A new book is set to reveal the surprising link between Jack Ma, founder of an online shopping giant, and a family from Down Under.
In the book, Ma revealed a little-known story of how an Australian family helped him find his path to becoming one of the world’s richest people.
In the book called Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built author Duncan Clark tells the story of how electrical engineer and Communist sympathizer Ken Morely took his family on a holiday to China, back when it was only recently open to foreign tourists.
It was while in Hangzhou, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, that Ken Morely’s son met Jack Ma as a child, and a friendship began – all over the idea of ‘flicking matches’.
The son, David, had taken a walk to a picturesque local lake to ‘flick matches’ and a young boy came walking up to him, speaking English.
“I remember the day we met him very well,” said Mr Morley. “I had gone down to the lake to flick matches when this boy came up to me who could speak English.”
Ma had decided at an early age that he wanted to learn English, so he would take his bicycle to nearby hotels to offer free tours to foreigners, learning the underlying basics of the English language.
But Jack Ma did more than that, he kept in touch with the foreigners he met, including an American tourist, whose husband and father shared the name “Jack”, which impressed the young Ma to take his western name from that.
After Jack Ma and David Morley met that day on the lake, they became pen pals. David’s father helped teach Ma English by returning his letters with corrections, as well as writing a letter of his own in exchange.
Today, some three decades later, Ma and the Morley family remain close – with Ken visiting most years to assist in the university where Ma taught English. Ken even helped Ma buy his first home.
Later, in 1985, the Morley family invited Ma to Australia for his first overseas trip. Ken recalled: “We did all the usual things, like go to Taronga Park Zoo.
In late 2004, Ma made a special trip to Australia, this time to visit Morley senior just before his death. Ma wrote a heartfelt letter that was read aloud at the funeral, one that David recalled by saying: “I think dad saw something in him.”
But truth be known, Ma, who was rejected for every job he ever applied for, would go on to become China’s richest man and among the top 20 richest people in the world today.
In 2014, Alibaba’s $25 billion (USD) IPO was the largest globally public listing in history.
The author of the book, Duncan Clark, met Ma in 1999 in the small apartment where he founded his online business, rising from bicycle rider, to English teacher, to billionaire.
“Jack has this ability to make you feel that he’s speaking to you, even in a room with a few thousand people. You feel yourself swept along,” Clark said.
“I often find it interesting when Jack is speaking to turn and see the people he’s speaking to. I’ve seen grown investors cry. He does it in English as well as Chinese.”
When ask how he tracked down the younger Morley for his book, Clark said he “started calling these random David Morleys in Australia”.
“In one part of New South Wales, there was this yoga studio,” he said. “I emailed the website, and he’s like, ‘Yep, that’s me. How can I help?’”
Clark managed to highlight the irony of the story, saying: “Ken Morley was a Communist.”
“He was a union organiser who had taken his family to China in 1980 to visit the socialist paradise. The irony of this — Ken himself had said he may have created this capitalist icon, but it wasn’t his intention. But he has a lot of affection for Jack.”
The book Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built is now available from bookshops – and, of course, via Alibaba.