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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

DECEMBER 3, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 48

The Maverick vs. The Establishment
Page 3: A Mellower and Wiser Jimmy

Ira Chaplain for Asiaweek
For a guy losing $10 million a month and engaged in the battle of his life, Jimmy Lai manifests remarkable equanimity. Perhaps it can be attributed to his daily qi gong sessions at the Kowloon Cricket Club. Maybe it is because he found God in 1997, when he became a Catholic at the urging of his second wife Teresa. Certainly, he is starting to mellow, and his workday is a variation on the frenetic theme set by most Hong Kongers.

Lai rises at 5 a.m., reads the bible for about an hour, then heads across the street to do his exercises. By 8 a.m. he is at the Apple offices in Tseung Kwan O, an industrial district in Kowloon, where he stays until 6 p.m. He is in bed by 9:30 or 10. Unlike most of Hong Kong's business glitterati, Lai rarely ventures out at night. He is noticeably absent from the charity balls and other celebrity functions that represent success in a city of public strivers. As a result, his picture rarely makes the gossip or glamour pages. A family man, Lai takes the time to vacation with his wife and kids four times a year. "I drop everything and go," he says. And dad leaves his work behind. "He eats, sleeps and looks," says his wife. "That's about all."

Clearly vexed by his stunted education, Lai spends much of his waking hours reading - philosophy, politics, biographies. Never novels. "Ilike serious books." And he relishes intelligent conversation with good company, often hosting friends on his yacht, Free China. On a recent outing, the guests included an elderly priest originally from rural China but now living in Chicago, as well as a British missionary born in - and banished from - Szechuan province.

Hong Kong's Jimmy Lai takes on the Establishment

Will Hong Kong's tech-heavy stock market fly?

The new exchange in Japan has plenty of rivals

Singapore's fast-rising silicon-wafer maker

Thailand finally passes a new foreign-investment law

Asia's markets defy the usualy year-end dullness

South Korea's reform czar Lee Hun Jai looks back -- and ahead

Viewpoint: Where Are the Profits?
Coming to terms with the realities of China's market

Technology: Groceries to Go
Always ready to buck the system, Jimmy Lai is tackling a well-established Hong Kong cartel

Accusations fly in Hong Kong's media wars

Business: An All-New Dress For Success
Giordano is out to remake itself before big global retailers like the Gap arrive for a showdown

Even with journalists on board, not once does Lai push his business agenda - at least not overtly. Rather, he mostly listens, interjecting the occasional joke. When talk of the precarious position of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji recalls the financial jitters that accompanied rumors of Deng Xiaoping's death years ago, Lai looses a barb at Hong Kong's chief executive. "If Tung Chee-hwa dies," he chortles, "the stock market will take off."

Lai's exuberance is disarming. He bounces around the boat like an oversized kid at summer camp. At one point, he tries to rouse interest in a swim. Finding no takers, he slips out of his baggy, green trousers and gray T-shirt, and, stripped to yellow-striped trunks, flings himself overboard. Clambering to the second deck, his large belly hanging shamelessly over his bathing suit, he plunges back in. Moments later, he is fast asleep below.

Plainly, Lai is no ordinary mogul. Like many Hong Kong tycoons, his is a classic rags-to-riches tale - he fled solo by boat from Guangzhou to Hong Kong at the age of 12 in 1960 and toiled in factories, as did many of his contemporaries. Yet it's hard to find the ostentation typical of the self-made man. Lai usually rides around in a silver Lexus with black interior; it's a nice car, sure, but it's no Rolls-Royce. He runs his burgeoning empire from a simple office off the Apple Daily newsroom. Until recently, he didn't even have walls or a door, just a cubicle like any reporter or copy boy. "We made him put up some walls," quips a senior member of the Next staff. "Jimmy snores so loud, we couldn't get any work done." Lai retorts that the office is useful for meetings, then adds wryly: "Also, I can nap and nobody knows."

At his large, comfortable but understated apartment, the furniture is simple, the couch covers old and covered in red, blue and yellow crayon marks, courtesy of his youngest children, Sebastian, 5, and Claire, 3. Lai used to live in a large detached house, but Teresa insisted that they move to a more secure apartment complex after thieves invaded their home in 1995, whacked Lai over the head with a spanner and stole a small sum of cash and $258,000 worth of jewelry. A molotov cocktail had been lobbed into their front yard two years earlier. Teresa, fearful of potential kidnappers, is fiercely protective of their children.

Lai's 34-year-old wife has clearly been a major influence. They met in 1989. Lai was in the news because of his Tiananmen activism, and Teresa, an intern reporter visiting Hong Kong on a break from university in France, was interviewing him for Hong Kong's South China Morning Post. "It was love at first sight," says Lai, who at the time was despondent because his first wife Judy, the mother of his three oldest children, had left him for another man. Hong Kong-born Teresa was a devoted francophile, and before long, Lai was besotted with all things French. He followed Teresa to Paris. They wed in 1991. Lai describes his wife as his only real confidant. "When Ihave good news," he says, "Itell her."

In fact, Lai is self-reliant and hesitates to delegate. "One of his strengths is his drive, his energy," says one employee. "But as a manager, his weakness is an inability to see that teams are made up of individuals with different skills and different ways of doing things." Others say he is demanding, erratic and impulsive. Nonetheless, veteran colleagues say Lai has reined in many of his excesses. "Jimmy has mellowed a lot," says Next publisher Yeung Wai-hong. "The most obvious example is in meetings - the amount of profanity used to be overpowering. Now, he hardly ever swears." Yeung says Lai is also more disciplined; he attributes this to Teresa and Lai's conversion to Catholicism.

In truth, Lai is not especially interested in the fine points of his businesses; he is easily bored and constantly searching for new heights to conquer. Lai acknowledges that he likes to "grope around in the dark." Challenge is what gets him out of bed in the morning. And despite his renegade image, Jimmy Lai clearly relishes playing in the big leagues. "He likes to play this small guy standing up to giants," says broadcaster Albert Cheng. "He tackles the big guys because he wants to be one himself."

Page 4: Nothing Risked, Nothing Gained >>

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