As the owner of Shanghai Tang in Hong Kong, one of the world's most desirable department stores, David Tang brokers the tastes of East and West. Now he's going global. By Nick Foulkes. Photographs by Michel Setboun
It would be bad manners for the British to leave Hong Kong without publicly thanking David Tang for all his hard work in the cause of East- West relations. There should be a Hong Kong dissolution honours list, and Tang should be put down for something nice and hereditary like a baronetcy.

Over lunch at the Man Wah restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a couple of dozen floors above Hong Kong's central district, Tang deflects such a suggestion with his customary humour. If this is the case, he says, brandishing a pre-prandial Punch Double Corona, then he will call his son Prize Tang, so that one day he can be called Sir Prize Tang. The lunch table, which includes his fiancee, paint manufacturer's daughter Lucy Wastnage, and multi-millionaire property man David Davies, laughs appreciatively.

A meal with Tang is energetic, theatrical. If it were a painting, it would be something like Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi: expansive, overscaled, with something happening in every corner. As his reputation as the consummate showman demands, he arrives late, looking a little like Elvis in his early Vegas days, slightly bulky and brightly dressed. The mobile phone comes out. Loud greetings are directed to a distant table occupied by the pulchritudinous Pearl Lam, Hong Kong's riposte to Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. A waiter is addressed in staccato Cantonese, with drawling, James Fox-like asides to his non-Chinese speaking guests. Tang, the Occidental Oriental, may wear Shanghai-tailored garments of Chinese silk, but he speaks with the kind of long, posh vowels of which Evelyn Waugh would have heartily approved.

Conversation then swerves into his eponymous department store, Shanghai Tang. A bright yellow cashmere, Mandarin-collared jacket is mentioned. The mobile is flipped out. Tang talks. The jacket appears a few minutes later, in Davies's size.

For many English people, David Tang is Hong Kong: more useful than Chris Patten, less stuffy than the tai pans. He can sell you cigars at his Cohiba Cigar Divan, or clothes at his department store. He can ask you to supper at his China Club, or Sunday lunch at his charming country house - pink, of course - where the lawn goes down into the South China Sea. He's not the richest, nor necessarily the most influential, man in Hong Kong, but he's a port of call for every visitor. He manages to be on good terms with both the Prince of Wales and his ex-wife. Yet the man who greets him warmly outside his office in Jardine House turns out to be the chief of the local Communist party.

His most recent jamboree entailed transporting a few planeloads of shiny people to celebrate the launch in Beijing of his China Club, which in Hong Kong has become the colony's social and professional hub. This explosion of Chinese art deco splendour sits on top of the Old Bank of China Building, where the twittering of caged birds and the warbling of a traditional Chinese songstress compete with trilling mobile phones. It costs pounds 12,000 to join.

With Tang, the unlikely becomes the norm. All the props of the Dallasty Years - private planes, cars with drivers, an atlas-full of exotic destinations - are pressed into service to help him lead his highly amusing life. Since the death of Deng Xiaoping, he is probably the world's best-known and most-travelled Chinaman, which may account for his sanguine view of life in Hong Kong after its return to China.

"On the night of 30 June, the changeover will be an anti-climax - at most, a symbolic date," he declares. "Ergo, we Hong Kongers are a bit less excited about the actual hand-over than the rest of the world, especially the 6,000 journalists who are going to be around." Nothing much will change immediately, of that he is confident.

Tang's great-grandfather came to Hong Kong from Canton as a refugee and set up one of the colony's first "silver" banks, whereby money was borrowed against a deposit of silver. The first of the Hong Kong Tangs enjoyed a colourful existence. He took a wife and five concubines, and built a seven-storey house, installing one woman on each floor and resting on Sundays when he reached the top.

Tang's grandfather, Sir S K Tang, was born of the fourth concubine. He made his fortune buying second-hand buses from England, and founding the Kowloon Bus Company in 1933. He was a terror, according to his grandson, and, in disaffection, Tang's father left for England in the Sixties.

Raised in this country, David Tang took to wearing suits from Welsh and Jeffries, shirts from Turnbull & Asser, and Lobb shoes. But, at 42, he's scaled down, with his customary cultural agility, his English-style wardrobe in favour of the sort of traditional Chinese garb worn by his grandfather. He says he finds it much more comfortable in view of growing corpulence. He has kept only the voice, the cigars and the Lobb shoes.

He started work as the Far Eastern agent for "Algy" Cluff, the mining mogul and capitalist swashbuckler, but has since emerged as a restaurateur, retailer, cigar distributor and only he knows what else. But, whatever he may do, he is essentially doing the same thing, selling himself, in which respect he is quite unique. To get the rights to distribute Havanas in Hong Kong, for example, he went to Cuba with cigar Czar Nicholas Freeman and apparently charmed the chiefs of Cubatabaco, as it was then, with a bravura display of conjuring tricks.

As a manipulator of taste in the Far East, he's become a sort of Oriental version of Sir Terence Conran and Mark Birley, the owner of Annabel's. Taste is a difficult commodity to define. In Britain, it's often identified with discretion, but most Britons who aspire to be tasteful are merely afraid of being branded vulgar and showy. If one is told that a person has taste, it usually means that he or she has breeding and all the concomitant bits and pieces: furniture, houses, clothes, habits - all inherited. Here, taste is not being exercised, merely preserved, like a pickled walnut.

But with Tang, taste is very much alive. "It might come," he says grandly, "from a concatenation of genes, from having caught a glimpse of this or that accidentally, from having been somewhere, or having greater imagination than other people."

There's nothing nebulous about the result. The trademark lime-green, carmine and orange carrier bag of his shop, Shanghai Tang, dangles from every fashionable wrist in the colony; and the same colours may be seen in the silk, Mandarin-collared jackets worn by rich Englishmen and their wives or mistresses at black-tie evenings in central London. In a world already crowded with brands, Shanghai Tang is new, different and desirable, even though his merchandise could be found elsewhere at half the cost... supposing customers were prepared to look for it. But they're not. They have seen David Tang torching up large cigars with millionaires, films stars and royalty, and now they want to buy the photo frame, the handkerchief and the Mao-style hat. They want that particular label, "Shanghai Tang, made by Chinese", and to look like Gong Li, the most famous actress in China, who is hired as "the face of Shanghai Tang". And this Christmas, Tang hopes more smart Westerners will be unwrapping gifts from his emporium as he and his brand go global. He's opening a store in New York, to be followed by others in Japan and London, where he keeps a duplex in Eaton Square.

For a man whose analysis of his own taste errs towards the ethereal, his physical trappings are all too corporeal. He is ferried about by his driver, Alex, a gigantic Oddjob of a character who has a profitable sideline playing villains in countless local movies and TV mini-series. "He has been with me for 16 years and I can't get rid of him," jokes Tang.

His relationship with Alex is characterised by an affectionate, foul- mouthed repartee, a sort of X-rated version of Basil Fawlty and Manuel. Alex, the convertible black Bentley Continental, and the omnipresent cigar, accessorised where possible by a visiting celebrity, complete the public face Tang presents to Hong Kong.

His more private side (a relative term) finds its expression in his country and seaside house in Sai Kung, in Hong Kong's New Territories. Here, a different, more relaxed man emerges. Whereas in his public life he is overtly Oriental, his country retreat is deliberately Western. "It's got to be comfortable," he says, "and one thing the Chinese have never managed was to manufacture comfortable chairs. We never had sofas, we never had armchairs. So all my chairs are rather deep and Occidental." But not stuffy. As he says, "I like the house to have a sense of humour." And humour is to be found in the eclectic gathering of everything from David Linley furniture to items of Pop Art.

The ground floor spills out onto a terrace agreeably cluttered with, among other objects, a piano (he is also a concert pianist), a circular dining-table and a fire surround. The latter is located in front of the glass door to his garden, and is topped by a pair of Florentine ceramic knights mounted on chargers. "I collect junk," he says, a trifle disingenuously. And books. They litter every surface. On the stairs up from the first floor, every tread has its own untidy stack. Only the occasional photograph of say, Sarah Duchess of York, reminds the visitor that he or she has not been transported to the back room of Heywood Hill.

"I like to be surrounded by junk, and I like to be surrounded by books," he continues. "I like knowledge and I like romance. You don't get romance or knowledge without reading."

But Tang would not be Tang without a cigar. A hand-rolled Havana smouldering in the fist or the jaw is part of the package. There are humidors on every floor of Tang's house, including an exquisite inlaid Elie Bleu in the bathroom off his bedroom, "so I can change from floor to floor". He especially likes double Coronas and Churchills, and, in the popular Robusto size, Cohiba and the Hoyo Epicure No 2.

He has been smoking cigars since he was 18: "I can't think of another thing which is so carefully constructed by human hand from beginning to end. The labels, the wonderful design, the aroma and the stimulation - all that is fantastically romantic. I can't think of not having a cigar after a meal."

But, asked whether he is primarily a taste-maker or a businessman, the answer comes instantly: "You need to be a good businessman first or you wouldn't have the means with which to realise your tastes. That is the logical way of looking at it"

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