The amazing rags-to-riches story of Li Ka-Shing, Asia's richest man

Li Ka ShingREUTERS/Oli ScarffLi Ka-Shing is worth an estimated $US31.7 billion.

Asia’s richest man just made yet another massive splash after the company he chairs, Hutchison Whampoa, bought the UK’s second largest mobile operator, O2. It already owns Three, and the merger of the two will forge the sector’s largest UK mobile firm.

Li Ka-Shing’s life story is an amazing rags-to-riches tale. He’s gone from poverty in southern China to become one of the world’s top plutocrats, with an estimated net worth of $US31.7 billion, according to Bloomberg.

He vies with Alibaba’s Jack Ma for the title of Asia’s richest man, but he also says his wealth is underestimated by as much as half.

In 1940, when the country was at war with Japan, Li Ka-Shing's family fled from southern China to Hong Kong, where he's lived ever since.

Li's early life was tumultuous. Japan occupied Hong Kong in 1941 (pictured). Li's father died of tuberculosis before age 16 and young Li was forced to leave school to work in a factory.

The factory was located in northern Hong Kong, which is now barely recognisable compared to how it looked in the mid-20th century -- though Li's wealth has surged even faster than the city.

Li moved into property development and away from plastic manufacturing ahead of Hong Kong's global boom. He bought up Hutchison Whampoa in 1979.

Was that luck/good sense? What happened to the plastic company?

Hutchison Whampoa now operates globally and has 250,000 staff, after turning to telecommunications in the 1980s. Below, Hutchinson House in central Hong Kong.

Li has been seen with some of the world's most powerful people. Here he is with UK Prime Minister David Cameron at Oxford University, launching a research centre.

In his home of Hong Kong, the polytechnic university named a tower after Li Ka-Shing, after a generous donation.

But he's got bigger towers too. Cheung Kong Centre (right) is the third-tallest building in Hong Kong and owned by Hutchison Whampoa. Li's office is at the top.

Li makes a point of illustrating that he's not flashy, despite his colossal wealth. For instance, for many years he wore a £30 watch -- which he made sure everyone knew.

He's an academic philanthropist, too. The University of California, Berkeley, named the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences after him.

But his palatial residence in Hong Kong's Deep Water Bay -- where even a four-bedroom family house can set you back £13 million -- tells another story.

Li Ka-Shing's holdings are mostly owned through Hutchison Whampoa and Cheung Kong. But he also owns a majority stake in Canada's Husky Energy.

Li Ka-Shing's son Victor Li Tzar-kuoi is vice chairman of Cheung Kong. He was kidnapped for ransom by infamous Hong Kong gangster Cheung Tze-keung in 1996.

It hasn't all been smooth sailing for Hutchison Whampoa. It was embroiled in a dock strike in 2013 and has been vilified by unions. In this picture, the characters on this protester's mask mean 'monster' or 'evil.'

What was the dock strike over -- pay?

It's not Hutchison Whampoa's first big European venture. It already owns mobile operator Three, as well as Superdrug.

Li currently ranks behind Jack Ma on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, which puts him in 20th place worldwide, but he says his wealth is underestimated by 40%.

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