high proportion of Brits attending quite a number of the men are dressed in drag. (It must be said that cheongsams were not really meant for such bulky bodies.)
For many expats and others in the Asian business community, a weekend of meeting in Hong Kong to drink beer and watch rugby together has become a ritual. "It's really become a reunion for so many businesspeople," says Paul Calello, chief executive of Credit Suisse's investment bank. "Particularly a lot of the Europeans and Australians they make a habit of it."
Credit Suisse is a longtime sponsor, with airline Cathay Pacific, of the tournament. Because the event is a magnet for its clients, Credit Suisse schedules its annual Asian Investment conference in the days before. That gives clients from around the world a much appreciated excuse to schedule business trips to Hong Kong just in time for the Sevens and perhaps to stop by one of Credit Suisse's two corporate boxes during the weekend.
Calello, wearing jeans and a navy jacket, pauses during the Canada-Wales game to offer plastic cups of beer to visitors, including Ronald Arculli, chairman of the Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing, the securities and futures exchange, and various hedge fund, private equity and mutual fund investors. Then he wades through the crowd to say hello to another visitor, David Bonderman, cofounder of the private equity behemoth Texas Pacific Group.
While the Sevens tournament started in Hong Kong 33 years ago, it is now part of a worldwide tournament, with games across Asia, Europe and the U.S. most recently in San Diego in February. This tournament is known as the Sevens because there are only 7 players on each side rather than the usual 15. The result is a fast-paced event with dozens of games and plenty of time for schmoozing during breaks.
Martin Wheatley, CEO of Hong Kong's Securities & Futures Commission, sipping a beer and tucking into a hot dog during the England-Japan match, explains that at the Hong Kong Sevens, "You park your suit for a couple of days. An awful lot of my contacts from around the world I find the week before the event they suddenly want to see me," Wheatley says. "It's a can't-miss event." He likens it to a faster-paced Wimbledon, Chelsea Flower Show and corporate conference combined.
Resplendent in orange and black silks, two men dressed as jockeys with toy horses, no less wait in line for the rowdy South stand. They had flown in from Singapore and explain that last year they'd dressed as Smurfs. Australian Matt Hall, who says he directs Cisco sales and marketing in Singapore, leans down and kisses the muzzle of his toy horse and says that for the past six years he hasn't missed a Sevens game in Hong Kong.
The tournament is global both on and off the pitch. At halftime of one game a marching band is led by a bevy of bagpipe players in red plaid kilts, while the teams from nations around the world parade around the field. The Sri Lankan team wears green T-shirts and sarongs, followed by Canadians in red shirts, then Americans in navy shirts.
Compared with previous years this gathering is relatively subdued, reflecting the dire economic climate. Some companies receiving federal bailout funds including AIG and Goldman Sachs didn't splurge on corporate boxes for the first year in memory, lest they be accused of wasting taxpayer money. After all, renting a coveted box costs about $75,000 before food, drinks and decorations, after which the cost can rise to $200,000 and beyond for the weekend.
Those whose companies were uncharacteristically without boxes this year cadged invitations from friends whose companies held on. "Mr. Rugby," who woos hedge funds for Goldman Sachs, couldn't bring himself to miss the event. So he lurks in a friendly law firm's box, where he refuses to talk with a reporter, lest the Goldman connection be brought up.
Even firms that haven't received federal funds sound a little defensive in justifying their boxes. "The Sevens are an anchor event for our Asian Investment Conference," says Credit Suisse's Calello. "This year we organized 5,000 one-on-one meetings between corporates from the Asia/Pacific meeting and investors from all around the world," he says. "It is extremely efficient."
Deutsche Bank kept its box, exuberantly decorating it as a Bavarian beer hall. But this year clients rather than employees were given precedence. Mark Pankhurst, head of Deutsche Bank's transportation team in Asia, sips an afternoon beer and watches from a friend's box since his own company's is off-limits. "The Sevens is partly for the rugby, but mainly it's for the carnival atmosphere," he says.
Just then, it's halftime, and Amy Wine-house's "Rehab" blasts from loudspeakers, prompting a nearby man in a shoulder-baring Tarzan outfit to dance. Says Pankhurst, "Gloomy times like this, people need a reason to let their hair down."