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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 2)

"No! I hate it," Tang says with his characteristic bluntness that mixes impatience with humor. "But I like that one." He laughs and points at a huge black-and-white tapestry designed by Deng Xiaoping's daughter, Deng Lin.

The opening of the show is like the first night at a gallery anywhere else in the art world. A small gathering of people mill around, chat and sip wine as Tang greets new guests, hands out cigars, poses for photos and gives a brief welcoming speech in which he comically offers a 10 percent discount to anyone willing "to buy a painting tonight."

"It's not just his style," says Caroline Chiu. "David's got tremendous energy and confidence in choosing art. People here have enormous respect for what he's done by taking what is Chinese, updating it and making it accessible."

"The most important thing about David is that he has charisma," Chang says. "What is also important is that he is smart and honorable, qualities that are quite rare in Hong Kong and China where business culture is so strong. But he can be very tough and does not allow people to walk over him."

"He's fascinating but basically a playboy and a phony," says a prominent Hong Kong journalist. "He may collect first-edition books but I doubt that he reads them."

"He's a real phenomenon," says a friend who didn't want his name used. "He's so English and yet he's Chinese. However, finally, I think that he's more English than Chinese. He has to strain somewhat to be Chinese, especially to bridge the abyss between Britain and China, which has been widening rather than narrowing as [July 1,] l997 approaches."

For Tang, bridging this abyss is as much a personal struggle as a struggle to bridge the disparity between different geopolitical places. Several weeks after I first talked with Tang, and just before he was due to depart for Tibet on a trip to scout out some new and more exotic fashion ideas for his soon-to-expand chain of department stores, we met again, this time in his office at Jardine House.

Tang's office is as strange a hybrid of design elements as his intellect is of ideas and influences. There are photos of him with Castro and Deng Xiaoping as well as with Governor Patten. His cluttered inner office is filled with an eclectic collection of European and Oriental art. Sitting in a leather chair next to a fake fireplace as cigar smoke mixes with the pungent aroma of lilies (courtesy of an African flower import business he also owns), Tang opens up in a more personal way. He reveals that as a boy he was very devoted to his grandfather, who had several wives and made a fortune in public transportation. Tang was married to the Australian-Chinese film actress, Susanna Cheung, but is now divorced. They have two young children to whom Tang is very devoted. He has even translated Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into Chinese for them. "I simply adore children," he says. "I try to pick mine up from school every day that I am here in Hong Kong."

Presently, Tang is about to marry an Englishwoman named Lucy Wastnage, which raises the question of how he reconciles East and West in his private life. When asked if he finds himself drawn more to Occidental or Oriental women, a look of thoughtful bemusement settles on his face.

"When I see a truly beautiful Chinese woman like Gong Li (the star of such films as Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad and Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine), I find that absolutely exquisite. On the other hand, I find beautiful Western women..." He pauses, not quite sure how to end the sentence. "Well, let's put it this way: I often feel that I am not quite one with them...very consciously alien."

"That's a bit strange," I suggest, "because Western men don't seem to feel quite so alien with Oriental women."

"Yes, it's interesting, isn't it?" he replies.

Does he think the difference has something to do with the Orient's complicated historical power relationship with the West? "I suppose so. But it probably also has something to do with the delicacy of Oriental women. Maybe that's why there are a lot more Westerners marrying Chinese women than Chinese men marrying Western women. My theory is that because the Chinese woman is generally--and I generalize here at the risk of feminists telling me that I am completely wrong--more subservient. They know how to look after a man. They are delicate, considerate and they don't ask so many questions. They don't have the tradition of female emancipation as much as what you might call Western 'career women' or today's feminists. Men like that because it gives them less trouble. They like the obsequiousness, tenderness and attention to care."

Does he believe in feminism? "I don't believe in feminism. I do, however, believe in femininity. I think if you are a feminist, you lose that femininity. I mean it is generally true that feminists are ugly--that in a way they have some sort of a chip on their shoulder and want to hide their femininity."

But shouldn't women have a right to equality?

"I always find it extraordinary that the feminists want 'equality.' I mean, they are much more equal than men already. In fact, they are superior to men. If they want 'equality,' they are stupid, because they'll just bring themselves down from a higher level. That's why I find feminism absolutely amazing."

What are his views about Chinese men?

"On the whole, Chinese men are either megalomaniacs or complete wimps. We're either bellicose and complete loudmouths like me, or complete wimps. I know it's not fair to generalize, but that's how I see it."

So what does he want in a mate?

"Well, I don't know. But I'll tell you what I think is best--to be able to have both West and Chinese."

Does he mean a return to the old concubine system of his grandfather's era?

"I know that all the traditions about polygamy in China ended much later than in Western society. But, no. I mean a Eurasian woman."

If David Tang is a monumental contradiction who wants to have everything both ways, he is also a telling emblem of the dilemma that Chinese of his generation now confront as Hong Kong merges with China and as China tries to merge with the world--how to combine the East and tradition with the West and modernity. While his answers may not always be refined, by and large they are honest. But by now he is wealthy, powerful and famous enough not to worry how others view the inconsistencies in his sometimes clumsy attempts to synthesize.

"Loudmouth, self-publicist, socialite, name-dropper, show-off--perhaps I am these things," he reflects deferentially. "But, you know, I've really gotten to the stage where I don't care what people think of me. It doesn't matter if some people want to ostracize me, as long as I can be with my friends, have some fun and laugh. Laughter diffuses anger and creates optimism. If you're a pessimist, it become self-fulfilling. I think it's a lesson that's as true for us humans as it will be for Hong Kong." He gives a mirthful chuckle and flicks a long ash from the end of his Cohiba into an awaiting ashtray.

Orville Schell is a longtime observer of China and dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.


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