One of the ads used to introduce the newspaper to the world pointed out to Lai in the most blunt manner: She showed Lai in a dark warehouse with a red apple on her scalp, which was thrown with arrows that were of a shadowy shape were fired.
Since then, Lai's role as one of Hong Kong's best-known hustlers has threatened his fortunes, exposing him to death threats and making him a symbol of the city's tensions with mainland China.
When Great Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, the city was guaranteed its own legal system and certain democratic freedoms, and by 2047 it is likely to return to Beijing overall. In the past three months, millions have flooded the highways of Hong Kong in the run-up to Beijing's supposed intervention in these esteemed freedoms.
Apple Daily has become the largest official advocate of this movement in the city. The newspaper of the protesters. On its fierce front pages, the citizens gather to go out and march, it has given away posters to be hung up in demonstrations, and it regularly mocks the government for its failings.
In a tycoon city, Lai seems to be the only multimillionaire willing to risk his fortunes for Hong Kong's freedom. The 70-year-old is often seen on the marches, in pouring rain or blazing summer heat.
It is undeniable that Lai maintains relations with the United States. Last month, he flew to Washington to discuss with US Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, how fundamental Hong Kong's freedom is for the US conflict with China.
"The (new) Cold War is actually a rivalry of competing values," says Lai, framing the current US-China trade war as a gap between democracy and authoritarianism. "We in Hong Kong are fighting for the common values of the US against China, we are conducting their war in the enemy camp."
It is a battle for which Lai is ready to die.
Lai had already lived an extraordinary life when he founded the Next Digital group in the 1980s, which owns the Apple Daily.
When China's famine struck mainland China in 1960, Lai smuggled out of the southern mainland province of Guangdong into Hong Kong at the bottom of a fishing boat. He came to the city at the age of 12 and was very dirty.
Lai says he has become a casual worker in a textile factory, earns 60 Hong Kong dollars ($ 7) a month and lives with 10 others in an apartment in the slum district of Sham Shui Po – still one of the most visited in Hong Kong impoverished districts.
On his first day, he remembers employees taking him away for breakfast. The liberation from "the fear of hunger" is overwhelming, says Lai. "This freedom was the first feeling I had in relation to Hong Kong and has never disappointed me," says Lai. "Never, until now."
After the Communists seized power in China in 1949, the population of Hong Kong grew by 1,000 people every day in the 1950s as Chinese migrants poured across the border. Most were "brave and entrepreneurial" survivors willing to take risks, Lai recalls. His twin sister was one of the so-called liberty swimmers who literally swam from China to the city. She became an important developer in Canada.
"Hong Kong was a land of opportunity," says Lai from that time.
Within two decades, Lai had learned English, worked his way up to the salesman in the factory, and decided to start his own retail line. On a trip to New York during the fabric season, he bought a pizza. On the napkin was the name Giordano.
It became the name of his hugely successful, casual men's clothing chain that made Lai his first luck.
"He is a kind of legend in terms of business success," says Clement So, Associate Dean at the Journalism School in Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Not just for what he did in the news media, but for other industries as well."
Business was booming, but in the late 1980s, two things happened that affected the course of Lai's life.
Lai said he was not political at the time, "but I always had a strong yearning for freedom because of my experience in China."
Hong Kong was still under British rule, but plunged in 1997 to reunification with China. As the city watched the brutal repression of the Tiananmen, Giordano began to make T-shirts with student slogans.
About the same time, says Lai, he was divorced from his first wife. "I thought I was a very suitable guy," he says. "That was a shock to me."
Shortly thereafter, Lai was interviewed by local journalist Theresa Lai. The couple fell in love and married. Next he became media baron.
One apple a day
Today Lai lives in a white, closed house in a posh corner of Kowloon. Security staff is stationed outside the property. Paparazzi rivaling newspapers photograph all who go and enter, putting pressure on Lai's private life and looking for signs that he is meeting with US personalities.
Inside, melodious Chinese hwamei birds chirp in tall white cages. Dramatic artwork adorns the walls, while giant bromeliads and orchids brighten every corner. "I love flowers," says Lai with occasional clips of British upper-class accents, while enjoying breakfast with strawberries and egg sandwiches on porcelain plates.
The figure he makes at home, where he regularly hosts politicians, journalists, and influential figures discussing Hong Kong's democratic future – or not – contrasts sharply with his reputation as a cheeky, instinct-driven, ex-factory manager whose formal education ended in elementary school.
Beijing reacted then as it does today. It punished his clothing store.
"It's my nature to be a rebel – to be a revolutionary," says Lai. "I express it in the economy, every time I'm in business, I do something different than the norm, so I was more successful than other people, I do not believe in gradual improvement."
He applied the mass market ethos of Giordano to his newspaper: it was cheap, populist and sensational. Visually modeled on USA Today, "it shook the media landscape in Hong Kong in a revolutionary way," says Clement So, deputy dean of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The newspaper did not care about balanced reporting: this was advocacy journalism with a heavy dose of cheeky celebrity gossip.
At kiosks, Lai unleashed a city-wide price war, virtually giving away the sensational title for two Hong Kong dollars (25 cents) the retailers charged for selling. "Other papers imitated quickly and without much success," says So. "The writing style, the use of large photos, the pagination, everything. There was a term called 'Apple-ization.'"
The newspaper became the city's most talked-about outlet – a reputation it has maintained for pioneering the Apple Extra platform, which animates the latest news events from murders to protests. The publication also met with great success in Taiwan, a self-governing Chinese democracy claiming Beijing as its own territory. "Apple Daily was very lucrative in the beginning," says Willy Lam, professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
But the business world was more alarmed. "Everyone had to pay to protect the people they control in mainland China," says Lai. In addition, they realized that the law could be used by Chinese contacts as a blackmail tool. If a Chinese partner wanted to control his counterpart in Hong Kong, he might be able to report it to the authorities across the border, where there is a 99% conviction rate.
Lam steamed ahead.
The marches continued: 160,000 people, then 1 million. Nevertheless, the bill remained in force at the beginning of June in the city's supreme legislative branch, Legco. Finally, on June 16, an estimated 2 million people took to the streets. The bill was suspended, but it was too late to quell the anger it had roused.
Tien admits that Washington is unlikely to conduct a 2 – million-man march, but while protesters are increasingly waving American flags at the protests, something is what Lai says just an ad game to attract international interest Television cameras – the pro-Beijing politician wants an independent investigation into whether the CIA is funding a color revolution in the city.
A high-ranking US government official denied that Washington was promoting or calling for the demonstrations, and President Donald Trump also seemed to reject the proposal last week when he tweeted, "Many blame me and the United States." I can not imagine why?
Freedom over Luck
The founding of Apple Daily and the takeover of Hong Kong's fight for democracy gave Lai "a meaning in a life I never had as a textile magnate. "The mission," he says, "has a wonderful meaning."
The city's other tycoons avoided wading into crisis. "If you're a businessman in Hong Kong, it's difficult to bypass the Chinese market," says history professor Lam. "And once you get to the Chinese market, your investment becomes a hostage that the Chinese government never shies away from in order to exert influence."
Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing, worth it According to Forbes, more than $ 31 billion need to comment on the political crisis. Two cryptic news items were published in many city papers this month (Apple Daily was none of them). The cryptic nature of his cautionary advice was unmistakable-readers throughout the city speculated on whether he was addressing the demonstrators or Beijing or both.
"No other tycoon is willing to speak out against China as openly as Lai," says Clement So, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "That's what made Lai so unique."
This openness is not without danger.
In 2015, Molotov cocktails were thrown into the Next Media headquarters and Lai's home early in the morning. "We're not shocked, but violence is now an integral part of Hong Kong's political discourse, which is just a simple fact," said Mark Simon's assistant, Lai's assistant to CNN.
Today, Lai has a personal security detail in his home, but the self-confessed troublemaker says he never forgot what it was like to be poor, and he does not intend to overthrow the masses in the crusade they share with him to give up for democracy.
"The adolescents do not see a future for themselves – everything is expensive," says Lai. "Living in a small room is too expensive for them." The land of opportunity, where entrepreneurs such as Lai and Li Ka-shing thrived when they arrived in Hong Kong, has long since disappeared.
"With this extradition law, people thought, Okay, that's the last straw we have to fight, we have to fight this last frontier," he says.
This fight could not be good for the finances of the Apple Daily.
Earlier this year, the newspaper introduced a pay fence of three Hong Kong dollars for access by September. Next month, the release hopes subscribers will pay $ 50 per month.
"The timing is good for Apple Daily because people want news," says Clement So, the media expert. "Lai would like to receive financial support from online readers, if he could, this would be a lifeline, but if he does not succeed, it's a real worry if he can not sustain his business in the long term."
2047 on the horizon
For many, the year 2047, when Hong Kong is likely to regain full Chinese rule, was once a futuristic date. But now, since it is only 28 years away Hong Kongers can imagine this in their life. The fight for democracy has become more urgent, more controversial – but perhaps less achievable, as China's economic rise gives Beijing more political power to oppose democracy.
"I do not know where (the protests) will end," says Lai, "but one thing I know when the world watches over us … I think Trump, the US, can not pull you They can only go on, not financially, but politically and morally. "
If increasing international pressure is accompanied by economic slowdown and job losses, China may change, Lai speculates. "That does not mean that the Communist Party will collapse," he adds. "But it could mean that Xi has to step down and take on a more liberal government and we're slowly on the right track." However, there is no indication that this will happen in the near future.
For Lai, if the economy of the financial center must suffer for freedom, let it be this way: The prospect of a fight does not give people an "excuse not to fight".
"If we fight, a miracle could happen," he says. "If we do not fight, we have to submit to tyranny, and I just think we can eliminate tyranny if we manage to eliminate slavery, which is hopeful."