SINGAPORE: Jack Ma sure knows how to pick a date.
On Tuesday (Sep 10), he formally bid goodbye to Alibaba, the e-commerce giant he founded 20 years ago. The date also marks his 55th birthday and is Teacher’s Day in China – many years ago, Ma was an English teacher.
The four-hour celebration, hosted in a stadium meant for 80,000 people, saw him rocking a braided hairstyle and an outfit of spiked leather, while holding an electric guitar in a striking shade of tangerine.
Some of his colleagues, including co-founder Lucy Peng and CEO of Alibaba’s technology committee Wang Jian, as well as the performers, were also dressed to the nines that day – a tribute, they said, to their founder’s colourful personality.
Here are more quirky facts about Jack Ma, whose playful image is said to have helped shatter the stereotype of the drab Chinese executive.
ALI BABA AND THE 18 “THIEVES”
Ma did not create Alibaba, whose name was inspired by the story Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in the Arabian storybook One Thousand And One Nights, alone – he did it with 17 friends.
“Alibaba brings to mind ‘open sesame’, representing that our platforms open a doorway to fortune for small businesses,” according to the company website.
MA WAS REJECTED BY THE “COLONEL”
If things had gone differently early in his life, Ma would be dealing in something a little more flavourful than e-commerce – the 11 herbs and spices of KFC’s fried chicken.
Ma once revealed that after he earned his degree, he applied for 30 jobs in his home city of Hangzhou and was rejected for all of them.
One of them was with the local police force. “They said, ‘you’re no good’,” he revealed in a 2015 interview.
He also applied to work at KFC.
“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 (that wasn’t),” he said.
MA WAS KUNGFU-FIGHTING
In 2017, Ma starred in Gong Shou Dao, a short kungfu flick that pitted him against top cinematic stars.
He saw off challenges from Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa and professional boxer Zou Shiming in a 20-minute celebration of the martial arts produced by Jet Li and featuring slick choreography by Sammo Hung.
A life-long fan of martial arts, Ma has also practised tai chi for decades.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
Jack Ma puts out highly entertaining shows so often that people around the world have come to expect them at every big Alibaba event.
He lived out his rock star fantasies on Tuesday with a blistering guitar solo and a performance of the pop classic You Raise Me Up with his successor Daniel Zhang.
But it was probably his performance in 2017 that took the cake.
He celebrated Alibaba’s 18th year by performing a medley of Michael Jackson songs – complete with glittering glove.
DEATH IS “GREAT”
At a recent tech conference in Shanghai, Ma shared the stage with industrialist Elon Musk, where they found themselves on different sides of a debate on futurism.
“Computers may be clever, but human beings are much smarter,” Ma said. “We invented the computer – I’ve never seen a computer invent a human being.”
While insisting that he was “not a tech guy”, the e-commerce mogul added: “I think AI can help us understand humans better. I don’t think it’s a threat”, to which Tesla CEO Musk said: “I don’t know, man, that’s like, famous last words.”
They both agreed, however, on the merits of human mortality as each generation brings new ideas to global challenges.
“It’s great to die,” Ma said, with Musk adding: “That’s probably true.”
AT 55, MA IS “RETIRING EARLY”
Ma once promised he would retire younger than Bill Gates, who stepped down from Microsoft in 2014 at the age of 58.
“After tonight I will start a new life,” Ma told guests and employees at the celebration marking his fulfillment of the promise.
“I do believe the world is good, there are so many opportunities, and I love excitement so much, which is why I will retire early,” he said.
He retains a stake in the company and is a lifetime member of the Alibaba Partnership, a group of a few dozen employees with tremendous power over the company’s board and leadership, as well as its bonus pool.
Ma also still owns the parent company of Alipay, an online payment platform that he founded.
Ma has said that his focus now is on philanthropic projects in fields such as education.
“His background as an English teacher, allied to his raw charisma including a keen sense of humour have cemented his place … as the face of Chinese entrepreneurs overseas,” said Duncan Clark, author of Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built.