The facts of life
THE legendary rags to riches stories of well-known Hong Kong tycoons are being spread faster than ever, as writers and publishers scurry to release books on successful fortune-makers.
This growing interest in other people's roads to success follows the strong sales of the biography of property tycoon Li Ka-shing, published two years ago. The book, written by Xia Ping - originally from Shenzhen - sold 20,000 copies in one year.
Other names that have been turned into titles include Gordon Wu Ying-sheung, Stanley Ho Hung-sun, Louis Cha Leung-yung and Tsang Hin-chi, the tie-maker. Asian kung fu star Jackie Chan is known to be taping major events until the time for a final write-up of his career.
Legislator Vincent Cheng Hoi-chuen claimed to be interested in accounts of people's lives and has read about foreign dignitaries, such as Margaret Thatcher and George Bush.
'There is a lot to learn from those who have reached the top, like how to deal with major issues or crises in life. But I only read autobiographies since I want to know the person's own thinking. It is doubtful whether a biographer really tells the truth.' Few local celebrities have so far taken up the task of writing. The local market, however, has lately been flooded with biographies by authors who could be eager to make a name for themselves. They are known to get between 10 to 15 per cent of the sales.
One biographer is 30-year-old Zou Zao-gui, from Guangzhou, known to his readers as Leng Xia, meaning 'cool summer'. The Hainan-born author moved to the territory two years ago and already has two biographies boasting brisk sales.
While he chose the pen name to signify a desire to keep a low-profile, his name is increasingly being associated with the rich and famous.
Since its publication last October, his book on Stanley Ho has sold over 4,000 copies.
In it, the casino mogul is said to have received several death threats during his struggle to consolidate his gambling empire in Macau in the 70s. It also reveals the multi-billionaire's unfulfilled dream of obtaining a controlling stake in the Macau Television Station, where he is a minority shareholder.
His book on veteran publisher Louis Cha Leung-yung, popular for his swordsman novels, sold thousands of copies shortly after its release last December.
A former radio reporter in Guangzhou, Leng has two other books due out next month: one on multi-billionaire Henry Fok Ying-tung and another on the late shipping magnate Sir Yue-kong Pao.
'Writing biography allows me to know about certain periods in history well,' said the bespectacled author. 'The past of Stanley Ho very much tells the history of the casino business in Macau.' 'There is worldwide interest in biographies since societies are made up of people.' Shortly after Leng came to the territory, he founded a low-budget business magazine which did not last long, but helped establish useful contacts for his work. Smilingly he said he was pleased with his existing social networks.
Dressed in a grey suit, with a floral tie, Leng is unabashedly enterprising. Apart from writing biographies, he also runs a publishing business in China.
While working on the book on Sir Yue-kong Pao, he had the idea of a biography of Fok, after being impressed with his rise to success during difficult times in Hong Kong in the 50s.
'Fok is really a legendary figure,' he enthused. 'He was from a boat people family in Panyue, Guangdong. He later made his first 'bucket of gold' shipping machinery, medicines and other needed supplies to the mainland while an international trade embargo was imposed on China during the Korean War.' 'It's his real estate business that later made him really wealthy.' Leng said that he hopes to produce some more good works.
'People say a writer could become more famous if he produces many books in a short period of time. I agree with that to some extent.' Except for his book on Louis Cha, which was commissioned by a publisher, he never conducts interviews with the celebrity figure concerned. But he usually asks that person to go through the draft of his finished writing.
'It is important that the person I write about is willing to meet me and discuss the finished product with me. At least it shows that I am seen as a serious writer.' Leng works from his flat in North Point and speaks confidently about the accuracy of his reports, saying he conducts careful research and double-checks information.
However, closer examination of his and other biographies show that they often shed little light on the character of the person involved, except perhaps their immense drive to succeed.
Personal flaws are rarely exposed. The biography of Tsang Hin-chi, for example, chairman of the famous Goldlion tie empire, makes no mention of Tsang's criminal convictions in 1971 and 1978. He was publicly censured by the Stock Exchange in early May this year for having failed to declare his past convictions of false trade descriptions during the flotation of his Denway Investment.
Leng says he sometimes makes changes to his books in response to particular requests from his subjects.
Amateur biographer Florence Fung (whose pen name is Fung Zhi), attributes the tendency of avoiding negative portrayal to fear. 'Writers might be afraid of lethal consequences,' she said.
She agrees current books on rich business people could also be seen by many as flattery.
Her maiden book, released in May, is, in fact, a collection of interviews with celebrities including legislator Christine Loh, politician Tsang Yuk-sing and academic Charles Kao.
'Communication among people is lacking today,' noted Fung, 35, features editor of a Chinese newspaper. 'Therefore I focused more on their personal thoughts.' One outstanding individual she thinks deserves attention is Cantonese opera star Fong Yim-fun who retired at the peak of her career in the late 50s.
'There are other people other than me who are interested in documenting her life too,' said Fung. 'I interviewed her before, but I am not sure if she will work with me on a biography. You also need adequate outside support, say from a publisher, to conduct far-reaching research on a famous personality.' Publishers are more than willing to give support these days. 'There is a market for these books,' said general manager of Ming Pao Publications, Rita Chu. And it is not just because everyone wants to be another Li Ka-shing.
'There is also a growing interest in mainland political figures. Some people might want to brush up their knowledge on China as 1997 approaches.
'But you should never compare biographies with popular fiction. They never command the same sales. It's the case anywhere else in the world.'