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The Tribute

How Sir David Tang Became The King Of London’s Party Scene

Only the most talented host could sustain friendships with Charles and Diana – and Ms Kate Moss

  • Sir David Tang photographed at 5 Hertford Street, London, 11 June 2012. Photograph by Mr Jonathan Becker/Contour by Getty Images.

It takes true hostly panache, and great self-confidence, to throw a Chinese New Year party to celebrate the Year of the Cock and seat Ms Monica Lewinsky between Mr Nigel Farage, the smirking architect of Brexit, and Mr Robin Birley, the founding genius of London’s smartest club, 5 Hertford Street. Which is exactly what the late Sir David Tang did this February at The Dorchester hotel.

At that same party, the Hong Kong-born and British-educated entrepreneur, wit, philanthropist, super-host and provocative agony uncle for the Financial Times House & Home section also entertained Prince Michael of Kent, Ms Eva Herzigova, Sir Michael Caine, Ms Cherie Blair, Dame Kristin Scott Thomas, the Duchess of York and myriad other glamorous guests, as he had done time and again. But for once, alas, Ms Kate Moss, with whom Sir David often holidayed, was absent from the revels staged by a man she called “Uncle Dave” and for whom she created an adoring acrostic:

nique
otorious
harismatic
ovable
ccentric

aring
nal
ivacious
nigmatic

All these, of course, are qualities that sum up the dazzling host Sir David was – one of his daring dinner party tips to avoid boring conversations was “always to try and invite people you think will not get on”.

But Ms Moss’ acrostic was also an apt tribute to a man who lost his fortune gambling while a student in London and then made several more. First, by befriending Mr Fidel Castro and persuading the Maximum Leader to grant him the exclusive licence to distribute Cuban cigars to all the countries of the Pacific rim, setting up splendid “Cigar Divans” in which aficionados could smoke them. Sir David amplified his wealth by acting as an intermediary to those wishing to do business with China. Also, it was his secret intervention that helped then British Prime Minister, Sir John Major, break the deadlock over the building of Hong Kong’s new airport.

  • Ms Kate Moss and Sir David Tang at 50 St James, London, 15 November 2012. Photograph by Mr Dave M Benett/Getty Images

More openly, he founded the exclusive China Club, first in Hong Kong, and then in Singapore and Peking, as he insisted was the correct name of China’s capital. For the Peking opening in 1996, he flew in Mr Kevin Costner, the press baron Sir Jocelyn Stevens and the heiress Ms Isabel Goldsmith, amusing them with a picnic on the Great Wall of China that was served by white-gloved waiters carrying silver cutlery and crystal glassware. He also prospered as the founder of the Shanghai Tang emporia, selling subtly mocking versions of “chinoiserie” in the shape of clothes and household goods, and as an adviser to the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, the Savoy hotel group, and the Blackstone investment firm. And he achieved notoriety dispensing curmudgeonly advice in the FT on matters social, sexual, technological and sartorial – he was anti men wearing flip flops, writing that, “You really don’t want to expose your toes to people, unless you’re Jesus Christ.” He had his shoes made at John Lobb, wore Welsh & Jefferies suits as a young man, and had his shirts made at Turnbull & Asser. His knighthood, which he received wearing a black silk Mandarin suit, was awarded in 2008 for services to charity.

Sadly, on 29 August 2017, Sir David died of liver cancer aged 63, just a week before the “intimate” – he was joking – party for 500 he had decided to give when his doctors told him he had but a month to live. “I thought,” he told prospective guests, “the best way to go would be to give a party where we can see each other one more time, rather than at a memorial service where I shall be dead as a dodo.” There spoke the quintessential social animal.

His death, said Mr Geordie Greig, editor of The Mail On Sunday, “created an incredibly large vacuum. No one gave bigger or lived larger. He was generous to a fault. Even if there was no need to pay for someone else, he would.”

  • Sir David Tang and Sarah, Duchess of York at Tango: A Hot Night at the Royal Academy, London, 18 June 2001. Photograph by Mr Alan Davidson/REX Shutterstock

Generous indeed. According to the actor Mr Stephen Fry, “If you had a birthday, published a book, had been away for three months, got engaged, had been trashed in the public prints, won an award or broken an arm, [Sir] David would use it as a pretext for holding a dinner in your honour. Given that he did this for so many in his enormously wide circle of friends, this meant one was being invited to parties, dinners and routs held in honour of someone or other at a rate of at least two a week.”

And he did it brilliantly. “He had a spectacular gift for party giving,” said Mr Andrew Roberts, the celebrated historian and, most recently, best-selling biographer of Napoleon. “He was mischievous, naughty and funny. And he was like Princess Diana: as he talked to you and you bathed in the luxury of his splendid munificence, you thought you were the only person in the world, and you didn’t mind a jot when he turned his charm on someone else a moment later.” 

Such was his charm that Sir David even managed the difficult feat of remaining friends with both Prince Charles and Princess Diana through thick and thin. Real friends, too. As Mr Roberts added, “He wasn’t a name-dropper, he actually was friends with all these people.”

  • Mr Ronnie Wood and Sir David Tang at Ms Naomi Campbell’s Olympic Celebration Dinner, London, 9 August 2012. Photograph by Mr Dave M Benett/Getty Images

The extraordinary breadth of his friendships was crucial to his success as a party-giver. A reader of his FT column once chided Sir David for having “the temerity to call a reader ‘a fool’ in print” and went on to suggest that if such rudeness were to be countenanced, “we might as well get Guns ‘N’ Roses to contribute”. To which Sir David replied, “I will indeed ask Mr Axl Rose who, when calm, is a most excellent fellow. I once sat my mother-in-law next to him at dinner. She had absolutely no idea who he was.”

It was in this social legerdemain that Sir David’s genius lay. Of course, the food he served was top class, as you would expect of a man who created the China Tang restaurant at The Dorchester, where many of his grandest dinners were held and where the staff were plentiful and immaculate – Mr Roberts remembers the Peking Duck with rapture. Sir David often served English food at home, and provided the finest of Italian cuisine at the Cipriani in Hong Kong, which he and Mr Giuseppe Cipriani established as a private members’ club. Naturally, the wines were splendid, though Sir David was himself teetotal. But as Ms Kate Reardon, editor of British social bible Tatler, and longstanding friend of Sir David’s, put it, “His parties were the place to be that night, full of interesting people. They may not have been the nicest people, but they were never, never dull. That was the joy of them: they offered you a window onto a new world, you had to up your game and you were right at the thick of things.” For Mr Nicky Haslam, interior decorator and social arbiter, Sir David “was a wonderful host. He did it well: delicious food, lots of nice people, great fun.”

And full of incident: the designer Ms Stella McCartney once observed an enraged fellow guest attempting to throttle Sir David with his tie. Even when others gave a party on Sir David’s behalf, things happened. Mr Dafydd Jones, then society photographer for Vanity Fair, recalls that when the art dealer Mr Larry Gagosian gave a party in Los Angeles for Sir David, both Sir Mick Jagger and Ms Bianca Jagger showed up, neither having seen the other for years. (Sir Mick once remarked that, “David Tang brings something extra to life, which is what we all want.”)

Sir David had a further party trick up his sleeve. As Mr Haslam notes, the Tang fetes “didn’t go on too long”. Indeed not: Sir David liked to be in bed by 10.30pm and would clap his hands and bawl at his guests, “Come on, time to go.” Or, “F**k off home” as he cried to those lingering at the launch of his last book, Rules For Modern Life. “Loved that,” said Mr Roberts. “So lovely to be chucked out. It’s so cringe-making wanting to leave, but fearing you’ll be gazed at by a disapproving host.” Mr Haslam concurred, “Clapping hands and telling you to go home – I liked that.” As, she said, did Ms Alexandra Shulman, former editor of British Vogue.

  • Ms Tracey Emin, Sir David Tang and Ms Lucy Tang at the Hayward Gallery, London, 16 May 2011. Photograph by Mr Richard Young/REX Shutterstock

Such flamboyant brusqueness was part of Sir David’s schtick and went down particularly well with reticent Britons, who secretly enjoy a bit of outrageous behaviour. But Sir David was far more than a pantomime figure. Blissfully married to his second wife, Ms Lucy Wastnage, he was an extremely cultivated man, well able to entrance any of his guests conversationally. He first read philosophy at King’s College London and then law at Cambridge; he later lectured in philosophy at Peking University and translated Charlie And The Chocolate Factory into Chinese. Fittingly, he once entertained Mr Roald Dahl and Professor AJ Ayer, the eminent logical positivist, to dinner and was delighted that the two ageing Lotharios spent half the meal in trying to outdo each other in memories of their past carnal glories.

Above all, he loved music and played the piano to a very high standard, once performing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He was, too, president of the London Bach Society, adviser to the London Symphony Orchestra, and a financial supporter of both a ballet company in Havana and of numerous young musicians. At one dinner, given for a departing American ambassador to the UK, Sir David preceded the food with a recital by a young Chinese protégé whose academic and musical education in England he had funded.

He was, in short, “a great life-enhancer”, as Viscountess Astor, Mr David Cameron’s mother-in-law, put it, which is essential for a vaunted host. He was also a stickler for detail – another requirement. But his supreme skill lay in his friendships, friendships that ranged from Sir Tom Jones to Mr Tony Blair, and from Ms Naomi Campbell to Ms Margaret Thatcher, and in his remarkable ability to bring such disparate souls together at the parties, revels, dinners and diversions he loved to concoct. Never dull, as Ms Kate Reardon observed, though his death leaves the world a duller place.