Sir David Tang isn’t one to mince his words. Nor is he one to compromise on his vision or beliefs, apparently. The famously outspoken entrepreneur, philanthropist and designer has made headlines here and in the UK for his glamorous lifestyle, but for all his toffish, high-flying tendencies, Tang’s world revolves around a set of firmly-rooted principles.
That becomes clear on a bright November morning at Tang’s Mid-Levels home. Dressed in a tailored Savile Row suit, white square tucked loosely in his breast pocket, Tang has just finished a hearty breakfast of instant noodles topped with a fried egg – he had been fasting for a blood test, so he was particularly famished. “Do you mind if I smoke a cigar?” he asks, opening a drawer and pulling out a large Cohiba. He sits down on an overstuffed sofa, lights the cigar and puffs out a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke. “I have no idea what you’re going to ask me, I have no idea what you’re about,” he laughs.
It’s something Tang often says to journalists who visit him at home, whether he is in Hong Kong, Beijing or London. You get the sense he isn’t entirely joking: Tang is a generous character – generous enough to let strangers in his home to ask him who knows what. Often, the enquiry has to do with his many celebrity friends, or his many business ventures, including Shanghai Tang, the China Club and Tang Tang Tang Tang, to name just a few. We’re here to talk about two aspects of Tang’s life that don’t get as much attention: his philanthropy and his style.
In a sense, the two are intertwined. “There’s confidence in the realisation that luxury is comfort,” he says. His own flat is a case in point. At first, it seems overwhelming, a frenzy of colours and patterns and objects. Six chandeliers of varying types hang from the ceiling; the walls are filled with dozens of paintings; there are stacks of books everywhere. A photo of Tang meeting Pope Francis sits on the serving tray of a colonial statue meant to look like an African servant; more photos arranged on a grand piano reveal Tang with Prince Charles and Camilla, Tang with David Cameron, Tang with an assortment of beautiful people. Three Roman busts dominate the dining room. It is eccentric, eclectic, unique – and after a short while, it starts to feel like home. This is not the pristine luxury of the Upper House or the Mandarin Oriental; this is the luxury of a life well lived.
Tang was born in Hong Kong in 1954. His grandfather, Tang Shiu-kin, was the founder of the Kowloon Motor Bus company and one of Hong Kong’s most prominent philanthropists, but he had a strained relationship with David’s father. “When I wanted to see my grandfather, I had to ring up his secretary,” he said in 2007. “It was then necessary to look at the Chinese almanac so as to pick a ‘good hour’ to meet.” At age 13, he was sent to boarding school in England, where he remained until 1983, when he moved to Beijing to teach philosophy and English at Peking University, earning 600 RMB a month – ”200 more than Deng Xiaoping.”
In 1991, Tang opened the China Club on the top three floors of the old Bank of China Building on Des Voeux Road. It set a tone that would be repeated throughout Tang’s other ventures, including Shanghai Tang, the clothing brand he founded in 1994 and sold in 1998, and Tang Tang Tang Tang, a new lifestyle brand launched in 2013 (the name is meant to be said in harmony with the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), which Tang says is meant to give China’s growing middle class a taste of sophistication beyond brand-name luxury.
Along the way, there have been more clubs, restaurants and cigar lounges, all of them stamped with Tang’s unmistakable style. “It’s a bit eclectic, I suppose. Visual satisfaction is something I always crave for. Things have got to look right. [Even] if it’s jumbled up together, that’s fine.” Tang creates spaces he would want to inhabit. “So many designers these days are not end users,” he says. He hates that today’s trendy restaurants are filled with hard surfaces, which makes them deafeningly loud. He hates how the first class cabins on British Airways don’t have a trough in which to keep your drink. He once spilled orange juice all over himself because there was nowhere secure to put it. “It just drove me completely mad,” he says.
Tang’s describes his design process as “organic” – he creates a mock-up and then works closely with his contractor, Albert Kwan, with whom he has collaborated for 25 years. They work together with ruthless efficiency. “We don’t have time to suffer fools,” he says. He certainly lives by those words: Tang is infamously direct, with a fearsome temper, and visitors to his homes are often shocked by the way he hurls abuse at his household staff. But those staff have been with him for decades — ”They know I don’t mean it,” he says — and for all his abrasiveness, Tang’s social circle is vast. “I’m lucky to have so many friends,” he says.
It could be a result of Tang’s magnanimity. Tang has followed in his grandfather’s philanthropic footsteps, raising large amounts of money for a diverse range of charities, from the Hong Kong Cancer Fund (which he founded) to China Tiger Revival, for which he held a charity dinner last year with comedian Stephen Fry. And while Tang is known for his ego — reflected in the way he stamps his name on his commercial ventures, or in the two statues of himself that stand sentinel outside his home — he does not share his grandfather’s insistence on being endlessly recognised for his charity.
“Gratitude is not a currency you should ever consider having,” he says. “It’s not a claim to a right. You give what you can. My motto is we are what we give, not what we are given. Churchill said, ‘We make a living out of what we have, but we make a life out of what we give.’ If we are able to give, we should. I think philanthropy should be one thing in life that is unilateral. You can’t expect anything back.”
Tang makes a point of hiring disabled people to work in his office, and China Club is staffed with elderly workers who might struggle to find jobs elsewhere. Tang doesn’t often advertise these facts – it seems they stem from the same sense of loyalty he feels towards his assistants or his contractor. “Those who have been in our employment for many long years should not be made to retire at 60 or 65 or 70 or even older if they want to continue to work,” he says.
That’s something Tang wishes for himself. He has faced a number of health problems — debilitating psoriasis in the past, liver cancer more recently — but he remains as pugnacious and ambitious as ever. “If you have a choice to do whatever you want in life, surely you want to go and see the most number of places, to meet the most number of people, to learn the most number of things, to be curious about even more things,” he says. “Curiosity – they say it kills the cat, which is the most ridiculous proposition. Curiosity brings the best out of the human race.”