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Out of Hong Kong: Club party bridges the colonial divide

HONG KONG - Last night, to the gentle riffs of the jazz band flown in specially from the Peace Hotel in Shanghai, one of mainland China's most senior cadres in Hong Kong celebrated an anniversary of sorts amid the recreated splendour of a pre-revolutionary, colonial era.

Lest anyone think, as he mingled among the brightest and richest of capitalist Hong Kong, that the acting head of the hardline New China News Agency, was going soft, rest assured that in almost every room the proceedings took place under the watchful eyes of Chairman Mao or against a backdrop of Cultural Revolution memorabilia.

By the Long March Bar, two effeminate Mao portraits looked out from the pop-art painting by Li Shan, a Peking artist. Downstairs, staring down from the dining hall's wall, was a meticulous drawing of the ageing revolutionary; only on careful inspection did one notice the coffee stains left by the club's owner when he over-enthusiastically took delivery of the work.

That's the way of the China Club and its proprietor, David Tang. Last night officials from China were feted. Tonight, had he not been in London for some serious brain-storming about Sino-British relations, Chris Patten, the colony's pro-democracy Governor, would have been taking to the dance- floor at part two of the anniversary bash. (Even Mr Tang's sense of humour drew the line at inviting them on the same night.)

No other club in Hong Kong plays host to Deng Xiaoping's children one week, and the Governor the next. Last night was a double celebration, at least for some of the guests; it marked the second anniversary of the China Club, and the four-year countdown to 30 June 1997, when China takes back Hong Kong.

Just as the China Club's decor expertly combines what China and the West offer, so did last night's wealthy clientele represent those set to make the most out of the sunset of colonialism and the years beyond. Most club members do not fear 1997.

In a colony not renowned for nostalgia, Mr Tang has created an exquisite retreat from the heat and bustle of Hong Kong. And it is a delightful irony that this perfect revival of 1940s Shanghai art-deco, (with membership at about pounds 11,000), is housed in the very building from which Cultural Revolution mainland cadres in 1967 exhorted the masses to rise up against the colonial government. They didn't.

Mr Tang, 38, is the master of ceremonies, imposing obsessive standards of good taste on his creation. He spent dollars 6m ( pounds 4m) setting up the club, and chose everything, 'down to the chopsticks'. His mischievous sense of humour is all around; the clock in the Long March Bar is set 20 minutes slow 'so people think it is earlier than it really is, and have another drink'. Behind the till in the dining room, a carved clock is set at ten to three in honour of Rupert Brooke - Is there honey still for tea?. But his passion is art, which fills every wall, a colourful celebration of Chinese painting from contemporary Mao kitsch to traditional classic landscapes.

The China Club was not designed to be the congenial interface between Communism and capitalism that it has become. Its rationale was more down to earth, according to Mr Tang. 'Some of us men, particularly, I think, rather fancy the idea of having one's own club or restaurant.'

Is it difficult to get in? 'The good thing is that it is not. I am very easygoing, and I am the only member of the committee.' He looks at everybody's application. 'The most important thing is that your cheque should clear first,' he laughs. 'After that I make sure that you are not a scallywag. In fact even if I think you're a scallywag, I might let you in because it is quite nice to have scallywags.' The most important thing is that people should want to come, he says.

They do come - British expatriates, the colony's politicians, the taipans of Nineties Hong Kong and their henchmen, the power-brokers, and the mainlanders. It is said that one of the key fund-raising lunches for the British Conservatives was held here.

The decor and furniture were carefully modelled on pre-revolutionary colonial Shanghai. 'I found that juxtaposition between the East and the West very interesting,' Mr Tang says. 'Shanghai was magical because there was this chemistry between East and West.' Last night on the dance floor, with four years to go, Sino-British relations were looking more cordial than they had for a long time.