“Rules for Modern Life: A Connoisseur’s Survival Guide” by Sir David Tang

Hong Kong’s Sir David Tang has for several years had a column at the Financial Times answering reader questions on various matters of modern living, from how to dress for a job interview to (only in Britain) what to take as a house gift when invited up to shoot. These, or least a selection of them, have been gathered up into Rules for Modern Life: A Connoisseur’s Survival Guide.

Rules for Modern Life: A Connoisseur’s Survival Guide, Sir David Tang (Portfolio Penguin, 2016118)
Rules for Modern Life: A Connoisseur’s Survival Guide, Sir David Tang (Portfolio Penguin, 2016118)

The two dozen or so commendations come from the likes of Stephen Fry, Naomi Campbell and the Duke of Marlborough. One rates the book, at least in terms of being “a useful guide to modern living”, as being rather better than the New Testament.

The enquiries and replies are along the lines of the following:


I am responding to your disdain for men wearing a bow tie. I am reading the August copy of Vanity Fair magazine and there you are in Robin Birley’s Loulou’s nightclub, resplendent in a beautiful bow tie. Since you say that bow ties are de rigueur with clowns, you now complement the trio of Groucho Marx, Jerry Lewis and Pee-wee Herman.


I was, you fool, in my black tie, which is an evening ensemble with a black bow tie as a constituent part — totally different from a single non-black bow tie worn in the day with anything you like.


And if your French and even Russian aren’t quite up to snuff, then tant pis: Tang doesn’t bother to translate.

One suspects that just maybe none of this is meant to be taken entirely seriously. But there is an Importance of Being Earnest quality about the banter which is not just fun but also erudite and frequently commonsensical and edifying.

One further suspects that Tang believes that the British, however venerable their civilization, might benefit from the wisdom of an even more ancient one. “It is inconsiderate,” he writes,


to bring one bottle of wine to a dinner party. It’s never enough. Always bring a brace. We Chinese say: ‘All good things come in pairs.’


I’ll lay odds that this is only occasion in the history English prose where the word “brace” (a particularly Downton Abbey sort of word) appears in such close proximity to “we Chinese”.

When asked about brown vs black shoes, Tang quotes Deng Xiaoping:


‘It doesn’t matter about the colour of the cat as long as it catches mice.’ So my view is that it doesn’t matter about the colour of the shoes as long as they are good for walking in.


And to the poor woman complaining about an intrusive mother-in-law, Tang provides a complete primer:


If you love your husband who loves his mother and loves you to love his mother, then you must suffer your mother-in-law and be nice to her and do as she tells you. This is the submissive attitude of the Chinese tradition at least. But if you love your husband who loves you more than his own mother, then you and your husband could join forces to repel the domestic invasion of your mother-in-law, because you would then be lending full support to your husband, which is also the Chinese way. If you don’t, however, love your husband, this is the chance for you to be belligerent to your mother-in-law and find ways to deceive and unnerve her so that she becomes upset and complains to your husband, who will then complain to you, thereby intensifying your loveless marriage. This also falls in with the Chinese tradition of being cunningly Machiavellian in achieving what you want, viz. a divorce.


Books that are collections of columns can be problematic: the columns can date and the book can lack cohesion. But in this case, the whole of Rules for Modern Life may well be greater than the sum of its parts. Grouped all together, the various queries and responses form an almost theatrical dialogue, a cross between reality television and a traditional English comedy of manners.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.