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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

DECEMBER 3, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 48

The Maverick vs. The Establishment
With his Internet play, Jimmy Lai faces the fight of his life

Jimmy Lai: 'He likes to play this small guy standing up to giants. But he wants to be one himself'
Ira Chaplain for Asiaweek

Jimmy Lai is bleeding money. By his own account, as much as $10 million a month. The hemorrhage is the consequence of the June launch of adMart, Lai's Internet-based grocery and electronics home-delivery service. The buzz is that Hong Kong's most visible maverick has finally taken on more than he can handle, mounting what many believe is a crazy crusade against a business establishment used to printing money without interference from anyone. Not from the government. Certainly not from an upstart who refuses to play by the rules. Then again, we're not talking about just any rebel. This is Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, a grade-school dropout who repeatedly has stumbled to rise again.

Flamboyant, outspoken and irreverent, the chunky textile trader turned media baron has displayed a mostly golden touch since the 1980s when he founded Giordano, the clothing chain that became a region-wide brand. Lai went on to challenge Hong Kong's powerful media moguls in 1995 with his publishing phenomenon, Apple Daily newspaper. Along the way he has riled potentates; after the Tiananmen crackdown, he sold cheap Giordano T-shirts adorned with photos of the student leaders; later he memorably called former Chinese premier Li Peng "the son of a turtle's egg with zero IQ."

Hong Kong's Jimmy Lai takes on the Establishment

Will Hong Kong's tech-heavy stock market fly?

The new exchange in Japan has plenty of rivals

Singapore's fast-rising silicon-wafer maker

Thailand finally passes a new foreign-investment law

Asia's markets defy the usualy year-end dullness

South Korea's reform czar Lee Hun Jai looks back -- and ahead

Viewpoint: Where Are the Profits?
Coming to terms with the realities of China's market

Technology: Groceries to Go
Always ready to buck the system, Jimmy Lai is tackling a well-established Hong Kong cartel

Accusations fly in Hong Kong's media wars

Business: An All-New Dress For Success
Giordano is out to remake itself before big global retailers like the Gap arrive for a showdown

At times, Lai has been his own worst enemy. His irreverence forced him to divest Giordano after Beijing refused to allow its stores on the mainland (Lai made some $280 million from the sale). For several years he tried fruitlessly to get a berth on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange but was thwarted - by Beijing-backed rivals, he says - until mid-October when he succeeded in winning a backdoor listing. Lai has earned the enmity and lawsuits of many powerful people with his publications' coverage. And in truth, he is more marketer than innovator. Giordano, for example, was from the start a poor man's imitation of Gap, the American clothing retailer. (And Lai copied the Giordano name from a New York pizzeria.) Apple Daily resembles the most outrageous of British tabloids. And even adMart looks a lot like similar services in California.

Yet Lai's image is of a maverick and it plays well in a city where old-money billionaires and banal Cantopop singers pass for celebrities. In such company, Lai stands apart: rough, independent and fearless, a man determined to do business his own way. Now 51, Lai has matured. But his enthusiasm remains youthful. After all, he is wading into an arena that, for the most part, is a young person's game - e-commerce, to date a notoriously unpredictable and unprofitable business.

If Lai succeeds with adMart, he may manage to do something far more remarkable than merely make a profit or pioneer e-commerce in Asia. With a lot of luck (and money), he may also help change the way Hong Kong does business, forcing cleansing competition on the high-margin cartels and oligopolies that make a mockery of the city's much-vaunted laissez-faire business model.

Every time Lai tackles a new opponent or strategy, skeptics predict his demise. They are doing it again with adMart. Maybe they're right this time. Then again, maybe they're not.

Page 2: A War of Attrition >>

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