Core blimey!

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 September, 2006, 12:00am

SHANGHAI TANG FOUNDER David Tang Wing-cheung isn't joking when he describes himself as a late learner. It took the flamboyant businessman half a dozen attempts to pass his O-level English exam. 'Six times!' he says incredulously before snickering at the memory.


A teacher at his school in Britain told him that English would never be his forte. Tang recalls with glee meeting the man years later and asking (with the facility of someone born to the language): ''Do you remember telling me I would never speak English fluently?' He said yes, and I called him a name that is unprintable.'


Tang can afford to be smug, having not only mastered his second language but also adding a literary feather to his cap. A nascent author, as he calls himself - in English, to boot - the man behind Shanghai Tang, the China Club, Pacific Cigar, Cipriani and China Tang restaurant in London's Mayfair is so seduced by the thrill of seeing his work between covers that he promises more to come.


Tang's debut, An Apple a Week, is a collection of English-language columns written between 2004 and February this year for Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper. 'I was asked to encourage and teach people how to improve their English,' says Tang. Every week for 18 months he wrote 800-1,000 words on a theme of his choice. 'I would always write it the night before the deadline. You must always sleep on something and look at it the following morning.'


Tang writes with as much conviction as he speaks. Touching on everything from 'the lavatorial' Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, to Hong Kong losing its Chinese identity, Disneyland (a 'plastic world of pastiche') and Albert Einstein, he mixes criticism with humour: In a column titled 'E=mc2', while bemoaning the public's lack of interest in the sciences, he offers the following explanation of the famous equation: 'If I could release all the energy in my body, I would explode with the force of 30 large hydrogen bombs. Thankfully, physics does not allow me to unlock all that energy. Otherwise, it would be quite useful when I want to make a point.'


Explosive though he may be, Tang says he has failed to sway the government on certain issues. One, which would gel with its policy of inclusion, is taking a lead in employing young adults with Down's syndrome. In the chapter 'I Will Now Stalk the Government', he segues from a Fatal Attraction-type episode with a female fan to a plea for support of people afflicted.


Stephen, an office assistant with Down's syndrome, provides the transition when Tang's meeting with the stranger ends on a threatening note. Stephen goes to the aid of his boss, wraps his arms around the crazed woman and carries her out. 'If the government were to take on just one person that would be a good example,' says Tang.


He also confronts Chinese naysayers of western concepts, in particular democracy, which he points out was the goal of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China. 'I don't understand when people say democracy doesn't fit the Chinese system,' he says. 'It's this total lack of a sense of history that infuriates me about those who now say western precepts cannot work in a Chinese society and, even worse, conflate a communist way of life to a Chinese way of life.'


Although passionate, Tang's views on 'the things that irritate me' won't surprise readers who follow topics of the day. More interesting, if only in a vicarious way, are his personal experiences.


In 'I Hate Number 15', Tang relives the day he gambled away everything by betting on that number on every spin of the roulette wheel. That included the London apartment his grandfather, Sir Tang Shiu-kin, bought him as part of a deal. 'I had started a PhD in philosophy,' Tang says. 'But he said, 'If you become a lawyer, I'll buy you a flat.'' Although he can laugh about it now, Tang says, 'I cannot describe the feeling of leaving a casino and having lost everything you have - and not knowing how to get it back.'


But win it back he did, including the money borrowed from one Mr Kwan. Having promised to do his creditor a favour if ever he could, Tang writes about receiving a phone call 20 years later from Kwan, who asked if Shanghai Tang could hire his daughter. But that was only part one. 'Five years later, he phoned me again,' Tang says. He told his friend he had already called in his favour. 'He said, 'I know, but will you employ my son?' He's still working for me. That's life.'


Stories such as this have earned Tang the raconteur tag. Add to this his ability to drop aphorisms into conversation, recite poetry and quote the famous and it's clear why he chooses Hilaire Belloc for his motto: 'When I am dead, I hope it may be said, 'His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.''


True to Tang's brief of using his columns to improve the English of Hong Kong readers, he recommends the work of authors whose writing helped polish his skills, including Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and Jane Austen. And although he appreciates all that writing involves, in 'Are You Stupid?' he opens with the statement: 'I detest adjectives and adverbs in business.' Showing his mercantile side, he says he has banned these words in office memos for the sake of clarity. Evincing a dislike of fudgers, he returns to the game that nearly caused his downfall and says: 'The slot between two numbers in roulette is one-eighth of an inch. That could mean life or death. It doesn't matter if it nearly went in. All I'm interested in is what happened. Adverbs are of absolutely no consequence in life.'


It will be surprising, however, if they don't show up in his next book. 'I know I can't write a masterpiece yet.' But he says the medium is the message. 'It doesn't matter [what I write about]. Words that move the emotions should be the goal of every author.'


It's a pity then - although understandable - that his plan for book two has been vetoed by his wife, Lucy, whom Tang credits with encouraging him to write. 'I wanted to ask my past girlfriends to give me back some of my love letters,' he says, chuckling at his audacity. 'I wanted to republish them anonymously, but my wife said, 'No way'.'


However, rejection has done little to dampen his spirits - Tang has taken a bite of the apple and wants more. So enthused is he about 'the physical presence' of his writing that he doesn't seem to worry about what critics might say. 'Lots of people I know think I'm ghastly or terrible or arrogant,' he says. 'Anything that requires a performance on your part is open to critical review. Cromwell made the famous remark when being painted. He said: 'Warts and all'.'


An Apple a Week by David Tang (Next, HK$150)