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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 4)

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.

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