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DOMINIC LAWSON: My tycoon friend even gambled on his deathbed. He could not shake its grasp

A few days before he died of cancer at the age of 63, in 2017, my wife made a hospital visit to Sir David Tang.

He seemed agitated, saying: ‘I must make some money for Lucy’ (his much-loved wife).

He was clutching his mobile phone: it was clear David wanted to make some calls in private.

But those calls would not have been normal business transactions: he was hooked on gambling, an addiction which had plunged this brilliant entrepreneur into indebtedness.

Pictured at Grosvenor House, London, in 2015, Sir David Tang was an astonishingly adept and hospitable figure on the London social scene

Those death-bed calls, I found out subsequently, were just more losing wagers.

Rather than securing the financial future of the woman he adored, they achieved the opposite effect.

I am mentioning this now only because another of our friends, the former owner of The Spectator magazine and chair of Cluff Mineral Resources, J.G. (‘Algy’) Cluff — who gave Tang his first business job in the early 1980s — has written about the alleged consequences of David’s epic gambling in the latest volume of his memoirs.

‘Unfortunately, it emerged after David’s death,’ he claims, ‘that for many years he had been plundering the assets of various companies without the knowledge of shareholders’.

Fortune

This has caused a sensation, because Sir David was an astonishingly adept and hospitable figure on the London social scene (and previously in the place of his birth, Hong Kong).

He had become a friend of royalty, including both Prince Charles and his ex-wife Diana simultaneously — which was probably a unique accomplishment.

Considered a friend of royalty, Sir David Tang was well-acquainted with both Princess Diana and Prince Charles after the couple had split

Considered a friend of royalty, Sir David Tang was well-acquainted with both Princess Diana and Prince Charles after the couple had split 

Models, film stars and plutocrats would attend his parties.

The last of these was held at The Dorchester in 2017, when, having been told by his doctors that he had little time left, he invited those he termed ‘500 of my closest friends’ for a memorable dinner.

Not in China Tang, the wonderful restaurant he started in that smartest of London hotels — it would not be large enough — but in the ballroom.

I found myself sitting next to Joanna Lumley at that dinner, and we shared reminiscences about our extraordinary host . . . who suddenly stood up to announce that we would now have a performance of his favourite piece of music, Brahms’ first piano concerto.

An entire symphony orchestra appeared, along with the world-renowned French pianist Helene Grimaud.

She gave a sublime rendition, a sort of anticipatory requiem for the dying, but ecstatically beaming, host.

David was not just a skilful pianist himself, but highly cultured in the widest sense: before entering the world of business, he had taught English literature and philosophy at Peking University.

After he had made his fortune (or so it seemed) with his Shanghai Tang clothing store chain, David became a notable charitable benefactor — his knighthood was awarded for that.

He had a particular desire to help people with Down’s Syndrome and was a founder of the Hong Kong Down Syndrome Association. As we have a daughter with the condition, he took a great — and touching — interest in her.

Some will now question how he funded his various charitable donations. But I would prefer to make a different point: which is that this illustrates how insidiously sinister is the potential of gambling to blight the lives of even the most able and intelligent people.

A medical tribunal in Manchester ruled that Dr Aled Jones, a 39-year-old registrar at University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, admitted to fraudulently obtaining £67,420 from the NHS over three years

A medical tribunal in Manchester ruled that Dr Aled Jones, a 39-year-old registrar at University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, admitted to fraudulently obtaining £67,420 from the NHS over three years

Last week, there was a less publicised but still striking demonstration of this.

A medical tribunal in Manchester ruled that Dr Aled Jones, a 39-year-old registrar at the nephrology and transplant unit at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, could continue to practise medicine after earlier receiving a (suspended) two-year jail sentence.

In court, Dr Jones had admitted fraudulently obtaining £67,420 from the NHS, over three years.

This had been to fund his gambling habit.

Crazed

When arrested, Dr Jones told the police: ‘I was irrational. I lost all sense of morality.’ Subsequently, he has spoken in public meetings about what it is like to be in the grip of a gambling addiction, and cycled 2,200 miles to raise money for treatment.

Yet if people such as Sir David Tang and Dr Aled Jones are rendered irrational — crazed, even — by gambling addiction, imagine how much more helpless many hundreds of thousands of our less favoured fellow-citizens are, when hooked.

And contemplate how mad it is that we have among the world’s most feebly enforced gambling laws after the industry was ‘liberalised’ by the 2005 Gambling Act under the government of Tony Blair.

It was that measure which licensed an advertising free-for-all — a development all the more bizarre as it coincided with the same administration’s decision to end advertising for cigarettes.

Gambling With Lives charity founders Liz and Charles Ritchie, from Sheffield, whose son Jack killed himself because of his gambling addiction

Gambling With Lives charity founders Liz and Charles Ritchie, from Sheffield, whose son Jack killed himself because of his gambling addiction

So just as sports such as snooker were being told they could no longer promote the big tobacco brands (in return for loads of dosh, obviously), football — far and away our most popular sport — was given free licence to become nothing short of an affiliate of the gambling industry.

You might say that while gambling addiction is a wretched matter, with almost 350,000 in this country classed as ‘problem gamblers’, it doesn’t actually kill people.

Yet it does: the fatal consequence is not lung cancer, but suicide.

After writing a column in the Mail about a 13-year-old who had run up gambling debts of £80,000 on a series of his father’s credit cards, I was contacted in 2018 by a group of parents with a much worse story to tell.

Their sons had killed themselves.

It wasn’t so much that these young men had been overwhelmed by debts — they weren’t — but that they could no longer cope with the sense that their entire identities had become controlled by online gambling firms, that they couldn’t escape from this . . . except by ending it all.

These parents, led by Charles and Liz Ritchie, whose son Jack had killed himself at the age of 24, started a charity, Gambling With Lives.

This month, the Ritchies appeared with the former Premier League footballer Paul Merson in his BBC1 documentary on this topic.

Destructive

Merson told them (and the viewers): ‘I’ve been addicted to alcohol and cocaine, but by far the most destructive and the only one I’m still struggling with is gambling.’

One of the demands of Gambling With Lives is that the Government ends all gambling advertising.

Currently, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is mulling over whether to ask the depressingly large number of professional football clubs sponsored by gambling firms to stop putting the firms’ logos on their players’ shirts.

I share the view of the almost two-thirds of the population, as expressed in a YouGov poll four months ago, that there should be a complete ban on gambling ads.

Only 14 per cent of adults and children polled opposed a total ban.

Such legislation would be completely compatible with a free society, at least in the sense that it would not make gambling itself illegal.

Premier League footballer Paul Merson in his BBC1 documentary on this topic said: 'I’ve been addicted to alcohol and cocaine, but by far the most destructive and the only one I’m still struggling with is gambling.’

Premier League footballer Paul Merson in his BBC1 documentary on this topic said: ‘I’ve been addicted to alcohol and cocaine, but by far the most destructive and the only one I’m still struggling with is gambling.’

It is entirely banned in the Communist autocracy of China, where David Tang once taught.

But this has not prevented the build-up of a vast illegal online gambling industry there.

The Chinese seem to have a particular penchant for gambling: I recall that when David Tang took me to the Sha-Tin race track in Hong Kong in 1997, on the single evening we were there over a billion Hong Kong dollars were wagered. That figure was actually announced, to loud cheers.

How ironic it is, then, that the Chinese are now concerned about the dangerous temptations to gamble that their own young people will face when studying at our universities. A recent article in the South China Morning Post was headlined, ‘Why Chinese students are at risk of becoming gambling addicts in the UK’.

If that doesn’t make us feel ashamed at the change in this country, it should.


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