David Tang, Fashion Retailer and Raconteur, Dies at 63

Editor’s remark: This is another example of our regular section “Personalities” which you do find pracically weekly in our Premium News

David Tang, the founder of Shanghai Tang, a global chain of flashy emporiums of Chinese-inspired clothing, accessories and home furnishings, and a prominent writer and raconteur in Hong Kong and Britain, died on August 30, 2017 in London. He was 63.

David Tang
David Tang in 2007 at his home in Hong Kong

Shanghai Tang confirmed his death. The Financial Times, for which Mr. Tang wrote a weekly advice column, said the cause was cancer.

Tang was born into affluence in Hong Kong on Aug. 2, 1954; his grandfather Tang Shiu Kin founded the city’s dominant Kowloon Motor Bus Company in 1933.

David was sent to the Perse School, a boarding school in Cambridge, England, when he was 13. He then studied philosophy at King’s College in London and law at Cambridge before returning to Hong Kong.

From the start he showed an uncommon entrepreneurial talent, creating a series of sophisticated and highly successful start-ups in Hong Kong, among them Shanghai Tang; the Pacific Cigar Company, with plush hideaways for cigar lovers; and the exclusive China Club, made up of elegant dining rooms at the top of a former bank building downtown, with décor featuring a collection of Mao-era Chinese art.

Tang also dabbled in oil exploration along the Chinese coastline and gold mining in Africa and Australia. He opened high-end restaurants in London and elsewhere. And he was sought out by multinational companies to join their boards, in part because of his connections in an economically expanding China. He became a prominent adviser to companies like Blackstone, Tommy Hilfiger and British Airways.

Tang said in 2012 that his founding of the Pacific Cigar Company in 1992 had been a formative experience in tapping into East Asia’s increasingly prosperous elite.

Appreciating that cigar lovers tended to be affluent but that cigar smoke was not always so loved by others, he set up clubs where cigars, wine and fine food could be enjoyed far from any crowds. He also obtained the exclusive right to import Cuba’s famous Habanos cigars.

Tang later sold much of his stake in Pacific Cigar but was still the company’s chairman at his death.

He founded Shanghai Tang in 1994, initially as a Hong Kong emporium to showcase lifestyle, fashion and home products that drew on the glamour of Chinese styles of the 1920s and ’30s and gave them a more contemporary gloss. The first store, catering to tourists, soon became one of a chain: Dozens of outlets opened worldwide, from Bangkok and Singapore to London and New York.

Richemont, the Swiss luxury group and owner of such brands as Chloe, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier, took a stake in Shanghai Tang in 1998 and went on to acquire full ownership in 2008.

But despite attempts to position the company as a Chinese luxury brand, Shanghai Tang began to lose popularity in China; its offerings apparently failed to resonate with shoppers there. In July, Richemont announced that it had sold the company to Alessandro Battagli, an Italian businessman, for an undisclosed sum.

Known for mingling with A-listers and royalty, Mr. Tang was reputed to have the best address book in London. An accomplished pianist who could recite poetry by heart, he formed close friendships with celebrities like the actor Russell Crowe and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. He was a confidant of the supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell

In his column for The Financial Times, which appeared on weekends, he dispensed advice on social etiquette and entertaining while peppering his answers to inquiries with outrageous anecdotes about his own experiences and those of his rich and famous friends.

When a reader asked how to request that friends turn on the central heating in their country home when accepting visitors, he responded:

“Arrive in some mountaineering gear with goggles resembling Captain Scott, and say you are practicing to go to the Antarctic and would prefer, for assimilation, to keep all your clothes on for drinks and dinner. If your feeling cold were still to go unnoticed, blow into your gloved hands, shake like a jelly in a high wind and remark that your friend’s house provides perfect conditions for training.”

In his final years, Mr. Tang became an increasingly caustic critic of how Beijing and its chosen leaders of Hong Kong had suppressed calls for greater democracy. When the territory’s chief executive, CY Leung, began his annual policy address last year by mentioning democracy but failed to follow through on how he might achieve greater pluralism, Mr. Tang went to the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club and delivered a blistering speech.

“Whoever wrote that for the chief executive, if he himself did not write it, must be a comedian, or perhaps a monkey who accidentally typed up those words on a typewriter,” he said.

Tang continued to start businesses. In 2011 he set up ICorrect, a website intended to help celebrities correct misinformation about them. Two years later he opened Tang Tang Tang Tang, another upper-middle-market boutique in Hong Kong, selling everything from $100 rice cookers to $180 cashmere ties.

He was knighted in 2008 for his charitable work.

In an interview with The Financial Times in 2010, Mr. Tang said he would like to be remembered by a Hilaire Belloc quote: “When I am dead, I hope it may be said: His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

Tang’s survivors include his wife, Lucy, and two children, Victoria and Edward, from his first marriage, to Susanna Cheung, an actress, which ended in divorce.

Tang’s death came a week before what he hoped would be his farewell party. He had sent a bittersweet invitation asking friends to join him at the Dorchester hotel in the luxurious Mayfair neighbourhood of London. “He was sitting in his hospital bed to the last, making detailed plans for how it would run,” said Ewan Venters, chief executive of Fortnum & Mason, the British luxury department stores. “I had a wonderful chat with him about who would and would not make the list. It was a deep discussion, on the difference between friends and acquaintances, and which relationships truly make life richer.”