Leon

August 1, 2022

Today, a friend of mine passed away. I think people use the term “mentor” too loosely, but Leon did indeed play this role in my life. I think it’s because his remarkable character was impossible to ignore.

He was a childhood friend of my father’s and I met him as a Parisian kid visiting Vancouver every summer. This is now 20+ years ago…

I would always look forward to visiting him in his beautiful apartment overlooking Coal Harbor to learn about investing… and life from him. Leon believed in first of all understanding the fundamentals of the market (was it bear or bull mainly, aka were you swimming with or against the tide), and then using technical analysis to choose which stocks to invest in. He developed his own system that brought him great success, but I won’t bore you with the details right now.

Though I did use whatever I understood of Leon’s system to invest back as a teenager and start an investing club at my high school, this is all really unimportant compared to what Leon actually taught me.

He was a man who endured a tremendous amount of hardship early on (which I will go into later), and who emerged from all of it as one of the most accomplished graphic artists and investors in Canada, most importantly sharing and embodying his personal philosophy to those who were lucky to be around him.

Back when I first got to know him, Leon was already an aging man and had always been short. But I still acutely remember how strong he was. I have the clip reeling in my mind of me hanging like a monkey from his half-stretched out arm outside an overly air-conditioned but delicious dim sum place he’d taken me and my parents to and where he of course got owner’s treatment, and then later punching his abs when invited to, giggling incredulously when my fists bounced right off his stomach. I must have been 8 or 9. Even back then I wondered in astonishment at how strong he must have been in his younger years.

One of the other more recent images I have of Leon is of him driving us in his collectible, convertible Mercedes across the Burrard Street Bridge to another Chinese restaurant he was inviting me to for a 1–1 lunch. I had been looking forward to it as one of the highlights of my trip to Vancouver. He was already walking with great difficulty and laughingly commented that a cripple like him looked ridiculous in this car, but once we got driving he opened the roof and started blasting Italian opera. As he was laughing, he turned to me and said: “Isn’t life wonderful, Edward?”

One more… One New Year’s Day at the beginning of 2020, I remember waking up in Shanghai feeling a little lost, and remembered that I had been meaning to catch up with Leon for weeks. I gave him a call and our conversation as usual got me back on a hopeful and inspired track. I usually clear the voicemails on my cell phone but have two saved from Leon, one from a week earlier. He was already not in great shape and I knew I wanted to have a trace of his voice and advice saved just in case.

Back in August 2018 right after I’d seen Leon for lunch, I was inspired to write something which I will now pull off the shelf. I never sent it to him, because I thought he would have been upset. He’d mentioned several times that he wasn’t looking for publicity or acclaim. I do wish I had though. It’s always a good idea to let the people who matter to you in on the secrets of how you perceive them, and just how much you love and admire them.

As tempting as it is for me to edit what I wrote 4 years ago, I will resist and just paste it below because I still think it says what I have on my mind.

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Leon’s 5 Credos
August 19, 2018

The 82-year old Chinese-Canadian man whom I call a mentor is sitting across from me in his usual short-sleeved flowery shirt, cheerfully explaining:

“Your most powerful tool is not your brain. It’s your mind. Your mind can make you sick, sad, happy, well. Nobody else can do that for you except your own mind. I have serious medical problems. I don’t know if your parents told you about my heart condition. I could die any day. But I control how I feel. Most people are prisoners of their own mind. Once you open your mind the world is for your taking.”

He pauses to joke with the restaurant manager who has stopped by to pay respects to his regular patron.

We are sitting at the terrace of a French restaurant on Melville st, right in Coal Harbor, which is probably my favorite part of Vancouver. Vancouver really is beautiful, like that very word was created to describe this particular city. No other place melds mountains, ocean water, forests, fresh air and elegantly shaped glass towers like it does. It’s the type of place the hero visits at the end of the movie when all is finally well.

This man’s name is Leon. I’ve known him since I was a kid and almost immediately he started teaching me how to invest by making up my own mind instead of listening to the crowds. He went to school with my father a long time ago. Not too long ago. He’s always the happiest person in the room and has made me feel bad for feeling bad about the mostly small things that have bothered me.

When he was 12, Leon came here from China accompanying his father.

Japan had invaded China 3 years after he was born. They suffered through the famine. They’d go collect grass in the mountains, bundle it up and sell it to the Japanese to dry their boats. That would buy him a few sweet potatoes. That was their dinner every night.

“Recently my wife bought some sweet potatoes at the farmer’s market. I had to toss them in the garbage can.”

Leon witnessed people getting decapitated and shot since since he could barely walk.

“Once,” he tells me, “they made a man get on his knees and pointed a gun to his head. They blew his brains out but the guy didn’t die. That’s real horror. Not what people around here complain about.”

“When my father came to Canada he took up a job as a lowly cook and we lived in the family’s house. Three years later he died, leaving me alone here and with 350 bucks. I was in grade ten.”

The family he worked for agreed to pay for the funeral but Leon ended up having to work for them for another year to pay them back, after school and on weekends. “If I had a weekend,” Leon tells me, “it started at 4pm on Sundays.”

“How do you like your food?” Leon is always a very thoughtful host. We got the same salad and I tell him I love it, the lobster is so fresh.

“Here, take some of my lobster.” I politely refuse but he insists so I have some more lobster.

Leon couldn’t speak English. He was good at math though. They didn’t know what to do with him.

“They gave me an IQ test. But I couldn’t read the test. Which is why I tell people to this day I still don’t have an IQ!”

They moved him back a few grades and he met my dad. All through school he was incessantly mocked by the other kids who called him “chinky chinky Chinaman.”

A year later, Leon was done paying off his debt.

“She gave me shit for quitting. She said one day you’re going to come back to me and ask me for my help. I was 15 years old, nobody here with me. She did me a big favor by saying this to me. From that day onward I decided I’ll make bloody sure I will never ask you or anybody for help for the rest of my life.”

Leon studied and started off as a graphic artist (he’s very good at it) but was quickly introduced to the stock market and his first reaction was, “I can do this. These people don’t seem to know what they’re doing.”

He’s since become one of the most successful investors in Canada and made a fortune, assembling a beautiful art and small car collection as well. I still remember the thrill I felt when, a few years back, he allowed me to drive his Audi R8 back into town. “I don’t really care for material things but this car gives me great pleasure. It’s just so beautifully designed. A work of art.”

Throughout his life, Leon has developed what he calls his 5 credos “to be happy and successful in your career and life,” meant to allow you to explore your full potential and avoid being on your death bed saying I wish I could have.

1. Always have a positive mental attitude. Whether it’s in life or in the stock market, whether you are bullish or bearish, do it positively in both cases. If you are negative, you send negative energy to people and they give you negative energy as a feedback.

2. You want to be you. Don’t strive for perfection. Always strive for excellence in everything you do. It’s the only quality in anything that gives you lasting satisfaction. Perfection is not realistic and will paralyze you. If you have the perfect bottle of wine, you will never drink wine again. If you have the perfect orgasm, you will never make love again. Excelling in an endeavor has nothing to do with money or status. If you do it for that you have no self-worth. You must be focused, have discipline and passion for everything you do. Did I ever tell you the story of Isaac Stern, the great violinist, who was visiting a school in China and saw this young prodigy play. Everything was technically perfect but 10 minutes in he yelled “Play with passion damnit!” If you have no passion, what’s the point?

3. Life is very short. Even if you live to 100. Now I’m 82. I know I can die any day. So what! To optimize your existence you should do everything with passion and enthusiasm. Working. Drinking wine. Making love, Playing games. When the doctor told me I have a very serious heart problem and advised me to have open heart surgery, I told him ‘Ok, cut the bullshit. What does it entail?’ The doctor told me the risks are 8% mortality, 15% infection which would also likely lead to death. 6–10 days in the hospital, 6–8 months recovery. So I decided, I’m not gonna do it. I will have a massive stroke one day but I’ve had a very good life. Why would I want to put myself through this ordeal and have it affect my quality of life? I’m 82 years old, have so little time left already. So I’ve made my decision. Why waste time worrying about it? What good does it do?

4. Never allow bad experiences to embitter you. Life is not always roses. Learn from experiences and move on. The moment you let them embitter you you are dead. Finished. Someone screwed you a while back and made your life miserable. Why bother with them now?

5. Exit laughing. When you’re lying on your death bed and the doctor says you will die in 5 minutes, don’t cry and bitch and complain. Think of the funniest thing you ever heard in your life and exit laughing.

He continued.

“I’ve been through famine and war in China, been through things most people haven’t seen here in this country. All the people who complain so much today, who are so idealistic, send them one year in active duty and see how idealistic they come back. Who gives a shit about most of the problems people talk about? Their range of experience has been artificially censored but character is developed as a reaction to external experiences. The more you have, the more your yardstick widens.”

“I was a house boy, lived all sorts of atrocity and brutally. I’ve met the richest people in Asia. I’ve seen all of that. What is it? Is it money, is it title, no? That’s only keeping score. At the end of the day, what is really important is your family and friends, and the memorable experiences you’ve had with them. I gave money to UBC and they wanted to name a fellowship after me. I told them I don’t give a damn about legacy. The reason I’m here is I created something no one has ever done in business and want to share it with them so they can benefit from it. Pursue the things you want to do. I don’t live my life for someone else. Neither should you.”

We finish up lunch and he asks me if I have to go and I tell him I have time. He tells me he is going to go buy roses for his wife because it’s their anniversary tomorrow. I tell him I’ll go with him. He stands up and grabs his cane and we slowly walk the half-block to the flower shop.

On the way, he notices a beautiful young woman walking by and pretends to trip and push me into her. “Oops, sorry!” he laughs. Very classic Leon.

The flower shop has a Japanese owner that Leon has been friends with for a long time. We wait our turn behind people who take too long to make a decision and then it’s our turn.

“I’d like to have three dozen roses delivered to my wife tomorrow.”

I walk with him back to him car, he tips the man who opens the door for him. He drives me back to my hotel and I say bye to him until next time, noticing the eternal strength in his grip.

 
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