Sir David Tang
54 years old, entrepreneur
Shanghai Tang, China Tang, Island Tang, and, earlier this year, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire Tang; Sir David Tang is a man of many sobriquets – and talents.
Born in 1954 as David Tang Wing-cheung, Sir David was sent to the public Perse School in Cambridge at age 13. As the only Chinese student there, he initially found the language and culture difficult to understand, though the isolation led to him falling in love with the piano, a passion which has stayed with him throughout his life. Later, he studied philosophy at King’s College, London University, and then law at the same institution.
In 1979, at age 24, on a trip to China, he climbed Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) alongside friend Edmund Ho (now chief executive of Macau), and saw “an ocean of clouds and pine trees lining the ridges of the range. It looked like a classical Chinese painting. It was tremendous, and afterwards I just wanted to become a Chinese monk.”
While he abstained from taking his vows, he did decide that he had to live in Mainland China. A chance meeting in the Chinese capital led to him teaching philosophy and English at Beijing University, a place which helped him rediscover his Chinese-ness, or at least reconnect with a side of himself that had been in danger of disappearing after many years spent in England and colonial Hong Kong.
With the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984 between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping, and with it the changing of Hong Kong’s sovereignty, the time was ripe for a resurgence of national identity. And so it was, three years before the handover, that Sir David launched contemporary his Chinese clothing company, Shanghai Tang.
Occupying the ground and basement floors of the Pedder Building – one of Central’s few remaining colonial structures – both the store’s location and Tang’s timing were immaculate. The fashion label’s bright colours, combined with traditional and modern Chinese sensibilities, transformed Shanghai Tang into an overnight success and a worldwide chain that now boasts over 30 stores worldwide.
The ever-entrepreneurial Sir David is also the owner of Hong Kong’s pioneering China Club, as well as its sister branches in Singapore and Beijing. Opened on 30 June 1991, the Art Deco-designed space occupies the top three floors of the former Bank of China building, and most resembles the decadent Shanghai clubs of the 1930s. During the Cultural Revolution, the Club’s terrace was used as a platform from which Communist propaganda was blasted at the British playing cricket on the field opposite, but today’s China Club is a genteel place, full of old world atmosphere, and new world patrons – more than ten years after Hong Kong’s return to China, you’re just as likely to hear guests speak Mandarin as English.
Sir David’s other ventures include ownership of Pacific Co Ltd, the exclusive distributor for all Cuban cigars in Canada and the Asia-Pacific (fittingly, he’s also Cuba’s honorary consul general in Hong Kong), as well as the China Tang restaurant (in London’s Dorchester Hotel), and the newly opened Island Tang, just a stone’s throw from the China Club; he’s a busy man to say the least.
But also a surprisingly humble one: when he arrived at the Time Out studio to have his portrait taken, Sir David made just one request of the photographer, “Like I said to your friend, warts and all; the famous quote of [Oliver] Cromwell. When they painted him, he said ‘I want warts and all.’”
When asked to nominate his own Hong Kong hero, Sir David responded: “Wong Chak, you know, the cartoonist, who invented Lao Fu Zi [Old Master Q]… He is Cantonese humour personified. And I am sure there are many nameless people in Hong Kong who do a great deal of good work and are not recognised, and those are the ones which, unfortunately, you don’t get to know, I don’t get to know, who escape the camera ... the real heroes are the unsung ones.”
However, Sir David Tang is not a Time Out hero for being magnanimous, his business acumen, nor for his references to the 17th-century British Lord Protector, but instead for his continuing efforts to create a strong, positive, and desirable image of China. He might sometimes be derided as a living contradiction, a man who, despite his cut glass public school English accent, has become a default ambassador for Chinese culture. Ultimately though, his identity doesn’t really matter; for as former Governor Chris Patten once said: “He's one of those rare people who cheers the world up. Life, and Hong Kong, would be much poorer without him.” Simon Ostheimer
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