Even though British economist and former investment banker Duncan Clark has just authored a book about his friend Jack Ma, he says that he knows less about Asia’s richest man whom he befriended in September 1999, just after he set up Alibaba with Yale-trained Taiwanese lawyer Joe Tsai.

In an interview with The Sunday Times in May on the sidelines of a banking conference here at which he and Tsai spoke, Clark said that he wrote a column in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper in the early 1990s on technology developments in China. “My colleague said, “Hey, go meet Jack.” I did, and was impressed with this individual who was saying crazy things such as “We are going to defeat all these Western companies”.”

Ma now owns SCMP. Clark, who has called China home for 22 years, is chairman of the Beijing-based investment advisory firm BDA China, which he founded with mainlander Zhang Bohai in 1994.

Clark and Ma were soon travelling around China together and spoke at the same events at American universities Harvard and Stanford.

Clark, a first-time author, said that he wrote the book partly to correct the many myths swirling around Ma, whom he calls “ambitious but humble, and very kind”. However, Ma, whose reported networth stands at US$29.1 billion (S$39.4 billion), did not help write the book. Clark said: “Jack had already said many times that he was not going to help anyone write his book. He said, ‘I need to write my own book one day and I’m going to call it 1,001 Mistakes.’

“Then last year, he said, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to be objective enough to write that book.’ So I thought, ‘Well, if he’s not going to write it, somebody should.’

“I know less about him personally now than I did when I first met him in 1999, in the sense that even though he’s the same person, he’s surrounded by layers of security and trying to get to him is not easy.” – Duncan Clark

For one thing, many people think that Ma is a Harvard alumnus, when his alma mater is the second-rate Hangzhou Teachers College, where he met his wife Cathy Zhang and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. Ma’s only claim to Harvard is speaking there and even then, Clark said, Ma told Harvard students: “You’re kind of wasting your time here”.

Also, Wikipedia has Ma’s parents as musician-storytellers. This error bears correcting because Clark says Ma’s slick communication skills, which charmed search engine pioneer Jerry Yang to invest billions in Alibaba, likely came from his parents’ love of pingtan, or the Chinese folk art of storytelling through singing and comedic sketches. Ma’s father Ma Laifa, was a photographer, and his mother Cui Wencai a factory worker.

What does Ma think of his effort then?

Well, for one thing, Alibaba’s global head of public relations, Ms Jennifer Kuperman, walked over to that same Book Passage book launch from her office nearby and told him: “Jack loves your book.” Clark said: “Then Alibaba started retweeting some of my tweets so that was a good sign. And Jennifer got promoted shortly after that.”

At the outset, Ms Kuperman told him that Alibaba would give him access to its employees, but would not check his manuscript.

Later, after he sent printed copies of his book to Alibaba’s San Francisco office, he learnt that the company had 12 teams poring over each of the book’s 12 chapters, to report to their bosses what he had written.

Clark’s most telling chapter is the book’s final one in which he muses about whether Ma is a China icon or a latter-day Icarus, who donned wax wings to fly, only to perish when the sun melted his wings.

Clark said: “Icarus was a victim of soaring ambition and Jack is unbelievably ambitious. And China now has a Sun King in (Chinese President) Xi (Jinping), who, some people say, might rule for another 20 years. That’s why I say the most interesting chapter in the book is Chapter 13 – and there are only 12 chapters in the book.”

Alibaba: The house that Jack Ma built
has since been lauded by, among others, the Financial Times and The New York Times. It is now available at leading bookstores.

Adapted from The Sunday Times.