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Li-Ka Shing: The Biography

by Anthony B. Chan

Li-Ka Shing is the story of one man’s rise from poverty to extraordinary wealth and power, the motivation for which was a deathbed promise to his dying father. Li’s father, an immigrant teacher from mainland China, died of tuberculosis in Hong Kong in 1943 and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Li, who was then 13, promised to learn business and make lots of money.

Although Anthony Chan offers little more than that in explanation of Li’s ambition, he provides ample documentation of the historical and geographical context that made his success possible. He shows how Hong Kong, born from a union of drug dealers and free-traders, was imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit required to produce Li.

While Li’s journey from being King of Plastic Flowers to real estate tycoon is interesting, it is the Canadian part of the story that readers will find most compelling. A long-time stockholder in The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Li acquired the Toronto Harbour Castle Hotel, Husky Oil holdings, and went on to his biggest coup – the purchase from the Vander Zalm government of the Expo ’86 lands in Vancouver. His attempts to make similar inroads into the United States and Britain were less successful.

Another interesting thread in his story is his steadfast faith – severely tested by the Tiananmen Square massacre – in mainland China. That loyalty to his roots is one of the virtues instilled in him by his father. He values his reputation, being scrupulously fair to his partners, trustworthy in keeping his word, and good to his employees. One longs to know more about his character and his family life. But apart from mentioning his sons, who followed him into his business, Chan sticks strictly to describing Li’s business ventures.

One detail given is that the conversation at the Li family meals revolves around business. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the present biography is intended for readers who share the family’s dinner table conversational habits. This is unfortunate, since a rags-to-riches story can have a very wide appeal.