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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)

Tang later studied philosophy at King's College, London University, and then law at the University's College of Law. While in England, he not only learned to speak a flawless Oxbridge English that is every bit as arch as that of the royals, but picked up many of the affectations of a latter-day British gentleman. Indeed, when Tang switches suddenly from English to his native Cantonese (which to Western ears can sound like so many angry ducks quacking), he creates a feeling of supreme cognitive dissonance. But the contrast is a perfect emblem of the contradictory sides of David Tang's hybrid personality and the myriad different projects and businesses in which he has involved himself. He is chairman of The China Club Ltd., Shanghai Tang Department Store Ltd., D.W.C. Tang Development Ltd. and the Pacific Cigar Co. He is managing director of Cluff Investments & Trading Ltd. and the China Investment Fund, and a member of endless other corporate boards. But he is also a pianist of some accomplishment; has dabbled in teaching philosophy at Beijing University; is an art dealer of wide repute and co-owner of Hong Kong's foremost contemporary art gallery, Hanart TZ; and, as honorary consul for Cuba in Hong Kong and a renowned mingler with itinerant members of the international foreign policy establishment, is even a diplomat of sorts.

As the night's chummy gathering progresses under Tang's watchful eye, a flotilla of waiters stand at attention in a mutant form of white Mao suit with red PLA patches on the collars and yellow stars on the lapels, part of the tongue-in-cheek, neo-Big Leader fashion trend that Tang has created, gently spoofing Chinese communist kultur. "I'd dress them much more outrageously," he whispers, "but you know I'm always walking a fine line with the Chinese."

What makes Tang such a social as well as political and economic cement mixer is that his China Club includes not only local Chinese and ex-pats as members, but also an increasing number of Party officials and Mainland businessmen who have been moving into the colony from across the border. The fact that Tang's signature is an indelibly capitalist emblem seems not to bother these latter-day socialists. In fact, among the wealth of celebrity photos on display in the lobby are shots both of Zhou Nan, the head of Xin Hua, the New China News Agency (China's unofficial "embassy" in Hong Kong), and British Vice Premier Michael Hesseltine, who were present for the club's opening in l991. Then, for the club's third anniversary, Tang had two banquets, one for Governor Patten, the Brits and those friends who are not China boosters, and one for Zhang Junsheng, deputy director of Xin Hua, and the pro-China crowd. "That's David Tang playing both sides," says the Times of London Asia editor Jonathan Mirsky. "And he's fantastic at it. He must be the most socially inclusive and visible person in Hong Kong." Whether it involves Princess Di, the Duchess of York, financier Jimmy Goldsmith and intellectual Isiah Berlin, or Oliver Stone, Fidel Castro, Richard Gere, Deng Xiaoping and his artist daughter, Deng Lin, it seems that no social or political contradiction is too antagonistic for Tang's embrace. Tang once told an interviewer that he even had an ambition to get the Prince of Wales and Deng Xiaoping together. Alas, that task will now have to wait for eternity.

What is telling is that Tang can even imagine embracing aspects of these two once so different universes. "When I was growing up here in Hong Kong, it seemed as if Beijing was six thousand miles away," says Tang when asked about his childhood in Hong Kong. "We looked to London, not Beijing, and I can remember my grandfather, who was a pillar of Hong Kong society, being almost unctuous toward the British administration here." (With a wry laugh Tang later says that he can still remember how, during the Cultural Revolution, Communist Bank of China officials used to stand with bullhorns on the very balcony now occupied by the China Club and "shout down to incite the people below to attack the Brits, the foreign devils.") "But now Beijing is just across the border, l997 is upon us, things are changing and I like to imagine myself as a kind of broker between China and the West."

After coffee and cigars (also offered to the women) Tang rises from his chair at the head of the table and, like a potentate of a small country addressing his subjects, introduces the evening's program of Bach, Schumann, Chopin and Gershwin. Tang takes great delight in his role as cultural impresario. Indeed, what has made the China Club such a mecca for Hong Kong movers and shakers is its promise of being more than just a place to do business. It not only hosts recitals, but occasional literary and poetry readings as well and it contains an impressive art gallery. "The club offers just enough of a patina of culture, politics and celebrity allure to be enticing without being overwhelming," comments one thirtysomething member who is in the satellite television business. Nothing, however, is taken overly seriously. After all, how serious about "culture" can businessmen who make their millions in real estate or the garment trade be while making deals surrounded by vases of peacock feathers and woodcuts of model PLA soldiers in the Long March Bar?

"A bit of culture," Tang pronounces with a regal wave of his Cohiba. "Somebody has to keep a little culture going around here, don't you know. And I really like to do this sort of thing. Never mind if only a handful come, I like to do it anyway." He winks and takes a satisfied drag on his cigar. Then wagging an admonishing forefinger, he adds, "But no more than an hour for the music, because anything longer than that here in Hong Kong is too long."

If China Club members have a limited tolerance for classical music--and probably for Tang's deeper thoughts as well--most seem to enjoy the spectacular exhibition of contemporary Chinese art that hangs everywhere in the club. Put together with Johnson Tsong-Zung Chang, a brilliant curator with whom Tang owns the Hanart TZ Gallery downstairs, the 350 works in the China Club's collection consist not only of original paintings for old Maoist posters, campy socialist realist oils of the "Dear Leader" school of art and kitschy Communist bric-a-brac, but an extensive collection of post-Mao avant-garde paintings that mine the iconography of China's revolution and the dark side of Mao's megalomania in an ironic way that manages to be both oblique and affecting.

Among the best-known paintings is a Yu Youhan version of Mao attired in a floral Laura Ashley Mao suit, Wang Guangyi's militant worker heroes saluting a Tang breakfast drink logo, Yu Youhan's Chairman Mao and Whitney Houston, and a marvelous high-camp ceramic sculpture of Mao surrounded by stereotypes of adoring Third World revolutionary compatriots: a Mexican in a sombrero, an African woman in a nappy, an Albanian in regulation oppressed-peasant overalls, an Arab in a kafir and a Red Guard girl ardently hugging Mao's arm. Everyone is, of course, smiling deliriously with socialist intoxication.

The presence of this extraordinary collection makes the China Club more than just a clever replication of old Shanghai for young culturally defoliated businessmen in search of ersatz atmosphere. The fact that Tang has done so much to introduce China's new wave of iconoclastic artists to the outside world puts him on the cultural cutting edge and gives the China Club an air of being authentic, something that is rare in this international city where so much is borrowed and simulated from elsewhere.

"I created the China Club to be the kind of place I'd like to go to myself," Tang says. "Maybe for most it's just a kind of museum where they can eat and hold events, but I think that everyone feels somehow proud to be associated with it"--proud enough to remain on a long waiting list and then pay a $25,000 membership fee (corporate fees are $55,000) for the privilege of joining. Tang and his co-owner, T.T. Tsui, claim to have already earned nearly $30 million in memberships.

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