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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

(continued from page 1)

When I remind Tang that, like it or not, the electronic information age is upon us and is creating a new frontier, he says, "Well, I think it has had less influence than people think. Three hundred years ago when it took five days to deliver a letter, you had people wanting to read. Now you can instantly talk to anyone and get all kinds of information, but it has made people want to read less. Information has gotten to be like junk mail, and getting e-mail is just like tapping into an aquifer of junk mail. It's overwhelmed us, and the human brain works best when it is not overwhelmed. Only an exceptional person can really master all that information. Ordinary people just get put off and confused."

Does he ever go on-line? "I don't have the time to read the books I want to read, so where would I find time to turn on the computer?" he replies disputatiously. "I don't even read modern novels because there are so many classics I haven't gotten around to. If I had to read Jane Austen on a screen, that wouldn't be so wonderful, would it? Anyway, I prefer to collect first editions. In my mind there is no better interior decoration than shelves of books. When I enter a room without books, I feel aghast and immediately want to leave! I love to be surrounded by books! I want to be able to reach for books wherever I am, to hold them in my hands!

"You know, I got a big biography of Cecil Rhodes the other day, and when I opened it up--oh, the smell was simply marvelous!" Tang closes his eyes and inhales as if he is smelling the wrapper of one of his best Cuban cigars. "The aroma of an old book is wonderful! You can't smell a computer! I even love writers like Sax Rohmer, who created Fu Manchu, and Van Gulik, who created Judge Dee. And there's another thing. If I had more time at my disposal, the last thing I'd want to do was read more e-mail." He sighs. "So you can see that I'm obviously not one of those who believes that the world is going to come up roses just because of the information revolution. If that were true, wouldn't the world already be in full bloom?"

To honor his notion of books as sacred objects, the China Club even has its own library, which is, indeed, the antithesis of the modern computer room/media lab. With its leather couches, fireplace, chess table, spiral staircase up to a gallery and distinctive smell of old books, one feels in a world that is a contradiction of Hong Kong's glass-walled high-rises and polished granite lobbies.

Everything David Tang does is done with great attention to authentic detail, so that even when he is re-creating a feeling of the past, there is no hint of cheesiness. For authenticity sake, the library even has antique glass cases for displaying rare books. During my visit they contained such offerings as: "Reports from His Majesty's Ministers at Peking Respecting the Opium Trade" and "Papers Relating to the Murder of Six Englishmen in the Neighborhood of Hong Kong in the Month of December 1847."

Seven floors below in the old Bank of China building is one of Tang's more contemporary projects, the Hanart TZ Gallery. This morning Tang is in residence, puffing on a cigar and choosing paintings from the gallery's large collection for a show that will open the same evening.

All morning, Tang struts around the gallery looking at paintings and delivering a running discourse on whatever is going through his head. Nowhere does his sense of garrulous self-enjoyment manifest itself better than in such a situation where he can putter around contemporary art with his old friend, Johnson Chang, drink tea, snack on dim sum, puff on a cigar and hold forth. Under Tang's tutelage, Chang has also become a devotee of fine cigars and traditional Chinese gowns, so that when the two are together they look like Sinicized Marx Brothers.

"I wanted to do a whole Mao art show; after all, it's part of China's historical heritage," Tang says, looking at a huge red-and-black pastel of the chairman commissioned in the early 1970s by a Manchurian poster company. "But you have to be so careful about the party's sensibilities. Since they've squeezed literature, film and politics so, one of the few cultural places open where people can still express themselves is through art, which is why I like it so. It's one of the few places where excess and decadence can be expressed. Actually, in my view what we need is more decadence, because decadence allows for diversity."

Tang certainly does have a Falstaffian side that flirts with decadence, but it is so unabashed and unrepentant and seems to bring enjoyment to so many, that it is hard to fault it. However, just before we met at the gallery, Beijing's New China News Agency had issued a scathing dispatch that seemed to have him and his lifestyle in mind. It attacked "upstarts who try to recreate old lifestyles from before the Communist takeover in l949" and "wallow in depravity." It called such people "no better than silk-clad, imperial parasites fed on a diet of luxury."

"Oh, well," sighs Tang, exhaling a fatalistic plume of Fidelista cigar smoke. "Yes, they do say things like that from time to time. They just can't help themselves." For a moment he stares off into space.

"I rather like this one. Yes, I do," Tang says, suddenly snapping to attention as gallery manager Caroline Chiu presents another painting. "But that one is a bit contrived," he says, gesturing toward another painting and then settling into an armchair where he removes his traditional-style slippers. "Sometimes I get so passionate about art that I hate it when a painting I buy appreciates in value because, given the Hong Kong mentality, then I must sell it and make money!"

Is Hong Kong much interested in contemporary Chinese art? "I guess you'd have to say that Hong Kong is not particularly interested in any art," he replies diffidently. "The Mainland's no better. I mean, look at the way Beijing's architectural heritage has been destroyed. Their new conception of architecture seems to be a high-rise with a limp effort to make it Chinese by putting a kitsch pagoda on the top. It's so sad! Where has all our art and craftsmanship gone? Where's the old poetry? We were once the center of art. You see in this gallery a demonstration that Chinese art has a future. But it takes patrons. It takes time to get people into art. You have to excite and stimulate them first. The only way to teach anyone anything is to first teach them a passion for it. But here in Hong Kong, my generation went so far from our home to be educated that we...well, sure, we got wonderful Western educations, but we got no grounding in being Chinese. By going to a British boarding school at age 13, I lost a golden period of memory. When I came back, I had to make myself learn Chinese to catch up or I would have completely lost my Chinese-ness forever. Now those of us who feel inadequate as Chinese want to go back and find our roots--to attach to what we and China lost."

It is jarring to hear Tang--Hong Kong's most unabashed Chinese Anglophile, someone who boasts of his personal friendship with Margaret Thatcher and Chris Patten, who has a house in the London district of Belgravia and who is a member of White's, the Tory London gentlemen's club--speaking about "Chinese roots." But the new reality is that few Chinese, no matter where they live, are immune to the rising tide of nationalist pride that is growing out of China's emergence as a major economic force. It is this new pride that is giving people such as David Tang a way to exercise their long pent up urge to identify with China.

"I always felt 100 percent Chinese and that there wasn't enough Chinese-ness in Hong Kong," Tang tells me. "In fact, I always wanted to be more Chinese. I mean, why do you think I wear this?" He plucks almost dismissively at his silk suit. "I wear these traditional clothes to remind myself that I am Chinese. So many Chinese have been running off to the West to get an education and then returning in Western business suits. But I think that it's ridiculous for Chinese to be parading around in those ghastly things! People may think I'm crazy, but despite my London clubs, cigars and foreign friends, deep inside I am Chinese. There is something magical about someone going back to his roots. You just feel it." He sighs. "Over the past 100 years everyone here in Hong Kong has wanted to be foreign. We no longer have any idea what it means to be Chinese. We are living in a cultural vacuum. It's basically the same on the Mainland, only they have the Communist Party. We Chinese don't even make good china anymore! It's extremely sad that this is the case, but there you have it."

It sounds as if he might even be on the verge of becoming somewhat chauvinistic. "Let's just say that I think that the impulse to like something local is a positive one. I think most Chinese feel a special blood affinity for China. Look back at all the people who returned to help reconstruct China when Mao Zedong came along in the early '50s, only to be completely devastated in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and then forced to flee to Hong Kong. And now how many of those very same people--after having made a lot of money--are now going back again? They can't all be masochists. So the only explanation I can give is that there is something inexplicable about being Chinese--something about always wanting to go back to China to be part of a nation." By now, Tang is speaking with great animation.

Not surprisingly, Tang accepts, possibly even welcomes, the reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in l997. As he recently wrote in the British Daily Telegraph, "It would be a loss of face, as well as unpatriotic, for us to express a bias against the Motherland in favor of foreign colonial rule." But despite embracing the idea of this colony being returned to "the Chinese motherland," he is far from being anti-British, much less pro-Maoist. "I don't want anything to do with Mao," he tells me, waving a hand as if to banish a bad smell. In fact, in a recent speech, he extolled British rule. "Whatever one might say, Britain has provided a stable system of administration in which Hong Kong inhabitants have been able to flourish magnificently," he said. "Hong Kong is, after all, an exceptional example of excellence under British colonialism and that should command respect from a great many Chinese here now and beyond l997.

"If ever there was a case to be made for colonialism, Hong Kong is a shining example--a paradigm of good colonialism," Tang declared. "It's sad that people don't realize that Hong Kong is an argument for, not against, colonialism. When people say, 'Thank God Hong Kong is reverting to China,' they sometimes don't realize that it would definitely not have been as successful--would not have had such magical chemistry --without the Brits. It's wrong to subject the British to an anti-colonial thrashing when their rule is an example of what colonialism can do and should be extolled for."

When I ask if he thinks China might have something to learn from British rule, Tang only half-jokingly says, "In fact, I think it would be nice if China had a constitutional monarchy, and I've often wondered what would have happened if Chiang Kai-shek had been less treacherous."

Tang also has a deeply Anglophiliac bias in his notion of personal relations. "English friends have an absolute sense of loyalty and I like that," he says. "To me, loyalty through thick and thin is an admirable virtue that is extremely important--something like the love of a parent for a child. Loyalty means friendship, and friendship is what is most important. Your bond with friends should rise above all other commitments. Laughter with friends is it for me. Here in Hong Kong, money distorts that loyalty. On the Mainland, it is distorted by Communism and the party."

"David is an extraordinarily loyal friend," acknowledges longtime partner Chang.

Does Tang feel at home in Hong Kong?

"Oh yes," Tang replies instantly. "Hong Kong has always been a place where I feel completely at home. But I wish people knew how to spend their wealth here, how to treat it as a means to an end instead of an end in itself."

Mindful that classical music is for Tang a kind of end in itself, I ask him how he became interested in playing the piano. "When I was just 15 in England, I heard the falling third of the Brahms fourth and I was transfixed." He starts waving his arms overhead like a conductor. "I didn't even know who Brahms was, but it made me want to start playing the piano right away. Oh, how I wish I could play well!" he exclaims. A pained look comes over his face. "Music is one of my passions, and when I play Mozart, I go mad because I know I am not playing well enough."

What is his favorite type of music? "Well, I'm Catholic, so for me nothing beats the passion of church music. Unfortunately, these days the Vatican is like the British monarchy--trying to be more 'in touch.' But in the process it's killed off too much of the ceremony, like the singing and the vestments. Of course, that also kills spirituality and mysticism which both religion and monarchy depend on to stand up against the mundane world."

Listening to Tang first express patriotic sentiments toward China--sometimes even joking about the need to start another Taiping or Boxer Rebellion to purge China of foreigners--and then venerate British tradition, one may be pardoned for wondering if he is not a colossal and unreconcilable contradiction. He sees himself, however, not as a contradiction but as a "benign mediator" between potential antagonistic world players. "What I enjoy is bringing people together," he says.

When it's noted that his is an ambitious and grandiose dream, he says, "If I am ambitious, it is only because I like to come up with some reasonably new and fresh ideas that are an intellectual challenge and then find a way to found or change something. That means I greatly admire those people who have really helped shape the world in one way or another. It takes a great deal of energy to be ambitious."

If Tang the synthesizer and mediator hopes to create islands of hybrid sophistication and urbanity, he has picked a difficult time. Tensions between London, Hong Kong and Beijing are increasing rather than diminishing, and he has to keep his balancing act from falling to one side or the other. "I believe that there is something to be said for the clash of two cultures," he rationalizes, trying to make something positive out of a difficult situation. "The juxtaposition between East and West can give rise to new and very interesting things if it is done right. You can get the best of both worlds, something exquisite, without completely losing one's identity." The China Club is something "interesting" that has already been born out of Oriental-Occidental "juxtaposition" that divides Tang's life. Through it, Tang has helped the proverbial twain to meet.

When asked if he thinks Deng Xiaoping's formula of "one country, two systems" can work for Hong Kong in practice after July 1, Tang pauses tentatively for a moment before replying, "The ideological question is, 'Can you ultimately reconcile capitalism with some form of socialism or communism?' And for me, the answer is, no, because they are ideologically so different. Moreover, with Chinese sovereignty there will be a great deal of constraints for Hong Kong--a soft reign of terror that could become more and more fundamental to our lives."

So, if Beijing cracks down, how will it be possible for Hong Kong to continue working and flourishing?

"The only way things will work is through corruption," Tang says matter-of-factly. "If you're not allowed to do this, and not allowed to do that, at least through corruption you may be able to do it secretly and carry on. Corruption gives that flexibility."

That's not a very bright assessment, and hardly a recipe for success. Shouldn't one speak out before all this happens?

"Well, look here," he says peremptorily. "In our world there are those who want to be martyrs and those who don't. Now, I feel that martyrdom is an admirable thing, but not necessarily for everyone. Anyway, it also depends on whether you decide that martyrdom is worth it. You have to ask what protest achieves. After all, it is the ultimate sacrifice. I think that those who don't speak out should not be penalized as being less believers in their particular cause. The difference is they suffer their silence whereas martyrs suffer prison or death. Some people want to protest, I probably don't. Perhaps I'm not as courageous, but then the purpose of my life is not to be a martyr."

Is Tang pessimistic about the future? Not at all. "Hong Kong has weathered storms in the past," he recently observed in another interview. "We're clever. We've worked with one master before--the British. We can work with another."

When asked if he is really optimistic, he says emphatically, "We Chinese are here to stay, not to breeze in and breeze out like foreigners. So, we haven't much choice, have we? Whenever I am asked what would make me leave, I always reply that it would be when someone takes away my books. But note, I didn't say newspapers, because I think newspapers are dreadful--except, of course, for the crossword puzzle in The Times." He laughs.

The conversation is interrupted when Chang appears with another painting for Tang to inspect for the show. "Do you like this one?" he asks.


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