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New World Man

A mass of contradictions wrapped in an enigma, businessman/impresario/bon vivante David Tang seems singularly poised to deal with whatever Hong Kong's future brings.
Orville Schell
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

Each day as lunchtime approaches, the faithful begin to hive toward the old Bank of China building overlooking Statue Square in Central Hong Kong. Files of young men carrying smart leather briefcases and sporting double-breasted Italian suits converge with clutches of svelte young women with flawless makeup and the latest European businesswear fashions at a side door. Here, a single elevator takes members up to the China Club, the beating heart of Hong Kong for this new up-and-coming generation of entrepreneurs. Here in the club's private dining rooms and banquet hall, nouveaux Chinese taipans and ex-pat moguls-in-the-making dine, see and be seen, and clinch the kinds of deals that have made Asia the world's boomtown.

However, among this Armani-ed elite, there is often one lone figure who is as visually out of place as the handful of rickshaw pullers across the square who wait for gullible tourists at the Star Ferry. Clad in a high-collared Chinese scholar's gown or a traditional silk jacket with pajama-like trousers and cloth slippers, clutching an enormous Cuban Cohiba like a scepter, he appears like someone out of a time warp. Actually, he is David Wing-cheung Tang (known to his foreign friends as Tango), 42-year-old businessman, culture vulture, social moth and the China Club's grand progenitor.

As one of Hong Kong's best known public figures, Tang is playing an unusual role in defining a new identity for young Chinese who are emerging as leaders of this Crown colony as it heads towards its hour of reckoning on July 1, the date on which Hong Kong, after 155 years of British imperial rule, will become a sovereign part of the People's Republic of China. But tonight, as liveried Jaguars and Mercedes drop their charges off outside the China Club for one of the many salon-style events at which Tang holds court as he tirelessly schmoozes with the colony's haute monde and globe-trotting celebrities, the approaching hour of Hong Kong's convergence with the "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat" to the north still seems remote.

Indeed, as soon as one steps out of the elevator into the China Club's 13th-floor lobby, the moment of reversion is all the more unthinkable. Instead of being catapulted into the future, one is plunged into the past--into a meticulously replicated, splendid, 1920s Art Deco environment that hearkens back to the glory days of Shanghai before the Second World War. Here, surrounded by dark wood paneling, a curved staircase sweeping upwards, acres of Tiffany glasswork, marble-topped tables and ceiling fans, David Tang's retrograde sartorial look seems suddenly completely in style.

Tonight, Tang is holding court upstairs in the banquet room. Clad in one of his traditional hand-tailored mandarin silk suits, he might almost be mistaken for some parody of an over-aged Chinese houseboy--except that he is waving his ever-present cigar and introducing guests to each other with manic enthusiasm (never mind if he doesn't get all the names quite right)--in short, presiding over the party with Proustian aplomb. Has writer Jan Morris (who has just updated her classic book on Hong Kong) met Jung Chang (author of Wild Swans)? Has international celebrity and fashion maven Diane Von Furstenberg (who has just arrived on a tour) met tonight's pianist, Brenda Lucas Ogdon? Tang is a gale force of networking energy--a veritable Chinese Pearl Mesta.

At first glance it is tempting to view the China Club as just another celebrity watering hole and Tang as an almost comical throwback to a bygone era. In actuality, the China Club is a much more interesting place and David Tang a far more complex and fascinating figure than such a superficial view might suggest. The club has become a roundhouse for all the forces that are shaping Hong Kong and Asia, while Tang himself has become both a symbol of and a catalyst for a newly evolving Chinese identity. As Andrew Higgins, Hong Kong correspondent for the British paper, The Guardian, only half jokingly put it, "Tang is much more interesting than he pretends to be."

"He's one of those rare people who cheers the world up," says Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten. "Life and Hong Kong would be much poorer without him."

Indeed, watching the bonhomie with which Tang mixes among the evening's guests from within his own little atmospheric haze of cigar smoke that invariably surrounds him, there is no doubt that he and his club are at the center of a social hot spot. But what makes Tang so interesting is not just that he is socially ambitious or successful in business--which is nothing special in Hong Kong--but that he is also a polymath who dabbles in culture and politics as well. As such, he is playing a fascinating role in helping to fashion a new syncretic identity for both Hong Kong and China's up-and-coming generation. It is an identity that borrows randomly--and sometimes flamboyantly--from both East and West, as well as the past and present, and that does not shrink back from pop culture and commercialization.

One of his signature emblems is an omnipresent Cohiba, an interesting story in itself. Tang is the chairman of the Pacific Cigar Co. Ltd. (which controls the Cuban cigar franchise for Canada and the whole Asia/Pacific region) and the owner of the Cigar Divan, a shop dedicated entirely to Cuban cigars, located in the lobby of the classically elegant Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Tang tells me that he became acquainted with cigars after he got into university in England. "My father gave me a Romeo y Julieta in a tin tube and told me, 'Now you're a man,' " he recalls fondly. "So, naturally I smoked it, and because it was so mild, I thought I could take on any large cigar." He laughs. "Anyway, I became hooked and became a passionate cigar smoker."

And how did he come to be the purveyor of cigars to Asia?


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