HONG KONG — Li Ka-shing, a high school dropout who got his start selling plastic flowers, will retire from the empire that made him Hong Kong’s richest man, he said on Friday, bringing a symbolic end to an era when the road to China’s riches went through the onetime British colony.
Mr. Li, 89, who some called Superman for his business acumen, grew his plastic manufacturing business into a sprawling conglomerate. He did so just as Hong Kong was undergoing a transformation from a British trading post into a beating heart of capitalism and the entry point into China, which was then closed off from the world.
But as China grew, Hong Kong tycoons like Mr. Li faded in importance and a new generation of mainland Chinese businesses sprang up. Today, the region’s richest people are Chinese internet titans and property moguls, while Hong Kong over the years has felt the growing influence of mainland money.
“It has now been nearly 78 years since, as a 12-year-old, I escaped from a war to try to find work in Hong Kong so that I could provide for my family,” Mr. Li said in a filing Friday that announced his retirement, referring to his escape from war-torn China in 1940. He said that he planned to focus on his charity, the Li Ka Shing Foundation.
Mr. Li will hand over his conglomerate, which includes CK Hutchison and CK Asset Holdings, to his son Victor Li, but will remain a senior adviser. Mr. Li’s retirement will take effect after CK Hutchison’s annual meeting in May, the filing said.
Mr. Li started his plastics company at the age of 22, quickly turning it into a conglomerate that today cuts across the media, hotels, shipping, grocery stores and oil and reaches 50 countries.
He once said that each time he entered a new industry, he would buy books about it to educate himself. When he started his plastics company, he bought a copy of an American trade magazine, Modern Plastics, each month. “There was so much information in it,” he said in a recent Bloomberg Television interview.
He went into real estate in the 1960s and ’70s, eventually owning more Hong Kong property than any other entity but the British government. Mr. Li owns some of the most iconic — and expensive — buildings in the city, which together are worth billions of dollars.
But it was his acquisition in 1979 of an old British trading house, Hutchison, that really put Mr. Li on the map. He bought a controlling stake in the business from HSBC, which had bailed out the company as it struggled under large debt. It was the first time a Chinese person had taken over a British company, and it marked an important moment in Hong Kong’s changing power dynamics.
It is nearly impossible to live in Hong Kong today without buying something from one of Mr. Li’s grocery stores or pharmacies, renting one of his apartments, or using electricity from his conglomerate’s utility company.
Most of Mr. Li’s assets are tied up in CK Hutchison and Cheung Kong Properties. The name Cheung Kong is Cantonese for the Yangtze River.
Over the years, Mr. Li has made money navigating both China and the outside world. He was one of the first Hong Kong tycoons to plow money into China. But even as he profited from Hong Kong’s proximity to the mainland, he at times managed to anger both the Chinese government and Hong Kong residents, for different reasons.
When Mr. Li sold some of his assets in China in 2015, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, People’s Daily, accused him of “immoral misconduct” and called the move “particularly brazen.”
With a net worth estimated at about $36 billion, built in part off rapidly rising property prices, Mr. Li has also become a symbol of Hong Kong’s wealth disparity. At times he has been a lightning rod for criticism about rising property prices.
He also caused a local controversy during the student-led protests against Chinese-imposed restrictions on voting rights in 2014, in which young demonstrators occupied major streets for months, the biggest challenge to China’s authority in Hong Kong since Britain handed back the colony in 1997.
Breaking the silence on the issue among Hong Kong’s tycoons, Mr. Li angered supporters of the protesters by saying that while he understood their “passionate pursuits,” he believed they should go home, warning them not to “let today’s passion become tomorrow’s regret.”
Mr. Li’s announcement Friday was timed to an annual news conference providing updates on his conglomerate’s financial status. Over the years, the event has become an open session for gauging the tycoon’s views on everything from rising real estate prices to the business landscape.
The news conference suggested that Mr. Li is unlikely to remain too far removed from his empire. When one reporter directed a question to Victor Li about the company’s future investments, Mr. Li interrupted as his son was reaching for the microphone. “I’ll answer for him,” he said.