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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 6)

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.


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