Inside David Tang’s exclusive China Club in Hong Kong with long-time member, designer Alan Chan

We get a rare peek inside the late entrepreneur David Tang’s opulent members’ club in the old Bank of China building with its contemporary Chinese art, well-stocked library, superb Cantonese food and Shanghai tea house vibe

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 September, 2017, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 September, 2017, 8:19pm

Designer Alan Chan is a long-time member of China Club and only qualifies himself as an acquaintance of David Tang Wing-cheung, who died on August 30 from lung cancer in London at the age of 63.

“He said, ‘There are so many people who say they are a friend of David Tang, or Tang is their close friend. But those who have never had dinner, wined and dined with me should not call me a friend.’ So I’m not a friend of David Tang,” says Chan. “But, of course, I have spoken to him a few times, on different occasions.”

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Chan knew the cultural ambassador before China Club was opened in 1991, and says its success led to the launch of Shanghai Tang three years later that eventually went global under Richemont in 2008, and was recently sold to Italian entrepreneur Alessandro Bastagli.

Tang was also involved in restaurants such as Island Tang and China Tang, and he decorated Howard’s Gourmet.

Less than a week after the flamboyant entrepreneur died, Chan took the Post on a tour of the club that takes visitors back in time to 1930s and ’40s Shanghai.

Back in the mid-’80s, Tang was already thinking about opening China Club in the old Bank of China building; when the bank agreed to rent the upper floors to him, the businessman flew into action, realising his vision with fellow entrepreneur and philanthropist Tsui Tsin-tong within six months.

The last time Chan spoke to Tang was two months ago, when the designer requested photographs of the original Shanghai Tang store on Pedder Street, for a recent nostalgic exhibition that was shown at City Hall and Comix Home Base.

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Chan specifically wanted pictures of the back of the store where qipao tailors worked with bolts of colourful silk on the walls.

“He replied, ‘I’m sorry I don’t have it, but I have a book, you can get it, my secretary will get it for you.’ He was very friendly.”

When China Club opened in 1991, Chan admits he didn’t get a corporate membership right away – it was HK$150,000 at the time, which he thought was expensive, and kept borrowing his friend’s membership card because his overseas friends kept begging him to take them there.

But eventually Chan bit the bullet and realised he was drawn to the club for nostalgic reasons.

“I remember from my childhood my father used to run a shop selling fruit. He used to go to the fruit market at six in the morning and then on Saturdays and Sundays he usually came home to wake us up to go to Luk Yu tea house,” he says.

“This [gesturing at the dining room] is a much better and larger, glamorous looking tea house. That memory triggered me to become a member, not to mention my friends asking me to take them here. I think my interest in contemporary art started here. It gave me a picture of what contemporary art in China is.”

He credits Johnson Chang of Hanart TZ Gallery for helping Tang curate the numerous artworks on the walls, featuring artists who were on the verge of becoming famous, such as Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang.

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“A lot of artists admitted they became successful or famous because of China Club,” Chan says. “It showcases the depth of contemporary Chinese art since the Cultural Revolution. Everything you want to know is captured here.”

While Chan likes to describe China Club as a museum, he is quick to add it is much more than that – a place for people to gather and admire the attention to detail. In the dining area by the windows, tablecloths and napkins have a large star embroidered on them, there are red roses in a silver vase, and rosewood chairs are carved with Chinese designs and covered in dark lacquer.

He says Tang must have worked quickly to buy up as much antique Chinese furniture as he could from China – a kind of conservation project – as these pieces are now very hard to find.

Tang chose the wallpaper himself and changed it periodically. The last time was in March. What would happen now that he is gone? No one had an answer.

The place looks like it’s well lived in, with antique clocks that need to be wound up, old antique fans, and well-used couches.

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Tang took the upper floors of the building that were originally used by the Bank of China’s executives and staff as offices and dormitories and turned them into an exclusive, elegant space.

“When people visit the main dining room, the chandelier is authentic. But the entire setting has been completely recreated out of nothing – people think it’s been here for ages. So I think that’s the beauty about what David has done to this place,” explains Chan. “It’s a fake setting but it feels like it’s been here for a while.”

One of the upstairs rooms was converted into a library, and practically every wall space features bookcases filled with books on China. There’s even a fireplace. On the same floor is one of the last original bathrooms the staff used. In the black and white room there is a shower and tub with large marble tiles. A bathroom like this must have been a luxury then, and it still looks in good condition today.

Downstairs in the main dining room, Chan says another good reason to be a member of China Club is its food, in particular the Cantonese steamed fish.

“We have steamed fish in every [Cantonese] restaurant. But this is where you get the best steamed fish in town. I think it’s because of David. He was meticulous down to the last detail. He would say, ‘You can’t be good – you have to be f***ing good.’

“The authenticity of the Cantonese food here is good,” continues Chan. “It has maintained its tradition, not only with a setting to make the foreigners feel good, but to educate them about China and Hong Kong. It is sophisticated down to every detail – a lot of people take it for granted.”

Chan is keen for people to understand that China Club was not just for socialites, even though Tang moved in those circles, but he used his status to make the place successful. “I don’t think in his mind he wanted to be a star, but I think he knew how to play the game. He was a very nice, elegant man. He used to say, ‘I am what I give, not what I’m given’.”