November 19, 2010 11:30 pm

Agony Uncle: Tyrants and lederhosen

Sir David Tang, globetrotter, entrepreneur, and the man about too many towns to mention, divides his time between homes in Hong Kong, mainland China and London. Here he offers stylish advice to everyday questions on property, interiors, etiquette at home (wherever you live) and anything else that may be bothering you.

With a home in Hong Kong, perhaps you could give some pointers on how to deal with neighbours such as Robert Mugabe or any other tyrants you may meet in social situations?

Although there was a rumour that Mrs Robert Mugabe and/or her daughter owned a property in Hong Kong, I was certainly not a neighbour.

But Mugabe did come to lunch at my house in Hong Kong some years ago. The president had not gone mad then. He was charming but, then, tyrants are always charming. He readily agreed to pose for a photograph with all my staff, who obviously thought he was a real “grand fromage”. He went off the rails a bit after this visit, though, and I might have an explanation.

The day was very hot, and my factotum, the Oddjob-lookalike Alex, who has now worked for me for 31 years, was serving curry. Alex had a propensity to sweat and, much to my alarm, he was dripping a great deal of his perspiration into the serving dish. The president did not notice this, as he was talking all the time, but I suspect that our curry, with the extra Oddjob ingredient, might have brought about his inexplicable behaviour afterwards.

So my advice about meeting tyrants or potential tyrants is try not to poison them. And always remember to hold on to any photographs with them. Look at what happened to Naomi Campbell when she met the charming Charles Taylor.

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When is it appropriate to wear ethnic garb – Scottish kilt, Chinese silk gown, Bavarian Lederhosen etc – outside one’s home country?

It all depends whether you wish to bring attention upon yourself. You can certainly do that by dressing up, and you don’t need to go ethnic.

I remember the Duchess of York arriving at an event in a dress so incandescent, enormous and crumpled that she might have been mistaken for a work of art by Christo – or even for Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum itself.

That was a paradigm of how you don’t need to be in any ethnic mode and yet become the centre of attention. I often wear my Chinese silk or velvet outfit at black-tie dinners, and nobody fusses. But a couple of exceptions: a ninja tight-fitting suit or a flowing burka would stick out like sore thumbs.

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I wanted to like my mother-in-law but she talks so much and is so stingy I can hardly stand being around her. Despite my loathing, when she invited herself for a long weekend at our house, I agreed so my son could have grandma time. Her flight was a freebie and we fed, entertained, and chauffeured her. I made her bed and cleaned her bath while she watched. She is perfectly able and golfs weekly. How petty am I to resent her for not bringing a decent hostess gift? She brought a glamour photo of herself that didn’t look like her, a children’s paperback self-published by her neighbour and a pair of slippery socks four sizes too big for my son, which were bought at the airport.

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Remember “mother-in-law” is an anagram of “Hitler woman”. And also remember the story of the man who said to his wife that he wanted to dock the small tail of their boxer dog owing to the imminent arrival of his mother-in-law. When questioned by his puzzled wife what the connection was, he replied: “Because I don’t wish there to be the slightest sign of welcome in the house when she comes.”

In other words, there is nothing you can do about mothers-in-law. They are part and parcel of the world’s sufferance, like, for some of us, anchovies.

E-mail questions to david.tang@ft.com

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