The Secret of Life By David Tang


This talk was given at a TEDxHKUST using the TED conference format. It was published on 14 Sep 2015 by TEDx Talk. I was unable to find the transcript anywhere and had to do it myself. I have posted the transcript here for the public’s learning purposes.

The Secret of Life

By David Tang

I like the snake as it reminded me of the question of why Adam and Eve could not have been chinese and the answer is that we would have eaten the snake.I am going to tell you in 18 minutes because I had been told 15 times that I have only 18 minutes the secret of life. I will try to tell you the secret of life in 15 minutes, but before that I want to tell you my journey of life and because I by far the oldest of the speakers. I am 58. I really need more than 18 minutes. When 18 minutes come, I will have to stop, and you will have to invite me back to here to hear the other half.

My life in Hong Kong started really when my great grandfather as a refugee from Canton and he became very successful and he built a house on Golf Road which I went pass very regularly, of 7 storeys. And he was very smart. He had a wife and 5 concubines, so he placed them from first floor, second floor, third floor, fourth floor, fifth floor, sixth floor and on the penthouse, he lived on his own. He worked his way, Monday to Saturday, like Raise the Red Laterns, and he rested.

On the fourth floor was my great grandmother, who produced my grandfather, who was a great philanthropist here, because he donated most of my money to you, through Tang Shiu Kin Hospital, what have you. He was like 4,000 years of chinese husbands, wanting an heir. Although he wasn’t exactly Henry the Eighth, he married the first wife who didn’t produce an heir, a girl, so he dumped her; so he went from the second concubine, who turned out to be barren, so he dumped her, and then he met my beautiful grandmother, who produced an heir. And he was very happy, until my father got ill, about 2 months in, and the doctor came and told him that he was going to die.

And my grandfather was very very sad because for having waited so long for an heir, he couldn’t believed that father was going to die. And, my great grandmother, who wanted to comfort him, told him a lie. She said “Look, I had the Feng Shui man in the other day,and he told me that this son is no good for you anyway, and so we can try again. But my father recovered; but because my grandfather was so superstitious, he actually decided that the son was going to be bad for him. And he said to my grandmother, “ You are off. I don’t want you anymore. I don’t want our child anymore.” She was then pushed out and never saw him again for eighty years. And he gave her so little money that we hardly survived.

And eventually, my father was rather awkward because my grandfather was growing rather famous and didn’t want marrying this fourth concubine; to have somebody with slightly murky past. So he said to my father “ You better go off to England, with your wife and stay there. So my father and my mother were packed off; and I was left with my grandmother. We didn’t have any money. We rented a room in Junction Road, in Kowloon Tong. My brother and me, sleeping on the top, bunk bed; and my grandmother below. I remembered distinctively that there was no air-conditioning, whereas there was air-conditioning in our landlady’s bed-room. We only had a fan, and I would wake up and I would noticed that my grandmother would angled poised the fan towards my brother and me, so that we will be cooler.

And I remembered Christmas time, we got out for dinner and she will take us to Tai Ping Koon. And we loved prawns. The prawns were the most exxpensive; ten dollars each.My brother and I would have prawns, and I would noticed that she would only have pork, which was three dollars, because we did not have enough money for three prawns. So I became very conscious that there are extraordinary strong people in the world; my grandmother, who really sacrificed everything to bring us up.And I loved her, to the end of her life. And she never complained, not withstanding how my grandfather treated her.She never moaned about him.And I think there is a secret of life along the line which I am going to alert you afterwards.

But I was packed off to England, to join my parents, who has bonded there for two years and prepared ourselves. I remembered getting on a boat. We sailed to Athens and we went to Belgrade, Vienna and Paris by train. I remembered in Vienna, I saw a statue called Beethoven. I didn’t know who that was. I saw Mozart. I didn’t know who he was. I went to Paris. I went to the Louvre. I didn’t know what that was. But it was all going to come back. It is another aspect to the secret of life that I am going to tell you about.

When I got to England, my parents had prepared me for interview at a very famous school and I although went to La Salle, couldn’t  really speak English. My mother said “Look, let me do all the talking at the interview. All you have to say is ‘ My name is David Tang’.” So we arrived and the headmaster came in. He said “Right, had you had a good journey from Hong Kong?” So I said “My name is David Tang.” I didn’t get in, so that was that.

Eventually, we found a school and because I was about alright in mathematics. Thank God, your president would be pleased to hear that. The school took me on. I failed my English O level 6 times before I passed, although I got Latin, French and Russian because we all started on Form 3, I was able to start at the same time. But in English, I was not able to pass the written exam. I practically failed to get into university because in England, you have to get English to university. And I remembered that my English teacher, saying to me “Tang, you will never speak English fluently.” And so, that is another aspect to the secret of life that I am going to tell you about because I met that man about thirty years later. I told him that he was wrong and I used a word which I really can’t use in front of the president here, followed by the word “You”. I said that I am very good in Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Then I went to university, and I read initially mathematics and physics. That got every hard and I switched over to philosophy.And I loved philosophy because there is a formal logic part, which I enjoyed. And, I went on and tried to do a PHD. By this time, my grandfather realized that perhaps I wasn’t  too bad. And he said “You should become a lawyer.” Typical of Hong Kong parents. And I said “ What is in it for me?” because by that time, I got very commercial. He said “ If you went to law school, I will get you a flat in London.” I said “ If you give me a flat, I will do anything.”

So I stopped doing my PhD. I went over to the law college, bought a flat and then I cultivated a great sense of gambling. And I went….one day, I saw this amazing horse called Nijinsky won the (Kiplingcotes) Derby and it was last. I watched that film about 28 times and I saw him coming up the last three furlongs and then winning, like an arrow; est  typique de ce. I said I am going to put everything that I had on the next race that this horse is going to race. And it went to France, which was another huge race, which was called  Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. And I mortgaged my house, which was forty thousand pounds and I put it on the nose 11 to 8, and it lost by a nose.

So I lost the flat, and unfortunately, my grandfather, the following month, said “My lawyer, Mr Kwan Cho-Yiu is going to come to London to inspect the flat that I bought for you.” I was in a slight panic so I rang up a friend of mine, who has a slightly better flat, about sixty thousand pounds. And I said “Can you lend it to me for a day?” So I put all my photographs out. Mr Kwan came and said that he is very satisfied. And he said “Did you really buy this for forty thousand pounds?” I said “Yes.” He said “Listen, can you give me the name of the agent?” I sort of fugued a bit and told him that he died.

What happened is that I went to casino one night and I won back all the money. I bbought the flat. This is another aspect of the secret of life that I am going to come back to. Even more extraordinary, having won back the flat, I had a friend who lived in northern England. I went up and I went to the casino there, and I lost everything again for the second time in my life. And I met a chinese man who ran a chinese restaurant there. I went up and said “Look, listen, My grandfather is Tang Shiu Kin. Can you lend me five thousand pounds? I will pay you back over the week-end.” Stupidly, he did. I got the flat. Then I went to see him in Leeds, with a rather nice detached house and I said “ Tony, I can’t pay you back but what I will promise you is that when I become successful, which I shall, I am going to let you ask me a favor.”

To cut a long story short, I pay him back five thousand pounds in about a year and sixteen years later, I got a phone call from him. I said “Hello”. He said “ It’s Tony Kwan” I said “ My God, you are calling in for your favor” He said “Yes” I said “ Do you want to borrow some money?” He said “No, no, no” He said “ Do you remembered when you came and see me at my home, I had a child and she is now 21 and all she wants to do is to get a job from you at Shanghai Tang.” So I said, “ Is that all?” He said “That’s all” I took her on. She was fantastic. She worked for me for 7 years and it was fantastic. 5 years later, he rang me again. I said “ Look, Tony, you used up your one favor.” And he said “ Do you remember, there was a cot. There was a child baby? That was my son. He now wants to work for you.” I say “Well, God… Bring him along.” So, he started working for me. He was stupid.Can’t get him to do anything. That is another aspect of the secret of life that I want to tell you about.

After all these, I had decided that I had to do some work.At that time, energy was a big thing and I wanted to drill some oil wells; and go to work at a gold mine, because I was fascinated by that world. And at that time, China just opened up its off shore oil and I worked for an oil entrepreneur. I drilled ten wells. I went to Africa, South America, looking at gold mines. We didn’t find any oil. We didn’t find any gold. Absolutely nothing. But it gave me tremendous experience, afterwhich, I said to myself, I better go back to law, which is what my grandfather expected me to do. And I started as a lawyer in Hong Kong. I wanted to tell you another extraordinary story, which is another illustrations of what the secret of life is all about.

I was in a firm of solicitors, being instructed by a construction company who had placed an electric fence around a building site in Hong Kong. And a child got electrocuted and died. Now, usually you can’t, for those of you who do law, really prosecute a company for murder or manslaughter. But they actually prosecuted the foreman, and so we had to defend the foreman.And they was doing really badly. On the last day, after two weeks, I said to my barristor, “ Friend, it has been a really difficult week. Why don’t we go and have a proper lunch?” In those days, it was just up Hollywood Road.The only restaurant opened was an Indian restaurant, so we went in and started pulling up those Indian food, ten chapati and ten papadongs. At two o’clock sharp, I felt a real urge in the directions of the lavatory. So I dived in there, asking the judge to defer for fifteen minutes.I was in the loo when I heard 2 people come in. And they were having a pee. One of them said to the other “Look, you are the engineer, you tell us whether that system was safe or not and he said “ Well, I don’t think that it was safe.” I then realized that there were two jurors who was talking to each other, and one of the basic tenets of jury service is that you mustn’t consult with another. So, I got very excited. I held my breath. I held everything until they left. After due exertion, I went straight out to the barristor. I told him and we got a retrial. And thank God, the judge said that he would send them to jail. On the retrial, he got off. Again, this is an aspect of the secret of life which I am coming very near to to telling you.

And I think after that, I wanted to go and start something that had some cultural value, because I saw Hong Kong was going towards the west, like the way China is going with its rich ghettos of stupid western brand shops of Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and what have you. And nobody is doing anything about cultivating and improving and innovating our chinese heritage.

And I have become very interested in art.I remembered 1971 when I went to see Chan Kai Chin’s first exhibition at the City Hall.I fascinated by how this man transcended the traditional way of painting with black ink but using this turquoise green and wonderful colors and I passed by gallery at Hollywood Road, which is now owned by my great friend, Johnson Chan. I saw this fantastic painting by the man. I wanted it and I asked “How much?” and he said “Half a million dollars.” I couldn’t possibly afford that but then I remembered a film I saw of Glenn Miller, the great trumpeter. He did the same. He saw a great trumpet and he said “Look, I will pay by bits, so I am going to give you five dollars each month, and you are going to give me the instrument at the end.” I started, paying ten thousand dollars a month, twenty thousand a week, and I eventually I got that painting and from that painting, I started my collection and they were all bundled into the China Club.

Now, I am sure that 18 minutes is coming up, so halfway through my life, I want to tell you that the secret of life is you cannot start setting goals so far away and a lot of the time, it is providence and about whether you are at the right place at the right time, and how things worked out in your life. Without the Feng Shui man who told my grandfather that my father was bad for him, I would have never gone to England.If I gone to England, and I was told that I spoke good english and not having to show my english teacher that I was able and that I prove him wrong, I might not do as well as I am today.

Gambling losses and so forth meant also that we take huge risks in life and experienced huge failures. I don’t know whether any of you is a secret addicted gambler. That feeling and I am sure none of you would tell me as we used to be liars and that feeling of gambling beyond your means, you see, that is tremendous adrenaline.But you have to do it, and lose everything before you could feel it. And there, is another way of saying that you lose everything, but you make it back.And it doesn’t matter. That is another secret of life. Whatever happens to you, you have to decide for yourself to keep going.

I got so many young people, like you, coming to see me, asking me what they should do in life and they say that they want to be a doctor, they want to be a vet, or they want to build a zoo or whatever. There is a film about a family building a zoo. But the point is that you cannot set yourselves goals so far away and be so determined. The problem is that we have a lot of biographies.We heard so many stories about men who are succesful.

We said Richard Branson already have an acumen for business he started selling second hand bicycles when he was young, but imagine the hundreds and thousands of other students who did more or less the same or even more successful but did not become nearly as successful as Richard Branson. So we have the benefit of hindsight. A lot of time, we fit our facts into biographies. There is no other way of going about it. But I am just warning you that a lot of the times when we reflect back of how we ever came to a particular situation or success or failure, it is never something that we ever expect. I can tell you that.Life never, never happens that way you think it does.I used to be asked how do you make God laugh. Well, tell him your plans.Now, 18 minutes is up. I can tell you the rest of my life’s story which is not entirely uninteresting but it is all because of providence, fortune, luck and I don’t set myself huge goals. I take the day as it comes, but when you see something, you have to seize it and when you are presented with a risk, take it. Take it. It doesn’t matter. Don’t think of the consequences because if you do, you will never be a great man.

No human progress has ever happen because of what everybody does and what everybody thinks. The world goes round, spins around entirely on crazy ideas and unnecessities. And it is like people saying to you “Why do you want to do that? You don’t have to.” You don’t have to? That’s precisely why you do it. That’s what makes the difference.Boys and girls, I am going to say this, because I am so old. Thank you for having me. I am sorry that I am rambling on a little bit. I was asked to come to tell you about my life. I had a very varied life. I had experienced quite a lot. I hope all of you will have the same kind of varied life you have because what is the point for being just insular. I come from middle class. I had middle class values of just worrying about what your neighbours have or whatever it is; you got to do this, you got to do that.Break out. Come on. Do something, not deliberately crazy but let life come on to you and you can just occasionally take the risk and try something different because sometimes you might actually like it.Try to avoid happy valley.Thank you very much.


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