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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)

"Ah! That's another story," he says with a snort of laughter. "Years later, back in Hong Kong, I heard that there was a row between Davidoff and Cuba and I thought there might be an opportunity there and ended up getting the Cuban cigar franchise for Asia, that had been going nowhere. Then I went to Havana and ultimately opened the Cigar Divan at the Mandarin Oriental."

This small shop tucked behind the elevators is far more than a cigar stand. It is a stunningly appointed little grotto, manned by knowledgeable clerks, with couches and chairs where cigar aficionados can gather to talk, read periodicals, discuss cigar kultur and, of course, smoke a nice Upmann, Montecristo or Partagas. The Divan infuses the lobby of the Mandarin with a subtle but tantalizingly rich aroma of the best cigars in the world, giving this already august hotel all the more the feeling of being the place in Hong Kong where true club-going English gentlemen convene when "in the Orient."

"When we opened in l992, we only had about 10 customers a day," manager Teddy Liam says. "Now we get about 120 people coming in every day. I think it's the influence of all the Hollywood movie stars smoking cigars. Anyway, we can't keep enough stock to supply everyone, especially Cohibas."

That there is a scarcity despite the fact that Tang's "allocation" from Cuba has tripled since last year gives a suggestion of the booming popularity of cigars in Hong Kong. Indeed, one can hardly find a hotel lobby, pub or restaurant where someone is not smoking a fat cigar these days. Tang says that the Cigar Divan has been so successful that he is now spreading his cigar gospel across Asia by opening branches in the Mandarin Oriental hotels in Bangkok, Djakarta and Singapore.

When I last spoke with Tang, he had just returned from a lavish cigar fest in Havana given by Fidel Castro and celebrating the Cohiba, once the Cuban president's own brand (see related story on page 138). "At dinner, Castro got up and gave a long speech covering everything from why he threw the party to why he gave up cigars," mused Tang. Then as if he were feeling Castro's pain for having given up this once chronic vice, he added, "What a pity it is that Clinton can't enjoy a nice Havana!"

Tang has also opened a department store--Shanghai Tang--which sells contemporary chinoiserie, all of which is made in China. His specialities--which some have dubbed "nostal-chic" or "Mao-chic"--include the traditional-style silk suits he himself wears (advertised as "Tang suits"), lime green and bright red velvet Mao jackets, velvet Mao caps, sweatshirts with PRC flags emblazoned on the fronts in various colors, Day-Glo-hued cashmere sweaters, Mao wristwatches, Peoples Liberation Army knives, Mao and Whitney Houston place mats, and Cultural Revolution T-shirts, all purveyed by Chinese clerks in traditional garb in gaudy contemporary colors. His intention, claims Tang, is to create "the first recognizable Chinese brand" (billed as "the emperor's new clothes") and to market it globally in order "to glorify China" and "bring its traditions the recognition they deserve."

Perhaps Tang's most important accomplishments, however, are not his commercial ventures, but the way the collectivity of his activities has begun to articulate a sense of self-confident, indigenous Chinese style that has also, surprisingly enough, begun to seize the international imagination. For instance, almost no visiting foreign "player" feels quite complete now unless his trip to Hong Kong includes a meal at the China Club. What is so new about the club is that it is an oasis where Chinese and Western sensibilities merge as equals. Although such a cultural synthesis has been long dreamed about by Chinese intellectuals and reformers who have chafed under China's inferiority before Western technological and commercial dominance, it has never before been accomplished quite so successfully. What is distinctive about Tang is that he is one of the few Asians in Asia who seem to genuinely feel comfortable on both sides of the East-West divide.

One could go so far as to say that until Chinese in general reacquire such a convincing new sense of cultural identity and self-worth, they will continue to lack the self-confidence that is so essential in overcoming the historical inferiority complex growing out of the last century and a half of unequal relations with the West.

In many ways David Tang is an unlikely figure to be straddling this fault line between East and West, much less to be brokering between China's post-modern Marxist-Leninist regime and neo-colonial Britain as this remnant colony counts down the days to reversion. Tang is a large, bear-like man with a ruddy face and a somewhat rumpled countenance whose patrician manner, enjoyment of the good life and disarmingly easygoing (if sometimes distracted) manner have won him many influential friends.

Born in Hong Kong into a wealthy family on Aug. 2, 1954, David Tang was sent to Britain at age 13 for schooling. Unable to speak English, he was refused admission at Eton and Harrow and instead ended up at the Perse School in Cambridge, where he was the only Chinese boy in residence. "I was so lonely in England because I had such a language problem," he recalls. "Always I had a sense of how alien I was. The struggle gave me a huge complex, but it did plunge me into reading, music and chess as an escape."

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