No wonder Deng wanted Hong Kong for his own so much. Money money money. And shopping. I've never seen so much money, so much stuff, never met so many rich people as in Hong Kong. "Hong Kong's the richest refugee camp in the world," an acquaintance said. "The parents or grandparents all ran away from China, from the Communists. Money's the only security, you can't have enough, you've got to keep piling it up."
I was in Hong Kong, in fact, to research the rich for a thriller. The American hero of my book is in love with a rich Chinese American babe. She's married to a very, very rich Hong Kong guy, a member of the New Comprador class whose only ideology is money, who knows China is the future and thinks national borders are a joke.
The old breed of comprador brokered opium to the East and all kinds of goodies (silks, spices) back to the West. This new breed, official or criminal - it doesn't really matter - broker everything in all directions, and the devil's in the detail: CDs, sportswear, computers, money, babies, illegals, body parts. What they really broker is the great 21st-century conspiracy between two ideologies built to destroy each other. Instead of fleeing Communism like their parents or grandparents, the New Compradors see shopping as the real ideology; call it global commerce if you want to get fancy.
In the countdown to July, as the New Compradors rev up the millennial merger, no one knows if it's going to produce a new world order or a mutant freak, or both. One thing's sure: neither the new compradors nor the new Commies has democracy top of the shopping list. But, then, who ever promised us more than 200 years of democracy and wouldn't you rather nip off to Australia for the beach or Vail, Colorado for the skiing? Most of the rich guys I met in Hong Kong told me things will be just fine when the British go home in July, but then most of them have cut their deals with the Chinese, and all have property outside China with passports to match.
The New Compradors - Deng was surely their godfather - are charming, cool and modern, having been educated in the US or Britain. They wear Brooks Brothers shirts. Italian suits. Baseball hats. Some ride Harleys. Some race horses. Others collect modern art. Most are married to gloriously hospitable high-maintenance babes, the Tai Tai, the ladies who lunch, the most beautiful women I've met, and the most down to earth. They tell you "a full-time maid is the best Valium" (I met two ladies who share eight maids between them), and ask you straight out how much you make or what you drive.
The guys talk the talk and they can do it in soundbites appetising enough for the wariest Westerner. But they are not Western, as one of them pointed out to me. I met Jack (we'll call him Jack) at the top of his skyscraper, one of those competitive architectural marvels Hong Kongers have built to their god. (Mammon never lived so well.) Charmingly, in perfect American English, "Jack" explained how the Chinese are different from Westerners, how they see things through different eyes, out of a different culture. I think he was saying we should butt out, especially when it comes to stuff like democracy. He doesn't have to worry. The West, with Bill Clinton in the lead, can't seem to do enough to kowtow to the Chinese - just think about campaign contributions, just think about those nights in the Lincoln bedroom.
"To get rich is glorious." Deng is grinning up at me from the watch I bought at Shanghai Tang, a shop devoted to the marketing of old China and high-end Commie kitsch, and owned by David Tang, the chief cheerleader for the New Compradors. Tang speaks like the Queen Mum. Or Jeeves, maybe. He was born in Hong Kong, where his grandfather made millions with a bus company. His own father, Billy, was reputedly a gambler and racehorse owner who had a Chinese restaurant in London called Mr Tang's. David didn't get to England until he was 14; he barely spoke English. He learnt fast. He became a clubbable kind of guy.
"Made by Chinese" is Tang's motto, it's on every label at Shanghai Tang, where you can purchase silver-plated chopsticks or linens embroidered with coolies, and the bespoke tailor can whip you up a Cheongsam in luscious red silk or a pink velvet Mao suit. Tang himself wears a modified Chinese suit, call it Mao or Mandarin, and he smokes Cuban cigars. (He's the Cuban consul in Hong Kong, which carries with it the distribution rights to Havanas). As a businessman, Tang understands it's money that matters. He told me he feels that it is only now that Britain has begun to pay money its due respect. But as Hong Kong's major domo to its social scene, escort to Fergie and to Di, Tang also knows that to keep things dynamic in a culture already stuffed with stuff, you have to broker not just hard cash but style.
Tang is a master of the art of the theme park. At Shanghai Tang and at his China Club, where the Hong Kong rich drink bubbly at the Long March Bar, he plays off our feverish dreams of the Orient that never was. Noel Coward meets Indiana Jones.
The mystery of the Orient. The Shanghai of the Thirties when Noel Coward did sit around the Cathay Hotel writing Private Lives, when there were evil gangsters and beautiful women, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Somerset Maugham meets Mao Zedong.
"I hope to become the Ralph Lauren of the East," Tang has said, and as Lauren built an empire reinventing what he perceived as British upper- class life, so Tang is re-making old China. Tang's China Club - it costs around pounds 35,000 a year just to join - is on the 13th floor of the Bank of China Building. It is alleged that in the bad old days, back before Mao and Deng got the new religion, Communist agents worked day and night here to destroy the running dogs of imperialism.
From the terrace of the club you can see the Hong Kong skyline. All that neon. All that light. Hong Kong looks like it could burn itself up. Inside, by midnight, the club buzzes with beautiful people. Waiters in Mao jackets pad across oriental rugs. Ceiling fans twirl, silver spittoons glisten, there are red silk cushions in the dining room and silver chopsticks. And from the wall, in a huge portrait in oils, Mao Zedong beams down, benign, fat, happy in the presence of so much glorious money, as the club mynah bird sings tunes from Peking opera, or was it Madame Butterfly?
Recently I heard that David Tang is about to expand, moving into New York, maybe London or LA. Mao is dead. So is Deng. If anyone had any brains, they'd make Tang the next real head of China. This guy has his finger on the pulse. He is new China man, the New Comprador. Tang is no dumb bear. He is, in fact, if you'll excuse the pun, one very smart cookie.
Reggie Nadelson's thriller `Hot Poppies' is published on Monday (Faber & Faber, pounds 14.99).Reuse content