• Alibaba chairman Jack Ma is a known advocate of women's rights and entrepreneurship.

Alibaba chairman Jack Ma is a known advocate of women's rights and entrepreneurship. (Photo : Xinhua)

Alibaba co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma is a lover of magic and philosophy who owns an extensive salt collection, according to his personal assistant Chen Wei.

In Ma's sole authorized biography, Chen unveiled the unknown side of his boss, the 50-year-old former English teacher and second richest man in China with a net worth estimated by Forbes to be at $24.5 billion.

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Ma, who has described himself an "alien" in the past, is a big fan of Taiwanese magician Lu "Louis" Chen, said his assistant, noting that when people try to explain how Lu perform his tricks, Ma always stops them, saying that he prefers to believe the magic as real.

Unlike other billionaires, Ma does not collect luxury cars, pens or watches. Instead, the e-commerce tycoon likes to collect salt from across the world. And it's not just for show either; Chen noted Ma sometimes breaks out an exotic salt to add to his meals at home.

Ma is also said to be an avid storyteller and whenever he comes up with a new idea, he'd call up his friend Shi Kang, a writer best known for penning the popular novel "Loafing Around," which critics described as China's equivalent to the J.D. Salinger's famous novel "The Catcher in the Rye." Chen recalls that Ma once even asked bestselling novelist Mai Jia to ask what happens in the next installment of his book series because he couldn't wait for it to be released.

Ma, who grew up poor and survived on a meager teacher's salary before starting Alibaba, is still careful with his money despite his staggering wealth. Chen says Ma still remembers that Terry Gou, the Taiwanese founder of electronics giant Foxconn, owes Alibaba 10 yuan ($1.60) after an Alibaba staff member paid a street vendor for flowers Gou wanted for his wife.

Chen also revealed that Ma always keeps several books in his briefcase, including the Tao Te Ching, the classic text of Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu.

Ma not only loves philosophy but also practices it, Chen said, adding that an important aspect of Alibaba's culture is to "embrace change."

One thing that Ma values a lot is his employees and always asks for input from seasoned employees when hiring new staff to see if they share the same values, he said.

The long-time personal assistant also claims Ma has a special "sixth sense" that enables him to detect problems and issues that may not be noticeable to others. As an example, Chen recalls one incident where Ma visited Alibaba's Shanghai office and warmly welcomed by staff, but as soon as he walked into a private room he asked if there was a problem. It was later revealed that there had been an issue earlier in the day that made the staff feel uneasy.