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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 8)

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."


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