To some Beijing-based observers who have followed his legendary “rags-to-riches” story, Li Xiaohua was “Mr. Ferrari.” Li burst into the public eye in 1992 as the first mainland Chinese to own an iconic luxury sports car.
He broke old communist-era taboos by proudly showing off his wealth, shattered the stereotyped image of the impoverished Chinese, and foretold the rise of the country as a serious consumer of luxury.
Eric Baculinao/NBC News File
China's first Ferrari and Li on party screen display.
The colorful ceremony in an ancient park to turn the ignition key of a flaming red 348TS worth $138,880, was a symbolic event. It captured the spirit of a roaring new era ushered in by reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, who famously declared “to get rich is glorious.”
Four years later, Li Xiaohua aimed even higher – literally -- by donating to astronomy research. In another high-profile event, a minor planet discovered by a Chinese observatory was officially named after him.
But as he recently celebrated his 60th birthday, the man -- who has immortalized his name both on earth and in the heavens -- was exhibiting the signs and circumstances of slowing down.
To more than 400 party guests, he bowed and expressed his thanks, and introduced his 25-year-old daughter Li Xiang, who has come home after years of education in England and the United States.
“I hope she can find a good husband, who can be an ordinary man, really just a simple man,” he said to laughter and applause.
A 'profiteer' or a pioneer?
Li Xiaohua represented the rough-and-tumble days of China’s capitalist experiment. He was a foot soldier of Deng’s revolution, taking all its risks and rewards.
Born to a poor family of six that shared windowless 75-square-foot housing in old Beijing, the teenager Li -- like the millions of urban youth sent to the farms by Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution -- ventured to the wilderness of China’s northeast frontier region, where he labored as a tractor driver.
After eight years, he returned to Beijing, virtually penniless and jobless. It was 1977, the eve of Deng’s reform era.
Li later became a boiler worker. And then a cook, while also buying and selling watches on the side. For playing too early in the capitalist game, he was reportedly detained for a period of time, on charges of “profiteering.”
Li Xiaohua (centre), daughter and guest.
“I was busy cooking when they came to take me away. It was really embarrassing,” he was quoted in one interview.
American-made soda machine
Li was released from detention in the early 80s, as the winds of Deng’s capitalist-style reform began blowing in force. In southern China, he came across an American-made iced-drink dispenser that would change his life forever.
With borrowed money, he bought the drink dispenser for $800 and took it to a seaside resort in North China. The business of selling iced-drinks thrived in the hot summer and provided Li with the capital for a bigger business, a video movie parlor.
By 1985, he had made his initial fortune and went to study in Japan, where he hit another “pot of gold.” He became the exclusive distributor for a Chinese-invented hair growth lotion that proved a big hit among the Japanese.
And when Hong Kong’s real estate slumped after Britain agreed to return the capitalist colony to communist China, triggering widespread fear and initial exodus, Li poured all the millions he had amassed into distressed properties.
“I had nothing left, literally nothing, I only ate instant noodles,” he once told NBC News.
The enormous investment returns from Hong Kong’s recovery were then plowed into even bigger lucrative infrastructure plays in Southeast Asia, and the rest was history.
By 1992 when he bought his Ferrari, the riches that began with the humble drink dispenser, had transformed Li into one of the wealthiest in China.
By 1997, his estimated worth was $300 million, compared with the $20 million owned by the lowly inventor of the magic hair grower.
Li Xiaohua and his daughter at the party.
Rise and fall of tycoons
In 1999, Li was still one of the two or three richest Chinese, but his ranking would decline quite rapidly.
He was listed as #23 in 2003, but by 2006 he was listed as #281. By last year, he was totally excluded from the Rich List prepared by Hurun Report, which tracks the ranking of China’s wealthiest individuals.
“We don’t see much information in the public domain about Li Xiaohua’s assets, and as a result, it’s difficult to quantify his wealth,” Rupert Hoogewerf, publisher of Hurun Report, told NBC News. Hoogewerf, who attended Li’s birthday as a long-time friend, described a man “who is still in business and still enjoys business.”
“But I have the impression that he also wants to enjoy life more. He has all the houses and all the cars in the world that he wants, so what else would he want?” Hoogewerf said.
Ferrari to charity
At the birthday party, hundreds of guests applauded a video presentation that featured Li’s philanthropic work. He was once honorary president of China Charity Federation, and he equipped and built “Xiaohua Schools” around the country.
“People should be caring, and should know how to love others and help others,” he was quoted as saying.
No longer a novelty, his storied Ferrari has been donated to charity.
In 1997 there were 200 Ferrari owners in China. Today, they number 999. China has become the fastest growing and potentially biggest luxury car market in the world.
To many observers, the provocative image of a flamboyant Li Xiaohua with his red Ferrari will remain as one enduring symbol of China’s historic turning point.
And as he recedes from the front row of billionaires, he will always be remembered as the most visible champion of China’s first generation of risk-takers from the ranks of the rusticated youths, who had nothing to lose as they boldly seized chances and helped shake and reshape China into what it is today.
Researcher He Xin contributed to this report.