Some might argue that David Tang is as much an icon of modern Hong Kong as is I.M. Pei’s landmark Bank of China. Whether cavorting with the Duchess of York or jet-setting around town clad in his trademark traditional Chinese silk and smoking a Cuban cigar, Mr Tang’s influence and power is ubiquitous, extending throughout Hong Kong and beyond. His CV lists over twenty directorships in various corporations, including the ultra-chic department store Shanghai Tang and the elite China Club.
Not surprisingly, arranging a meeting with Mr Tang is a difficult task. Recent attempts to track him down found him in Havana, where he was nominated for the “Man of year” award (but, alas, lost) for his part in promoting the Cuban cigar industry—of which he is responsible for a sizable percentage through his Cigar Divan outlet.
The erudite, Cambridge-educated Mr Tang is also one of the world’s foremost collectors of Chinese avant-garde art, a loose category that includes “political pop” artists such as Yu Youhan and Li Shan (see p.41). For over fifteen years he has been amassing an impressive inventory of paintings and it is clear that collecting is one of Mr Tang’s greatest joys. “I think that collecting engenders so much pleasure in the collector—even if the collection is not any good.”
Mr Tang’s collection has taken over his physical world. Art is part of all his living spaces, “from the moment I open my eyes, underneath the bed, on the ceiling, over the loo, the whole lot. I just have so many pictures I don’t know where half of them are, and it’s so wonderful to stash them away somewhere and suddenly bring them out.”
He claims to have only a vague idea of the size of his collection. “A few hundred paintings,” sounds a bit modest, but he is working on a complete catalogue. It is therefore ironic that he humbly refers to his passion as a “habit.”
“Everybody has got habits, and one of the nicest and one of the worst habits, I think, is collecting. It is nicest because you make something that is special in your life, and sometimes in the lives of many. But it is also the worst because it could bankrupt you because invariably when you are collecting, you’re talking about spending money.”
Part of Mr Tang’s talent though is his ability to structure his professional life in order to incorporate his passion into his work. The Shanghai Tang department store features clothing and memorabilia adorned with images from his collection, while the China Clubs in Hong Kong and Beijing are embellished with art everywhere–on the stairs, lining the walls in the bars, libraries and private dining rooms. The Hong Kong club recalls an idealised version of Shanghai in the 20s, while the Beijing version has taken over a restored sixteenth-century courtyard palace. Members of the upper echelons of the business community are willing to part with around $15,000 for the privilege of belonging to this exclusive networking base.
“In my businesses, I am often in direct contact with my customer and in all these cases I have to create an image of some sort, whether it be the cigars, or the shop or the China Clubs. If that style becomes acceptable to the public, that is a double luxury because I am actually working on something that I really enjoy. And I am always very chuffed when people come up to me and say what a nice place the China Club is, how nice the art on the walls is.”
Whether intentionally or not, Mr Tang’s art activities also distract attention from aspects of his business which might be less stylish. Last year, Mr Tang faced legal action relating to his services as a director of an investment and property company which lost HK$124.5 million during Mr Tang’s tenure.
In the previous year, Mr Tang received a slap on the wrist by the High court for his role in running the locally listed MKI Corporation, which was eventually issued with an unprecedented “winding up” petition.
Mr Tang’s achievement as a collector, though, is striking in light of the cultural history of Hong Kong. Mr Tang describes his upbringing as “very middle class,” though one might suspect he is being modest as he was sent abroad for university. Still, collecting was not part of the Hong Kong culture of his youth in the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, some might argue that it is still not widespread. And while in recent years Hong Kong’s rise to affluence has spawned a number of collectors of Chinese antiquities, the collecting of modern art is still relatively new.
Mr Tang recalls the first exhibition in Hong Kong of Zhang Da Qing in the 1960s. He went as a child and remembers it as the first time he recognised an amazing evolution of Chinese art and that it was not just black ink on paper and a splash of colour, but that it could be a very sumptuous blue and magenta and green which Zhang Da Qing made famous. From that moment on, he became excited about what Chinese artists could do.
For Mr Tang, the important element in building his collection is that the origin of the artist be Chinese, whether based in New York, Taiwan or the Mainland. “I think there is something a bit more meaningful about collecting Chinese art, because my blood is Chinese and these are other people whose blood is Chinese.”
With few champions of contemporary Chinese art even today, Mr Tang has the pick of the crop. He has effectively built his own market. Sometimes he decides to buy a painting because he feels passionate about a work; sometimes he buys it for the club. Essentially, the collections are part and parcel of the same entity, though Mr Tang knows “which works I would want tomorrow if I had to formalise my collection.” This arrangement gives Mr Tang great scope as a collector and has helped to raise his profile. He knows that he has carved a niche for himself in a relatively new field, making him, in a sense, a king on an island rather than a nobody in a vast kingdom.
This dedication to avant-garde Chinese art has been developed in conjunction with Johnson Chang, one of the foremost curators of Chinese contemporary art (and co-owner with Mr Tang of TZ Hanart, a required stop for contemporary art professionals and collectors visiting Hong Kong). Mr Tang calls himself a “funding partner” of the gallery, which gives him the right to “choose what I want to buy.”
However the relationship with Mr Chang goes beyond the traditional dealer/collector association. Mr Tang characterises it as a tremendous friendship.
The partners travel around the world persuading people to look at the new art. Mr Tang believes that interest in Chinese avant-garde art will become progressively more apparent, and the galleries that have opened in the West to display contemporary Chinese art do tend to bear him out.
“I wouldn’t have thought that Chinese art would become a force internationally for five or ten years, not only because it’s completely new and it takes time to graduate, but also because if you look at Western art and the dominance of the Americans and the Europeans, to break into that market you have a lot of work to do. It’s uphill all the way.”
Sitting in Mr Tang’s office one is surrounded by antique clocks, old maps and much kitsch, such as a brightly patterned picnic box, purchased on his recent trip to Havana, or a rhinestone studded frame. It is clear that Mr Tang’s collecting activities are not limited to Chinese paintings. The conference room is dominated by a wall of portraits done in traditional British portraiture style—“fifty pounds each,” he claims. “The frames are actually more valuable than the pictures but I was amused by them. I just thought I should have a board of directors, a phantom board of all nationalities. So here we have a Pakistani, a Frenchman, a rather morose looking Polish chap, and a Middle Eastern gentleman. I just buy junk. Essentially I’m a scavenger. I collect amusement.”
He also collects books, stacks and stacks of books, and a few choice Western paintings as well. Mr Tang recently purchased a Sam Francis during a trip to LA, and behind his desk hangs an “amusing” Mark Kostabi, “The autopsy,” a massive oil painting after Rembrandt, featuring Andy Warhol on the dissection table.
For all the pleasure Mr Tang derives from his “habit,” he is also very realistic about the boundaries of this pleasure. “For me it is not an obsession I try not to be sentimental. I think the difference between being sentimental and romantic is that if you are sentimental you attach a great deal of value to material things so that if there were a fire and your Canaletto were destroyed you would go absolutely haywire and then go into a loony bin. I don’t think I’m as obsessive as that.” He is not against selling works from his collection; in fact he feels it necessary in order to “trim” his inventory, to “average up.”
This sober approach to collecting extends to his thoughts on the pending hand-over of Hong Kong to the Chinese and the possible implications of the discrepancies between current import and export laws on the Mainland and in Hong Kong.
Mr Tang claims not to be worried about his art. His collection will probably be safe from restrictions, as the Chinese export laws refer mainly to antiquities (see The Art Newspaper No. 68, February 1996, p. 1).
“My collection is not worth that much and if they take it away, then they take it away. One should not be so attached to one artefact or painting. If the day comes when I can not take something out I would once have been able to, I will not be worrying about that. I will be worrying about much greater things.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Jay Gatsby of Hong Kong?'