Remembering the intrepid minivan driver who became a successful Hong Kong entrepreneur
It was 1985, and we were bumping and lurching in a white minivan down a muddy potholed road somewhere outside Wenzhou. Those were the days when China still had no metalled roads beyond any city limits.
After a predawn start, we were hungry. Passing a scruffy roadside food stall, our driver stopped, jumped out, and negotiated with the stallholder to rustle up some eggs and fried noodles for breakfast. Within minutes, this vanload of misplaced western businessmen were tucking in.
An hour later, still bumping along our unmetalled road without signposts, our driver slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt past a small track off into the sugar cane fields. With barely a word, he jumped out and returned smiling 15 minutes later with a large painting wrapped roughly in newspaper. Apparently an artists’ commune he had heard about.
By sunset, in fading light and still battling our way southward from Wenzhou, we rounded a corner to be brought to a screeching halt by a crowd of villagers on straw seats scattered out across the road, all watching a TV show on the village’s only TV.
This was China in 1985. Our driver was David Tang Wing-cheung. We were exploring investment opportunities in Zhejiang. It was all very “do it yourself”.
When David Tang’s life was brought shockingly short by liver cancer early this week, this early journey in a China long transformed flashed vividly back. Was the bon viveur Sir David, friend of Princess Di (who of course also died 20 years ago this week) and Financial Times “Agony Uncle” much changed from the impetuous, creative and deeply eccentric raconteur who guided us life-threateningly in a minivan through Zhejiang province all those years ago? I suspect not a lot.
Back then he was in the pay of Algie Cluff of Cluff Oil, and was negotiating in vain for oil exploration franchises in the East China Sea. China was for most of the world a weird and exotic place. David’s qualification for the role of China business development man for Cluff Oil was a year teaching philosophy and then English at BeiDa.
Like so many intrepid and idealistic young souls at the time, he was unintimidated by his lack of obvious qualification to negotiate oil franchises in China. As the saying goes – in the land of blind men, the one-eyed man is king. David was such a one-eyed man: ethnically Chinese, but spending most of his young life in the UK, he bridged two cultures and wanted to make the most of both of them. He profoundly believed that the challenge was not to choose between China bad, the West good – or vice versa. Rather it was to seek the good, better, best in both of them.
It was David who conceived the distinctive concept of “Made by Chinese”, in contrast with the tawdry mediocrity of “Made in China”. “Made by Chinese” was something to be proud of, and it imbued the inspiration for Shanghai Tang, which he later reluctantly sold to the luxury goods group Richemont.
It also provided the inspiration for the China Club, precociously leased from the Bank of China in 1991, and still today a delectable combination of Chinese art (all of it post-1949), China’s rich history, delicious food, and China’s skills in earning money.
I sometimes wonder whether that painting he acquired for a few fen in 1985 in Zhejiang is somewhere on the China Club’s walls. I also wonder if Chris Patten might in David Tang’s will be gifted the China’s Club’s most politically-incorrect painting – a small watercolour of a tailor (Chris Patten) measuring up Deng Xiaoping for a suit. With the tape measure artfully close to Deng’s trouser fly, the caption is “Taking his Measure”.
David was always deliciously indiscrete, opinionated, politically incorrect, aristocratic, English… but then at the same time schizophrenically proud of Chinese culture, unpretentious, culturally sensitive, and politically egalitarian.
In a famously politically incorrect speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in 2009, he said the secret of civilisation was “divergent views being brought closer together openly, through peaceful, intellectual and intelligent negotiations”. Not for him the Hong Kong government’s pointless quest for consensus. For him, we should be proud of and comfortable with our differences, and arbitrate those differences respectfully and rationally. Not for him the “echo chamber” tribalism of today’s social media.
Perhaps inevitably quoting Churchill, David said at the FCC: “Churchill was supposed to have said that democracy is the worst kind of government, except for those others which have been tried. I should like to think that Hong Kong is the worst kind of place in which to live, except for those others which have been tried.” He defined the “Holy Trinity” that protected Hong Kong and underpinned its unique value: “Its decent judicial system, its fairly uncorrupt community, and genuine freedom.”
Algie Cluff recalled a negotiating mission to Beijing in the early 1980s which included David: “We went to a rather different Beijing from today, with everyone in Mao suits and not a car in sight. David was wearing a pinstriped suit and smoking a cigar, and I never knew if that was helpful.”
I think it was – but only because David was always so authentic in all he said and did. He was the very epitome of the challenge Beijing faced in wrestling with the resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong – complex, bipolar, bicultural, proud but unpretentious. David believed strongly that it was not for Hong Kong to cower obsequiously in its dealings with Beijing, but that there should be respect for transparently discussed and reasonable differences. My sense is that Beijing respected this unashamed bluntness.
In perhaps one big way, David must have perplexed Beijing: his perennial capacity to make fun of pompousness and pretension. For him, there was nothing so serious that it could not be impishly parodied or made fun of. If there is one page they should take from David Tang’s rich and colourful life, it is that they should take themselves a little less seriously.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view