David Tang: the colourful life of the man behind Hong Kong’s fashion brand with a Shanghai twist

Flamboyant entrepreneur dies aged 63, leaving behind a rich legacy of arts, literature and philanthropy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 5:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 3:28pm

“In business, I think I should’ve gone into property. I see all these people who made so much money, and they’re all stupid.”

Shanghai Tang founder David Tang, who has died aged 63, was a flamboyant entrepreneur and cigar connoisseur, as well as a columnist and “Agony Uncle” for the Financial Times, but it was his penchant for sharp-tongued, unapologetic quotes such as this, compiled by the Post in a 2010 interview, that he may be best remembered for.

In 1994, the Hong Kong businessman’s luxury clothes line redefined the garment industry and put him in a league of global celebrities – Tang was a globetrotter, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous for the past 20-odd years.

He called renowned British architect Norman Foster “my old buddy”, and on one occasion danced with Queen Elizabeth. He lived the life of a socialite but emphatically refused to be called one.

“Thank you for alerting me to this excellent promotion. Except I am not sure I like being described as a socialite!” he wrote to the Post over a report on a Hong Kong Book Fair session in 2013, which he had personally invited renowned British authors to attend, all expenses paid for.

Born into a leading philanthropic family in Hong Kong in 1954, Tang was not entitled to the family fortune as the eldest grandson of the late Tang Shiu-kin, because, as he once wrote in his Financial Times column: “My grandfather was very rich in colonial Hong Kong, [but] he did not like my grandmother, his first concubine, nor her only son, my father. All of us were cast out of the family home and left to fend for ourselves on a very modest income that my grandfather reluctantly provided.”

Although Buddhism was his family’s religion, Tang was baptised a Catholic to gain entry into La Salle College in Hong Kong.

In 1965, he left for Britain to join his parents and attended a boarding school, despite not knowing a word of English. There, he picked up Shakespeare plays and Brahms symphonies, becoming an aficionado of the arts for the rest of his life.

He studied philosophy, majoring in logics, at King’s College and graduated with honours. He later studied law at Cambridge, graduating with a master’s degree.

From 1983 to 1984, he taught English literature and philosophy at Peking University for a salary of 600 yuan a month.

Aside from a short period practising at his grandfather’s law firm, Tang forged his own path in the legal profession by joining other firms of private solicitors in London and Hong Kong, at one time working at an offshore oil and gas company in Chinese waters.

His British-Chinese connection placed him in a special position to broker a deal after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 caused the stagnation of Hong Kong’s new airport project.

“A Hong Kong businessman and I went to see prime minister John Major in such secrecy that even the foreign minister didn’t know about the meeting,” he wrote in his column in the Hong Kong Economic Journal in 2010, in memory of entrepreneur and philanthropist Tsui Tsin-tong, who had died.

“We repeatedly urged the hesitant prime minister: ‘If you don’t go to Beijing, Hong Kong won’t have a new airport and thus lose its competitiveness, and go down the drain.’

Major finally agreed and sent special adviser Percy Cradock to meet [Chinese prime minister] Li Peng and set things up for his own visit to Beijing,” Tang said.

The success of the meeting sealed ties between Tang and Tsui, who together founded the China Club at the Bank of China Building in 1991. The club featured Tsui’s large collections of Chinese art and Tang’s knack for retro Shanghainese design with a modern touch, later to inspire fashion chain Shanghai Tang in 1994.

The club and the fashion label became Tang’s twin towers, earning him global fame and recognition, a momentum which he maintained even after Shanghai Tang changed hands in 1998.

Tang later launched executive clubs in Singapore, Beijing and London after the China Club model in Hong Kong.

Tang, an avid fan of literature, organised the “Open Forum” at the annual Hong Kong Book Fair since 2010, and flew in famed writers such as Stephen Fry, Frederick Forsyth, Jung Chang, Erica Jong and Carol Thatcher.

He did not organise the 2014 and 2017 editions due to poor health.

A pianist in his own right, Tang had performed with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and served on its board of governors until 2011.

As a lover of classical music, he was also an adviser to the London Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Orchestra, and president of the London Bach Society.

These contributions earned Tang the title of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1995, and Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in the 2008 New Year Honours.

“My grandfather was a ‘Sir’ too, though lower than mine by two grades,” he once wrote.

Since being diagnosed with liver cancer in recent years, Tang had been involved in fundraising for the disease by founding the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, and serving as vice-chairman of the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer.

Other charities he was involved in included the Hong Kong Down Syndrome Association, of which he was a founder. He was also a patron of the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation.

Earlier this month, Tang had planned his final farewell party at Dorchester Hotel for close friends, after receiving medical advice and being told that he only had a month or so to live.

On Wednesday, the Financial Times reported Tang’s death. He was 63 and is survived by his mother and brother, his wife Lucy Wastnage and a daughter and son from his first marriage.

Tang left behind a rich legacy in arts and culture, especially for Hong Kong, which he had always considered home.

On June 30, he wrote in his Financial Times column: “Nonetheless, so many of us Chinese stay loyal to Hong Kong. We would never abandon it. It is where we have experienced the remnants of empire and the spectacular ascendancy of China.

We have been part of an extraordinary tale: fast-shifting territorial intrigue and tension, success in spite of failures.”