My near-fatal attraction to Li

XIA Ping was so infatuated with the life story of Hongkong tycoon Mr LiKa-shing that she thought it was worth risking her health to write a book on him.

The 28-year-old mainlander almost did. After numerous trips to Mr Li's hometowns of Shantou and Chaozhou to unearth the hidden story, Xia finally succumbed to the pressure when she moved to Hongkong in late 1990.

She spent the better part of 1991 moving in and out of hospital: she was diagnosed - wrongly, as it turned out - as suffering from leukaemia. She had malaria.

But it was during those long nights on a hospital bed that she finished the first draft of The Story of Li Ka-shing, the latest biography on Hongkong's richest man.

Xia - a bubbling, woman who looks more like a starlet than a writer - has a curious love for her subject. She calls it ''spiritual support''. It is this drive, she says, that has given her the courage to finish the book.

''Even at times when I thought I was going to die, I never doubted I could finish the book. I could not take my mind off the writing even when I had a high fever.


''After being taken to the hospital several times, I was afraid people would be disappointed. So I disconnected the phone and kept writing. The days were so long.'' Given her personal experience, Xia believed the section on Mr Li's early struggle was the best part of the book. ''I think that part is the most touching because I was going through the same stage myself when I was writing it,'' she said. ''His struggle has been a source for my momentum too.'' Xia, now back to full fitness, recalled how she discovered a human side to the tycoon when she first met Mr Li in February 1990, at the opening ceremony for Shantou University. Mr Li, a major benefactor of the university, was officiating at the opening.

At that time Mr Li's wife, Amy, had just died.

Xia was surprised at the tycoon's emotional response when she asked for his permission to write his biography.

''I believe he was very tired.


''He has been in the business world for so many years and his heart must be very full . . . And no matter how busy he is, I believe in his inner world he is a very lonely man.

''He told me he had a lot of money and he did not know what to do with it, and what he was doing was just ploughing it back into society. I was really touched.


''Then he talked about his family. He said his kids had grown up and were able to have their own careers and families.

''And clearly Mrs Li's death was still very much on his mind. He said he hoped his wife could see the improvements he had made to Shantou and could feel very happy. There were tears in his eyes as he said this.'' When Xia made her request, Mr Li told her: ''You only live once. If I can leave something behind and make contributions to my fellow mankind, no matter what the outcome will be, I can die a happy person.'' And Xia pressed on: ''Do you know what my career and my dreams are? I am devoted to creative writing and life will not give me a second chance either. And I can die a happy person too if I can give a vivid portrayal of someone as intriguing as you.'' These words must have moved the tycoon. Xia spent the rest of 1990 researching and interviewing Mr Li's friends and relatives for the ''authorised'' biography.

The Wuhan-born Xia - a journalist who had also published a book of poetry - said she found it particularly challenging to write Mr Li's biography because so many others had done it before.


Her work brims with clear admiration for the subject: it details Mr Li from his China roots, through his family, to his domination of the business world.

Those looking for ''dirt'' should look elsewhere.

''I was under pressure because there are so many other books on Mr Li. And in terms of qualifications and experience, I am still very green.


''But one advantage I have over others is that I am able to use a more humanistic approach. I use my heart to see.

''He is a very far-sighted person and has a very strong conviction. So the question is, what has moulded him into this personality? To do this one must trace his development over the years from his birth, early childhood, adolescence; even his ancestors and parents.

''I do not treat him as a god, but a normal human being.'' Xia hoped her book would serve as a reminder to the young people of the struggle the Chinese had gone through in the past and shed some light on their future.

''One of my childhood dreams is to write about outstanding Chinese and my first choice was Mr Li,'' she said. ''I really enjoy writing about Chinese people, about someone with principles, intelligence and courage.

''The Chinese have been oppressed on their own land over the past 100 years and it is time for us to show some courage.

''Through the struggle of Mr Li and other outstanding Chinese, nobody can ever underestimate the status of Chinese people, both in Hongkong and overseas. They have shed a lot of tears and blood during this period. My purpose is to record this part of history as accurately as possible.'' The book can also be put into the context of the present political climate as Mr Li's life story is one of many successful struggles against British interests in the territory, she says. The Story of Li Ka-shing, by Xia Ping, is published by Ming Pao andcosts $60.