May 11, 1998 12:00 PM

Sunday lunch on the emerald lawn of Hong Kong mogul David Tang’s pink villa over-looking the azure South China Sea finds the host decked out in a lime-green coat with orange lapels over dark green corduroy pants and a shirt the shade of a ripe mango. “I just love colors,” chirps Tang in the plummy tones of a high-born Brit. “I think they are cheerful things.”

Variously described (in the press) as a huckster, a hustler, a shameless self-promoter and (by friends) as a Renaissance man, both charming and kind, Tang is an unabashed groupie who counts among his pals movie stars (this day his guests are Tomorrow Never Dies costars Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh) and near-monarchs (including Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana). “He is extremely witty and a good-hearted person,” says jewelry designer Kai-Yin Lo, who has known him for a decade. “He also works damn hard.”

The founder of Hong Kong’s tony China Club and head of the Pacific Cigar Company, distributor of Cuban stogies throughout Asia, Australia and Canada, Tang sits on 21 boards and owns interests in dozens of other enterprises, including restaurants, hotels and oil. But it is with his Shanghai Tang department stores that the flamboyant 43-year-old businessman hopes to capture the U.S. market and bring luster to the Made-in-China label.

His first American venture, Tang’s New York City Shanghai Tang (another is in Hong Kong), opened last November with great fanfare—and lots of color. With its two-story, 11,000-square-foot showroom, stained-glass murals and racks of neon-colored Mao jackets, the store pops out from Madison Avenue’s minimalist boutiques like a Warhol at the Vatican. Tang tells his in-house designers who submit sketches for his approval “to Picasso-fy it,” he says, “to modernize it.” Already his wares, including silk tunics with mandarin collars and frog buttons ($225 and up) and long silk cheong-sam dresses ($365), have caught on with the likes of Cindy Crawford, Kevin Costner and Sarah Ferguson. Making the talk show rounds last fall, Fergie presented Shanghai Tang jackets to Oprah and Larry King.

But not everyone is as confident as Tang that nonroyals will flock to his $12 million Manhattan project. Tang’s line “doesn’t look like anything in America at the moment,” says fashion analyst David Wolfe. “It’s stimulating, but limited in its appeal.” As for businessmen donning Tang Mao-wear, Wolfe adds, “It ain’t gonna happen.”

But then, there’s nothing Tang enjoys more than upending expectations. “He likes to be different,” says his brother Thomas, 42, a Hong Kong investment banker. “He was always like that.” Grandson of a wealthy business tycoon and his concubine, Tang (who also has two sisters) was raised in Hong Kong. When Tang was 13, the family moved to England, where his father owned race horses and Tang attended boarding school. “I grew to like the English because of their sense of humor,” says Tang, “and the fact that you don’t have to be rich to be grand.”

After graduating from the University of London in 1976, Tang earned a degree at London’s College of Law and continued a precarious pastime. “I’m a professor of roulette,” he says of his taste for gambling. “The definition of a gambler is that you gamble beyond your means. I lost everything.”

Following a stint as a lawyer in London, Tang returned to Hong Kong in 1980 and three years later moved to China, where he taught English and philosophy at Beijing University and studied the culture of his ancestors. Though “I didn’t like the way people were being watched,” he says, the experience would eventually inspire Shanghai Tang. “In this world of brand names, we don’t have a Chinese brand,” he says. “As Coca-Cola is American, as Mercedes is German, I think there should be something that is quintessentially Chinese.”

In 1991, two years after inheriting more than $5 million from his grandfather, Tang, who had returned to Hong Kong several years before, opened the China Club, modeling it after 1930s Shanghai and charging up to $20,000 for membership. Today, with his stores and cigar enterprises, his empire brings in revenues of $100 million.

Not surprisingly, Tang lives lavishly; he owns 10 cars, including four Bentleys, a BMW and a 1949 Dodge. He shares his Hong Kong home with his fiancée, British merchant’s daughter Lucy Wastnage, 30. Most weekends he spends with his children, Victoria, 13, and Edward, 11, by ex-wife Susanna Cheung, a former TV actress. But stress has taken a toll. “I’ve got acute psoriasis,” he says. “I sleep badly and I eat too much.” Not that he’s complaining. “I’ve been incredibly lucky,” he says. In the end, he adds, “I’d like to have contributed an atomic amount to the world and given pleasure to people.”

Steve Dougherty

Andrea Pawlyna in Hong Kong

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