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The many faces of Alibaba founder Jack Ma

Alibaba founder Jack Ma (left) acknowledging fans after showing up with the main cast of his movie Gong Shou Dao during a gala event in Shanghai on Nov 11. The billionaire, seen here (right) speaking during his firm's inaugural Gateway '17 conference
Alibaba founder Jack Ma (above) acknowledging fans after showing up with the main cast of his movie Gong Shou Dao during a gala event in Shanghai on Nov 11.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Alibaba founder Jack Ma (left) acknowledging fans after showing up with the main cast of his movie Gong Shou Dao during a gala event in Shanghai on Nov 11. The billionaire, seen here (right) speaking during his firm's inaugural Gateway '17 conference
The billionaire, seen here speaking during his firm's inaugural Gateway '17 conference in Detroit in June, has a flair for storytelling.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Billionaire technopreneur dabbles in acting and singing even as he expands mega empire

THE ENTERTAINER

Affectionately known as Papa Ma by Chinese netizens and youngsters, Alibaba founder Jack Ma is now also a recording artist and a gongfu movie star.

The 53-year-old billionaire made his movie debut in The Art Of Attack And Defence (Gong Shou Dao) on Nov 11, also known as Singles' Day, a made-up festival that has now become an online shopping bonanza in China and globally.

In the 22-minute clip, he is seen defeating top action stars like Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa using taiji, a form of Chinese martial arts.

As a taiji practitioner for 30 years, Mr Ma sees it as a symbol of traditional Chinese culture, and wants to get it enshrined as an Olympic event, said actor Li in a recent interview with Sixth Tone, a Chinese website.

Mr Ma's passion for Chinese martial arts stems from his love for Louis Cha's swordfighting novels. He used to call himself Feng Qingyang, after a swordsman from The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (Xiao Ao Jiang Hu), a novel by Mr Cha, who goes by the pen name Jin Yong.

Mr Ma's penchant for showmanship also saw him dress up as pop star Michael Jackson at company events. Earlier this month, he surprised netizens with a video of his duet with Mandopop diva Faye Wong on his account on Weibo, a microblogging platform. Titled Feng Qingyang, it is the theme song for his new movie.

While some netizens suggested that his vocals should be removed from the track, he told them that they will get used to his voice if they just keep on listening.

Mr Ma's involvement in the entertainment industry goes beyond his personal interests. In recent years, Alibaba has acquired entertainment companies involved in movies, music, online literature, sports, video-streaming, games and online ticketing.

But Alibaba's entertainment business is finding it hard to keep up with competitors like Tencent, local media reported.

  • $52b Mr Jack Ma is China's third richest man, with a net worth of US$38.6 billion (S$52.4 billion), according to a recent Forbes rich list.

    $34b Just on Singles' Day this year, Alibaba generated yet another record-breaking amount of sales, totalling 168.2 billion yuan (S$34.4 billion) within 24 hours.

Some asked if it would be better for Mr Ma to stick to what he does best - connecting buyers and sellers on his e-commerce platform.

Just on Singles' Day this year, Alibaba generated another record-breaking amount of sales, totalling 168.2 billion yuan (S$34.4 billion) within 24 hours, beating rival JD.com's 127.1 billion yuan by a wide margin.

POLITICALLY SAVVY BUSINESSMAN

Mr Ma is the third richest man in China, with a net worth of US$38.6 billion (S$52.4 billion), according to a recent Forbes rich list.

Born in 1964 in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, to a pair of pingtan (a form of musical storytelling) performers, he had an early interest in English and used to practise the language with foreign tourists at a local hotel.

He went on to teach English after graduating from Hangzhou Normal University. It was at the university that he met his wife, Ms Zhang Ying, who later became his first employee when he started Alibaba. They have a son and a daughter.

Mr Ma's early career was full of setbacks. He famously recounted in an interview in 2015 that he had applied to 30 different jobs and got rejected. "I even went to KFC when it came to my city. Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy (who was rejected)," he said.

Then a trip to the United States in the mid-1990s opened his eyes to the Internet. Upon his return, he started two Internet firms, before finding success with a third one - Alibaba - which was set up in 1999 with 17 friends in his living room.

Though seen as a copycat of eBay, Alibaba has been insulated from foreign competition due to government policies that restrict its entry. And Mr Ma was able to win the support of the local Hangzhou government, which allowed Alibaba to expand rapidly in the second-tier city.

By 2005, he was ready to take Alibaba to Silicon Valley when he sold a large stake of the company to Yahoo for US$1 billion. But when he decided to end the partnership with Yahoo in 2012, he was able to raise funds by selling shares to companies linked with sons or grandsons of the political elite to buy out half of Yahoo's stake. These scions of Chinese leaders later benefited from the company's initial public offering in 2014 - the largest in US history - which raised US$21.8 billion.

When asked about his relationship with the government in an event organised by The Wall Street Journal in 2015, Mr Ma said: "As I always say, be in love with them but don't marry them.

"Talk to them, listen to their problems. (The) government does not need you to say 'I love you'; the government wants to know that you can solve its problems."

Mr Ma's cosy ties with the central government have also seen him accompanying Chinese President Xi Jinping on overseas trips to South Korea in 2014 and the US in 2015.

THE GLOBAL INFLUENCER

Beyond expanding his business empire, which includes Ant Financial, the world's most valuable fintech company, Mr Ma has been busy making himself seen and heard on the world's stage.

In late 2015, he bought the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Hong Kong's main English-language daily, for US$266 million. Some saw the move as a way to expand his influence to the mass media.

The purchase sparked concerns as to whether the 114-year-old newspaper would become a mouthpiece of Beijing, but Alibaba has said it will not interfere with editorial operations. Mr Ma said in an interview with his newspaper last year that his aim is to "offer a fair chance to readers (to understand what is happening in China), not just a fair chance to China".

Closer to the region, Mr Ma has become an adviser to foreign governments. Last year, he took on the role of digital economy adviser to Malaysia with a pledge to help turn it into a regional digital powerhouse. Earlier this month, he launched a joint venture with the Malaysian government to handle up to US$65 billion worth of trade via e-commerce.

 
 
 

"Today, we are witnessing a historic moment in Asia where one country has begun to use technology to enable its SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and young people to become more competitive on the world stage," he said at its opening.

A MAN WHO ATTRACTS CONTROVERSY

A consummate public speaker with a flair for storytelling, Mr Ma often gives interviews and speeches peppered with quotable quotes. But some of his public comments have drawn criticism, which he usually puts down to his having been misquoted or misunderstood.

A notable case was during a 2013 interview with SCMP when he appeared to suggest that the Chinese government's actions in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown were correct.

Another controversy arose over his defence of his Taobao online marketplace, which has received flak from all quarters, including the authorities, for the prevalence of counterfeit products.

Last year, he caused an uproar when he declared publicly that many fake goods are of better quality than the real deal. He subsequently walked back his talk, claiming he had been quoted out of context in a commentary published in The Wall Street Journal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2017, with the headline 'Many faces of Jack Ma'. Print Edition | Subscribe