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.
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97
Each day as lunchtime approaches, the faithful begin to hive toward the old Bank of China building overlooking Statue Square in Central Hong Kong. Files of young men carrying smart leather briefcases and sporting double-breasted Italian suits converge with clutches of svelte young women with flawless makeup and the latest European businesswear fashions at a side door. Here, a single elevator takes members up to the China Club, the beating heart of Hong Kong for this new up-and-coming generation of entrepreneurs. Here in the club's private dining rooms and banquet hall, nouveaux Chinese taipans and ex-pat moguls-in-the-making dine, see and be seen, and clinch the kinds of deals that have made Asia the world's boomtown.
However, among this Armani-ed elite, there is often one lone figure who is as visually out of place as the handful of rickshaw pullers across the square who wait for gullible tourists at the Star Ferry. Clad in a high-collared Chinese scholar's gown or a traditional silk jacket with pajama-like trousers and cloth slippers, clutching an enormous Cuban Cohiba like a scepter, he appears like someone out of a time warp. Actually, he is David Wing-cheung Tang (known to his foreign friends as Tango), 42-year-old businessman, culture vulture, social moth and the China Club's grand progenitor.
As one of Hong Kong's best known public figures, Tang is playing an unusual role in defining a new identity for young Chinese who are emerging as leaders of this Crown colony as it heads towards its hour of reckoning on July 1, the date on which Hong Kong, after 155 years of British imperial rule, will become a sovereign part of the People's Republic of China. But tonight, as liveried Jaguars and Mercedes drop their charges off outside the China Club for one of the many salon-style events at which Tang holds court as he tirelessly schmoozes with the colony's haute monde and globe-trotting celebrities, the approaching hour of Hong Kong's convergence with the "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat" to the north still seems remote.
Indeed, as soon as one steps out of the elevator into the China Club's 13th-floor lobby, the moment of reversion is all the more unthinkable. Instead of being catapulted into the future, one is plunged into the past--into a meticulously replicated, splendid, 1920s Art Deco environment that hearkens back to the glory days of Shanghai before the Second World War. Here, surrounded by dark wood paneling, a curved staircase sweeping upwards, acres of Tiffany glasswork, marble-topped tables and ceiling fans, David Tang's retrograde sartorial look seems suddenly completely in style.
Tonight, Tang is holding court upstairs in the banquet room. Clad in one of his traditional hand-tailored mandarin silk suits, he might almost be mistaken for some parody of an over-aged Chinese houseboy--except that he is waving his ever-present cigar and introducing guests to each other with manic enthusiasm (never mind if he doesn't get all the names quite right)--in short, presiding over the party with Proustian aplomb. Has writer Jan Morris (who has just updated her classic book on Hong Kong) met Jung Chang (author of Wild Swans)? Has international celebrity and fashion maven Diane Von Furstenberg (who has just arrived on a tour) met tonight's pianist, Brenda Lucas Ogdon? Tang is a gale force of networking energy--a veritable Chinese Pearl Mesta.
At first glance it is tempting to view the China Club as just another celebrity watering hole and Tang as an almost comical throwback to a bygone era. In actuality, the China Club is a much more interesting place and David Tang a far more complex and fascinating figure than such a superficial view might suggest. The club has become a roundhouse for all the forces that are shaping Hong Kong and Asia, while Tang himself has become both a symbol of and a catalyst for a newly evolving Chinese identity. As Andrew Higgins, Hong Kong correspondent for the British paper, The Guardian, only half jokingly put it, "Tang is much more interesting than he pretends to be."
"He's one of those rare people who cheers the world up," says Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten. "Life and Hong Kong would be much poorer without him."
Indeed, watching the bonhomie with which Tang mixes among the evening's guests from within his own little atmospheric haze of cigar smoke that invariably surrounds him, there is no doubt that he and his club are at the center of a social hot spot. But what makes Tang so interesting is not just that he is socially ambitious or successful in business--which is nothing special in Hong Kong--but that he is also a polymath who dabbles in culture and politics as well. As such, he is playing a fascinating role in helping to fashion a new syncretic identity for both Hong Kong and China's up-and-coming generation. It is an identity that borrows randomly--and sometimes flamboyantly--from both East and West, as well as the past and present, and that does not shrink back from pop culture and commercialization.
One of his signature emblems is an omnipresent Cohiba, an interesting story in itself. Tang is the chairman of the Pacific Cigar Co. Ltd. (which controls the Cuban cigar franchise for Canada and the whole Asia/Pacific region) and the owner of the Cigar Divan, a shop dedicated entirely to Cuban cigars, located in the lobby of the classically elegant Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Tang tells me that he became acquainted with cigars after he got into university in England. "My father gave me a Romeo y Julieta in a tin tube and told me, 'Now you're a man,' " he recalls fondly. "So, naturally I smoked it, and because it was so mild, I thought I could take on any large cigar." He laughs. "Anyway, I became hooked and became a passionate cigar smoker."
And how did he come to be the purveyor of cigars to Asia?
"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."
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.
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."
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.
"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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