When Sir David Tang died of liver cancer four years ago, aged 63, he was widely hailed as a business genius. The Hong Kong-born entrepreneur had made a fortune from selling ‘modern Chinoiserie’ to wealthy Western consumers, in 1991 opening the glamorous China Club in the penthouse of Beijing’s old Bank of China building, followed by the 1994 launch of Shanghai Tang, a hugely successful clothes and accessories store.
Next came Cigar Divan, selling the best cigars from Cuba across the world; a keen smoker of enormous Cohiba cigars, he lived high on the hog in a Belgravia house – with an English butler – as well as owning homes on Hong Kong island and at Sai Kung in the New Territories. He was one of the greatest social operators going, helped no end by opening the China Tang restaurant at the Dorchester Hotel; he befriended the great and the good, from Fidel Castro to the Duke of Marlborough, Princess Diana to Margaret Thatcher and Tracey Emin, Kate Moss, Sarah Ferguson and Deng Xiaoping. The last British Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, called him “one of those rare people who cheers the world up”.
Yet according to a new book, Sir David, appointed OBE in 1997 and knighted in 2008, was a gambler, fraudster and, at the time of his death, massively in debt. In the new volume of his former boss J G Cluff’s memoirs, Off the Cluff, he recounts the sad tale of “really an extraordinary man possessed of exceptional gifts but … his flaws were a disarming but ultimately destructive obsession to be not only a celebrity but also to be the peer of the grandest in the land.”
The 81-year-old, known as Algy, is a former chairman and former owner of The Spectator magazine. This fourth volume of memoirs exposes truths about Tang that give a dark undertone to his once-gilded existence. His desire to keep up with his friends, such as the Duke of Marlborough, led to disaster, according to Cluff – his high-spending habits went way beyond his financial abilities. And so, it is said, he turned to gambling, “which merely compounded the problem, leaving him to adopt less acceptable tactics”.
He was one of the greatest social operators going.
Cluff, a former Grenadier Guardsman who hired Tang as an unpaid intern in the early 1980s, writes: “Unfortunately, it emerged after David’s death that, for many years, he had been plundering the assets of various companies without the knowledge of the shareholders, in order to fund his mythomaniacal life. The intense pressure of sustaining this systematic fraud for 20 years must have been terrible and presumably hastened his death.”
Cluff came to realize the severity of Tang’s spending issues after meeting a head waiter at one of his former employee’s clubs. “The waiter had only just been appointed and he told me that previously he had been a croupier at a casino in Curzon Street, where he said he recalled seeing me dining occasionally with ‘Sir David’. The waiter then revealed that he had once been at the receiving end of a $124,000 tip from David, with which he bought himself a house!”
No surprise, perhaps, that Cluff claims the only way Tang could afford this colossal spending was to start looting his companies, his maxim being “if you can gamble with money you can afford, that’s not gambling.” Yes, those companies were successful – and, in that regard, he was a good businessman, but, until he died, the memoir says that Tang had to conceal just how much he was stealing from those companies to keep his wealthy show on the road.
Cluff says “the Hong Kong fraternity talk of little else,” yet the extent of Sir David’s financial indiscretions have never been laid plain in Britain.
Born David Wing-cheung Tang in Hong Kong in 1954, he was the grandson of Sir Shui-kin Tang, one of Hong Kong’s leading businessmen. He was educated first at La Salle College in Hong Kong and, from 13, at the Perse School in Cambridge, one of Britain’s leading independent schools.
After studying philosophy and law at London University, he lectured in philosophy at Peking University before entering the business world in 1985, working for Algy Cluff as his Asian representative; from this springboard, Tang went on become an adviser to the Savoy Hotel Group, the investment firm Blackstone, the Tommy Hilfiger fashion brand and the jeweler Asprey & Garrard.
He also served as an agony uncle for The Financial Times for seven years, offering nuggets of wisdom from the high life to readers. Subjects of his columns included ‘My night with President Putin in the Kremlin’ and ‘The day Kate Moss made me get tattooed with her in a Thai bar’.
In another column, he was asked by a reader to describe his perfect day: he rhapsodized over a high partridge drive in Northumberland; followed by lunch at the rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Danieli in Venice, then “a Punch Double Corona at the Cuban National Ballet school in Havana, while watching an exercise class and drinking a double espresso”; sunset on Malibu beach; a performance of Brahms piano pieces Op 118; “and so to bed”. He wrote a smattering of books too, including Rules for Modern Life: A Connoisseur’s Survival Guide, in 2016.
In 2018, an auction of Tang’s property, including personal gifts from the Royal family, was held at Christie’s, sanctioned by his widow, Lucy. (Tang first married Australian-Chinese film actress Susanna Cheung Suk-yee, with whom he had a son and daughter, in 1983.) At the time, there were murmurings that the sale was going ahead to bolster Lucy’s finances, his gambling having raided the family pot by the time of his death.
Yet for Tang, the party never ended. On his sickbed, the entrepreneur decided to throw a ‘goodbye’ bash at the Dorchester to be attended only by “500 of my closest friends. I want it to be intimate”. Cluff still recalls fondly the intern who “turned out to be better connected than he was”, who later served as his best man.
The waiter then revealed that he had once been at the receiving end of a $124,000 tip from David.
For all his financial calamities, the man was devoted to charity work, Cluff writes, helping to set up the Anglo-Hong Kong Trust, which encouraged Britain to adopt a more benign attitude to the allocation of British passports to Hong Kong citizens. “Alongside his work for cancer charities, David Tang has left an important legacy that cannot be extirpated by subsequent events.”
Perhaps the ‘billionaire socialite’ may have even relished these sordid tales coming to light after his passing. Six years before his death, he said he wished to be remembered by a quote from writer Hilaire Belloc: “When I am dead, I hope it may be said: his sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”
Harry Mount is a journalist based in London and the editor of The Oldie