Dozens of Chinese, Korean Institutions Thriving in Shadows

They're small and low profile, but for the most part hugely successful.

Their customer base is affluent and well educated. Their earnings are climbing in many cases, soaring. They're the Chinese and Korean banking institutions of Los Angeles, dozens of them. And despite their enviable niches, these institutions remain autonomous and relatively immune from the waves of consolidation that have swept the rest of the financial landscape in recent years. Mainstream institutions like Bank of America and Wells Fargo Bank, as much as they might want to snatch one or more of these gems, are unlikely to successfully integrate the tightly knit, ethnically based corporate cultures. And although they're little known to the majority of Angelenos, ethnic Chinese and Korean banking institutions constitute a formidable presence in their respective L.A.-area communities.

Despite the good times, however, outside forces are pressing upon these ethnic banks, pushing them to evolve and adapt. Immigration flows into L.A. from Korea and Taiwan are slowing down and the U.S. economy is showing signs of softening, forcing these traditionally insular institutions to reach beyond their own communities. "We don't want to be judged just as an ethnic Chinese bank," said Dominic Ng, chairman and chief executive of East West Bancorp, which with around $2.3 billion in assets makes it the largest of the Chinese and Korean banks in town. "We're getting business with ethnic Chinese because we have great contacts in the Western business community, and we're getting business with Western firms because we have connections in the Chinese community." East West has so far distinguished itself by growing at such a rapid pace that, once the pending acquisition of Imperial Bancorp by Michigan-based Comerica Bank is finalized, it will trail only City National Corp. in the ranks of the largest L.A.-based independent banks, in terms of assets. (Sanwa Bank California is a bit larger than City National, but is controlled by Japan's Sanwa Bank Ltd.) Not far behind is Cathay Bank, while GBC Bancorp, parent of General Bank, and Chinatrust Bank (USA) are all among the top 15 banks in Los Angeles County. All three are Chinese community banks, although Chinatrust is wholly owned by Tai-wanese bank Chinatrust Commercial Bank.

Together these banks, along with UCBH Holdings Inc., parent of United Commercial Bank, which is based in San Francisco but has a significant and growing presence here, handle the lion's share of banking activity in the Chinese community. All are thriving (although Chinatrust USA isn't publicly traded, so financial information for it is slight), with double-digit earnings growth and strong share prices.

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