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Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and South East Asia

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  589 ratings  ·  61 reviews
The economies of Hong Kong and south-east Asia are dominated by only forty or fifty families. Their interests range from banking to property, from shipping to sugar, from gambling to lumber. At their peak, eight of the world's two dozen richest families were south-east Asian, yet they are largely unknown outside the region. A complex mythology surrounds them, one which inf ...more
Paperback, 328 pages
Published July 2nd 2007 by Profile
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Average rating 3.92  · 
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Nov 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Economics, Business in Asia
Shelves: favorite
Interesting. Lots of information. Read it with an open mind and reflect. There are big implications here for both China and the USA.

East Asia (Japan, Korea, Taiwan) have developed domestic companies that invent technology and compete globally. East Asian's have first world standards of living. South East Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand) rented labor to global businesses, but have never built their own globally competitive businesses. Hong Kong and Singapore are the Switzerland o
Aug 07, 2008 rated it really liked it
Hard to believe Studwell hasn't been taken to court for defamation by the Lees (or any number of other candidates).

Some entertaining excerpts:

"HK and Singapore perform a simple economic trick: they arbitrage the relative economic inefficiency of their hinterlands."

"...T.J.S. George's observation that 'he detected in Lee the insecurity of a man alienated from his Chinese morrings, a man who, because he does not quite belong anywhere, has had to remake Singapore in his own image to compensate for
Oliver Kim
Feb 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If you enjoyed "Crazy Rich Asians", and know a little of economics and finance, you have something of a moral responsibility to read this book. Through exhaustive research, Studwell shows how Asia's super-rich (including the family on which CRA's Youngs are directly based) made their wealth: extracting monopoly rents, rigging political systems, and along the way helping to impoverish their already-poor countries.

Seen through anything other than the narrow lens of representation (which, I'll admi
Peter Gregoire
Jul 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing

Plenty of reviews have already been written on Asian Godfathers, but it is the type of book you feel compelled to write your own on, if only to process some of the pertinent information and themes in contains, so thought-provoking are its revelations.

At the heart of the book is a complete indictment of the so called “South-East Asian Miracle”, which the author explains by comparing that region with the more successful North-East Asian countries. In North East Asia, Japan, Taiwan and South-Korea
Simon Ng
Mar 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is a relatively old book published in 2008. Many things had happened since then. However, it still gives a good historical account on some of the rich and famous tycoon in Asia. It is interesting to know how these individuals manipulated the system and back door dealings to their advantage. Through the years, I have actually admired many tycoons through printed media, interview etc. After reading this book, I realised that many are just smart marketing and PR work. I wish more would read th ...more
Thai Son
Apr 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Superb sketch of South East Asian economies using the basis of "godfathers", or big tycoons. Viet Nam is not mentioned, for obvious reasons. This book opened my eyes to one of the economic realities of the region. Will be reading a lot more on certain places and people thanks to this experience.
Certain parts are overtly dry, but there is nothing to critique regarding this, as the level of detail justifies it.
Missy J
Even though the author's tone is very subjective and negative, the ending was much lighter and positive.
I learned a lot from this book, through the stories of the godfathers, more about contemporary Southeast Asia and its modern history. It was difficult for me to understand some of the financial and economic terms, however, I think I get the full picture of what the author wants to convey.
His conclusion is very well-thought out and hints at the possibility of development and progress in this r
Nov 02, 2010 rated it liked it
Studwell tries to debunk what he regards as the myth of the SE Asian Horatio Alger-type tycoons, whose successes largely owe to political corruption and government protected cartels. This cozy relationship between the political and merchant class produces monopolies in gaming, commodities, and domestic distribution to the detriment of homegrown businesses that could be competitive on an international level. He has particular animus towards Lee Kuan Yew for his racialist theories and elitism and ...more
Ralph Quirequire
Nov 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book methodically dismantles the myth of the astute business tycoon and tells the real, often-unflattering stories behind the "success" of the people that make up Southeast Asia's economic elite (which, in my opinion, is a more interesting angle compared to the fawning hagiography typically reserved for persons of their ilk).

Rather than business acumen or management sophistication, the author points out, many Southeast Asian business leaders have historically relied on their web of mutually
One of my favourite books, really eye-opening, especially concerning the subjects that have a lot of myths related to them (Singapore, bamboo networks, etc)

Notes to self (cause private notes field is too short):
- tycoons of the XIX century prospered in organising labour-intensive high-volume operations (farming, mining)
- There they created a vertically integrated structure, where they supplied their workers with food and opium.
- Also, they prospered in revenue-farming because states were weak
Reinis Simanovskis
May 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
When living and doing business in Indonesia, you get to notice a lot of cultural differences. Some stuff that is outright weird, tough to understand why. Now this book answers the why, it sets the scene how the current environment has come alive and what are the main differences from other Asian countries like Taiwan, South Korea & Japan & how come South East Asian countries have not been able to follow the same path until now.
Would recommend to read to anyone who's living in South East Asia, it
Nam KK
May 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
Very comprehensive book that helps me with a broad picture about how capitalism (and the markets) works(ed) in South East-Asia. The book left me with a feeling of bitterness of being in a dynamic but backward and corrupted region of the world.
Jun 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
I seldom write reviews, but this is a book that deserves to be read by more. It was published nearly a decade ago but remains painfully relevant and contemporary, which is not something that can be said of most titles about Asian (political) economies in general. Studwell is well-researched and has clearly thought out how best to map out his arguments whilst covering macro- and micro-level accounts of the intersection between public, private, and political godfather economics and kleptocracy in ...more
James Smyth
Oct 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Really important description of how crony capitalism wrecks economies and the hardworking laborers that live in them. It's forgotten now that the northeast and southeast Asian nations were economically equivalent in the wake of the second World War. So why has the southeast languished so long? It's The System there, in which capitalism has meant favoring the few. Why is the purportedly free-market Hong Kong now wracked with protests fueled by the difficulty of making a living there? It's an olig ...more
Sep 24, 2015 rated it it was ok
The book is too dense and trying to cover too many things. It did not work for me but looking at all the great reviews; Maybe I lack something to appreciate this work.
Reshad Sabed
Aug 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Fewer books are written about South East Asian crony capitalism with such candor and lucidity as this one. Highly recommended for anybody venturing into doing business in South East Asia
Dec 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
A unfortunate case study of what happens when manipulated democracies and concession-based economies take precedence over a free market and true competition. If bank fraud on Wall Street left Mark Baum (for anyone who has seen the Big Short) frothing, the political manoeuvring and financial deception by the select few at the expense of the rest of SEA's population (read: taxpayers and shareholders) make Wall Street's investment bankers look like schoolboys; all a byproduct of opaque, broken poli ...more
It's an interesting economic history of Asian countries, but I think the author is biased.

Money and power have influences in Asian countries. This is true. But I don't think it's very different from western countries either. It's common sense and reality. What is more interesting is that Asian godfathers had most of their businesses in utilities, property development, telecom and raw material import. What is unfair is that these industries should either be run by government (utility) or should
Jul 21, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Southeast Asian (which, in this book, includes Hong Kong and Macau) economic history as seen through the eyes of the billionaires that so captivate that region's attention. Studwell critiques the trajectory of economic development throughout the region, and attempts to overturn several enduring myths in the process. Studwell notes that Hong Kong and Singapore are not "free" economies, despite Western interpretation. The billionaires are not astute businessmen, instead they build vast wealth thro ...more
Oct 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
"The whole of Asia suffers from the perverse curse of high saving rates and bloated banks, which have depressed stock market returns throughout the region ... [the high savings rate] create minimal pressure on capital markets to offer decent returns."

The book is largely about "godfathers" but ties in heavily with politics and historical developments while trying to explain the [2006/07] state of South East & North Asia. Many parts of it reminds me of Piketty's argument that even growing economie
Samuel Atta-Amponsah
Aug 20, 2020 rated it it was ok
It must have cost Joe Studwell a good deal of work to integrate his knowledge of Asian business and politics and produce this exceptional book.

He has a facility for gaining access to Asia's rather secretive Chinese billionaires since they are obviously not in the habit of sitting around and sharing their fine French wine with any regular gweilo. It may be because he actually quite likes them (and this comes across in the book) which helps but at the same time it doesn't make his job of a balance
Phương Thảo
Jul 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book represents lots of facts in the economy in Asia: political games, private banks, cash flows, and secretive alliances. Some people might think it doesn't make sense and are curious how Joe Studwell can explore the truths, but according to my personal experience, Asian Godfathers is such an amazing opportunity for you all to understand and analyze economic situations in SA.
(To have a deep understanding, I suggest you all read about investment banking and political movements in SA first)
Samuel Peck
Essentially a who's - who introduction to the modern history of South East Asian tycoons.

Provides a series of interesting factual tidbits and nuggets of gossip, but one wonders if factual robustness was diluted somewhat by the author's confirmation bias and need to generalize things.
Rukmankan Sivaloganathan
Jan 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book should be required reading for anyone trying to understand SEA. This is a great read that gives the reader an insight into how wealth was really created in the region including how migration within the region, both forced and voluntary, played an important role.
Feb 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Extremely interesting.
Aug 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Great book. Nothing surprising though for anyone who lives in Asia and follows what's going on. ...more
Jordi Costa
Oct 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is must read for anyone interested in understanding the background of the large Asian families and how they came and kept their power.
Vasyl Davydko
Apr 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Best book of the history of some of the most powerful families in SE Asia, very interesting book!
Feb 04, 2021 rated it liked it
Although it's now a bit dated (published in 2007), it does provide a nice overview of the political and economic landscape of select countries in Southeast Asia. ...more
Nov 09, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019, allaboutasia
Basically the more indepth contextualized version of Crazy Rich Asians. Super insightful read - except the chapter on post-war banks was wayy too much for me and kinda went over my head. That said, well worth the read!
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45 likes · 10 comments
“South-east Asia’s high savings rates, most of which flowed into bank deposits, lent themselves to outsize banking systems, which invited godfather abuse. There is, in turn, a pretty direct line from the insider manipulation of regional banks to the Asian financial crisis. The ‘over-banked’ nature of south-east Asia also helps explain a conundrum that has occupied some of the region’s equity investors: why, despite heady economic growth, have long-term stock market returns in south-east Asia been so poor? Since 1993, when a flood of foreign money increased capitalisation in regional markets by around 2.5 times in one calendar year,37 dollar-denominated returns with dividends reinvested (what investors call ‘total’ returns) in every regional market have been lower than those in the mature markets of New York and London, and a fraction of those in other emerging markets in eastern Europe and Latin America.38” 0 likes
“South-east Asia’s high savings rates, most of which flowed into bank deposits, lent themselves to outsize banking systems, which invited godfather abuse. There is, in turn, a pretty direct line from the insider manipulation” 0 likes
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