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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 3)

What is so unprecedented about the vortex of energy and activity that swirls around Tang and the China Club is that until its opening in l991, there was little socializing between Chinese and the British/ex-pat community in Hong Kong. There had been even less between Hong Kong residents and Mainlanders who were known mostly for their Maoist rhetoric, badly cut suits and social ineptitude. But through Tang's style of celebrity matchmaking between East and West, this three-way divide has started to be bridged. By doing more and more business and traveling on both sides of the border, a new generation of Chinese that views itself not so much as being from Hong Kong or Shanghai but as being just "Chinese" is coming to the fore. To be around Tang on this widening but still narrow littoral, where these once dissimilar and separate worlds have started to overlap, is to be in a new world.

And how do comrades from Beijing take to his cigars? "Well, yes," Tang says with an upper-class English harrumph. "Cigars are truly the greatest symbols of big capitalists, aren't they? I wouldn't think party leaders in Beijing would ever be caught dead with one in their hands. To see a Communist with a big fat corona or robusto would be a bit surreal, wouldn't it!"

Despite the many obvious differences in the way people live, think and are governed on each side of the border, Chinese on both sides are collectively searching for cultural roots in a process that has begun to evince a new nationalist pride. That this growing sense of "Chinese-ness" has become tinged with patriotism--and not infrequently more than a little arrogance and anti-foreignism--is an aspect of Asia's economic renaissance that has surprised many, especially when it has found expression here in Hong Kong. But as Tang explains, "More and more I have come to view China as my future, just as it is also the future of Hong Kong." In fact, he has just opened another China Club, this one in an old palace courtyard complexin Beijing that was once the Sichuan Restaurant, where he may be able to become more a junzi, a "Confucian gentleman," than a British dandy.

Although David Tang is one of the most highly visible members of that new generation of Chinese that will lead Asia into the next century, and although in many respects he is a very hip and sophisticated man, he also has an emphatically Luddite side. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his views on the electronic revolution. When asked his thoughts about the information highway, he becomes animated, but in an almost self-defensive way.

"It's bad enough to have to drive on highways, much less to have to deal with an information highway," he splutters, as if he finds the very question somehow offensive. "If people want to find things out, they should just go to the library. Even though I love contemporary things, I think old things usually prove to be the best."

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."

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