Story of a Classic | The Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong
Published: May 2009
By Peter Jon Lindberg
Few hotels have defined a city as much as the Mandarin Oriental has Hong Kong. On the occasion of its reopening, following a $140 million overhaul, <em>Peter Jon Lindberg</em> looks at its inimitable history—and its new incarnation.
It turns 44 this fall, if we’re really counting, but in Hong Kong, where one year packs the turbocharge of 10, it might as well be four centuries old. Long-timers remember when it was the most provocative building on the waterfront—and actually on the waterfront, the waves lapping just steps from the lobby. Decades of land reclamation have pushed the harbor north half a mile, and the skyline, of course, has changed utterly. Today, the squat cubelike edifice is lost among the gaudier follies towering around it. But in 1963, the Mandarin hotel—at a whopping 25 stories—was the tallest building in Hong Kong.
Imagine the island then: a world capital, nominally, but in equal part a provincial backwater. Jammed with pushcarts and rickshaws, Hong Kong was a traditional pedestrian city, not the present-day labyrinth of elevated walkways, moving sidewalks, and riverine expressways. There were no car tunnels or subways to whisk you under the harbor; the only passage to and from Kowloon on the mainland was by ferry or private launch. (Conveniently, the Mandarin kept its own walla walla moored at a pier across Connaught Road—which was still a road, not a four-lane thoroughfare.)
In its street life, architecture, and demographics, 1960’s Hong Kong was not nearly as cosmopolitan as it is today. Among the Chinese population, English was rarely spoken. Good restaurants—clean restaurants—were hard to find outside of hotels, and good hotels were scarce on this side of the harbor. It’s easy to forget how quaint and foreign and small this town must have seemed not so very long ago. But again: time moves faster here. In 1963, Shenzhen, half an hour north of Kowloon in Guangdong province, was a podunk fishing village. Now it’s a city larger than Chicago.
Whenever I return to Hong Kong—invariably to find another dozen façades wedged into an all-new skyline—I’m reminded of that scene in L.A. Story where Steve Martin’s character, driving through Los Angeles, marvels, "Some of these buildings are over twenty years old!" Amid the shifting landscapes of Hong Kong, there’s not much that predates the Mandarin. (The hotel is now officially the Mandarin Oriental, though everyone calls it by its first name.) So while it seems absurd that a hotel erected in 1963 should be considered a historic landmark and a local institution, that’s precisely how Hong Kongers have come to see it.
Then again, no hotel anywhere is woven so tightly into its city’s social fabric. The Mandarin was always embraced as much by residents—British expats, well-to-do Chinese, the titans and taipans of Hong Kong finance and industry—as by guests from out of town. Even New York, the only city that approximates Hong Kong’s whirl and buzz, has no single equivalent. I know many lifelong Manhattanites who’ve never set foot inside the Plaza or the Carlyle. But I know few Hong Kong residents who haven’t dined or drunk at the Mandarin.
Indeed, when the hotel closed in December 2005 for a top-to-bottom renovation, regulars were so distraught, you’d think the Star Ferry had up and sailed away. Where will the ladies lunch?Where will the gents get their eggs Benedict?Who will provide us with our Shanghainese pedicures, our silver tankards of ale, our rose-petal jam, our children’s birthday cakes?
Delightfully, the world did not end in the interim. In September 2006 the Mandarin reopened, marking the occasion with a black-tie gala hosted by comedienne Dame Edna Everage, a favorite act at the Mandarin’s supper club back in the day. Bryan Ferry, whose recordings have been played in more hotel lobbies than any other living singer’s, performed in the hotel lobby, where society belles shimmied under restored Venini chandeliers. "That’s not a chandelier—that’s costume jewelry!" Dame Edna quipped, to hearty laughter. But even if no one actually likes those ridiculous chandeliers, you can bet the old guard would raise hell if they ever disappeared. Sentiment always trumps taste.
The $140 million renovation was the most extensive yet for the hotel—built, incidentally, for less than one-tenth that price. A redesign was overdue. When the Mandarin first opened, it was a swank bastion of Modernism, radiating a new form of cool. The boxy exterior, sheathed in Shanghai plaster, never won many fans. ("Nobody could call it a beautiful building," wrote Jan Morris.) Yet the inside was strikingly contemporary—particularly in contrast to its rival across the harbor, the Peninsula, built in 1928 in a Neoclassical style with a wedding-cake façade and a rococo lobby full of potted palms. Both hotels were and remain distinctly British in character. But if the Pen harked back to the Empire at its pinnacle, to Disraeli and Kipling and Rhodes, the Mandarin looked ahead to Swinging Sixties London—to James Bond, the Beatles, and Mary Quant.
The interiors were conceived by a Hollywood set designer, Don Ashton, who’d worked on Billy Budd and Bridge on the River Kwai. Ashton’s Anglo-Chinese aesthetic was both tasteful and dramatic: sleek surfaces and squared-off furniture alluded to the modern West, while Ming statuary and green-glazed pottery evoked an idealized Orient. Most of all, the Mandarin spoke of money, both old and new.
And it was full of snazzy innovations. Announcing the hotel’s debut in September 1963, the South China Morning Post went gaga over "space-age" elevators that "catapulted" guests to the top floor "in 21 seconds!" The Mandarin was the first hotel in Hong Kong to be equipped with direct-dial phones, and the first in all of Asia to include a bath in every guest room. (When he saw the blueprints, the incredulous project architect asked, "Are the guests amphibious?")
Within months, it was being mentioned among the great hotels of the East—the Oriental in Bangkok (with which it would later merge and form the Mandarin Oriental group), Raffles in Singapore, the Imperial in Tokyo, and, yes, the Peninsula in Kowloon. By 1967, Fortune was proclaiming the Mandarin one of the world’s top properties.
In its sixties and seventies heyday, the Mandarin was how the rest of the world met Hong Kong. Here’s the Shah of Iran having crêpes suzette at Pierrot! Here’s Kissinger arriving in a silver Phantom! Here’s Gina Lollobrigida drinking a "margarita" (some sort of tequila-and-lime concoction)! At all hours, the lobby was populated by a glittering cast of Macanese casino magnates, tea-sipping socialites, obscure Continental royalty, and enough visiting celebrities to stock an Irwin Allen disaster movie.
What was especially endearing about the Mandarin in later years was that it retained so much of that louche, leisure suit–era glamour, even as it fell out of style; the lobby became a time capsule, as if at any moment George Hamilton might pop out of the cigar shop. People still loved it—maybe even more so. But if they’d once come to the Mandarin for a glitzy vision of the future, they now got a quaint glimpse of the past.
By the new millennium it was obvious the hotel needed updating. It wasn’t just the aesthetic; the entire infrastructure was outmoded. Meanwhile, new competition was arriving. After a dormant decade, Hong Kong began seeing a boomlet in luxury hotels—most recently a 399-room Four Seasons, which opened in 2005, and, two blocks from the Mandarin, a splashy new sister property, the Landmark Mandarin Oriental. (The two hotels are canny complements: the original Mandarin draws a refined, older crowd, and the funkier Landmark attracts their scions.) The company turned to the Singapore firm of Lim, Teo & Wilkes, which had designed the provocative new Mandarin Oriental Tokyo and overseen renovations at "heritage" hotels like the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai.
But pleasing this hotel’s parochial clientele—the Mandarin’s many mandarins—presented a unique challenge. "We had knots in our stomachs," designer Jeffrey A. Wilkes admits. "If someone’s brought his mother here for tea for thirty years, he doesn’t want to see it change." How to proceed?With what the industry terms a sensitive redo.
For the public areas, the team kept the original sixties layout. "Even though there are more than five hundred rooms, the Mandarin has a boutique feel—the lobby is very intimate," Wilkes notes. "We tried to capitalize on that by making it a bit more moody, sexy, sparkly."
At first glance, little seems to have been altered. The lobby’s glossy black marble has been replaced with slightly more striated black marble. The gilded, intricately carved panels depicting Chinese folk scenes in high relief remain. The heroic figurehead that Don Ashton salvaged from the prow of the ship in Billy Budd still dominates the staircase to the Clipper Lounge.
But look more closely and you’ll notice that the colors are bolder, the textures richer: mink-hued upholstery, polished walnut, glowing orange lacquer. The lounge’s windows have been extended to let in more sunlight. The low-slung coffee tables have been raised to a functional height for dining. Everything, in fact, seems lifted, airier, lighter. Even those two-ton Venetian chandeliers appear more streamlined in context.
"I’ve overheard some of the old guard as they come back to inspect the place," Wilkes told me two days after the reopening. "They say, ’Thank God they didn’t change the lobby.’ And I have to laugh because, in the end, we changed everything!"
One hard-to-miss change is the relocation of the café, now called Café Causette, and the Cake Shop—two Hong Kong society mainstays—to the mezzanine from street level, which is now occupied by Chloé and John Lobb stores. (In Hong Kong, ground-floor retail space is more valuable than ever.) One flight up, the spot locals refer to as "the coffee shop" is now flooded with natural light and offers broad views over Statue Square. Dark-timber paneling, heavy wooden furniture, and pewter-gray table mats are offset by pale-yellow silk wall coverings and silver bowls filled with fuchsia-and-green dragon fruit on the communal table. All day long, hotel guests drop in for perfect lattes and fabulous mini quiches, while Hong Kong tai-tai ladies still come for Hainan chicken and dim sum.
The Cake Shop, meanwhile, has been transformed from a rather ho-hum–looking bakery into a glittering showpiece that’s as elegant as the Boucheron boutique downstairs. (The ornate confections are displayed in polished cases like jewelry and cost about as much.) At its center, a massive tiered wedding cake teeters over a 12-foot-square table. Around it are six barstools, each upholstered in distinctively patterned tooled leather (ostrich, snakeskin, crocodile)—a clever riff on a box of chocolates.
"Of course, there were certain areas that it would have been sacrilege to touch," Wilkes says. "The Captain’s Bar and the Chinnery were left pretty much as they were." The Chinnery pub—which was only opened to women in 1990—remains an almost comical re-creation of a London gents’ club, with its green leather banquettes, shelves full of rare whiskeys, and menu of Stilton soup and kidney pie. Downstairs in the Captain’s Bar, two white-tuxedoed waiters still man a silver wagon, carving roast beef for starched-shirt CEO’s and their golf buddies. (The day the Mandarin reopened, the line for the Captain’s Bar stretched down the block. You’d think no one had had a drink in nine months.)
Upstairs in the guest quarters the designers could afford to go a bit wilder. Most prominently, the guest-room balconies, a unique feature when the Mandarin opened, have been enclosed to provide more indoor space. (They’ll be missed by few; Hong Kong’s notorious air pollution has rendered them an anachronism.) The bathrooms, which are, let’s face it, the heart and soul of a modern-day hotel, have become larger and more opulent. Design falls into one of two schemes: the Taipan rooms are clad in rich wood paneling and furnished with leather armchairs and outsize Chinese desks; the four-doored, fold-open mini-bar cabinets are covered in sumptuous leather—like an old Vuitton steamer trunk. In the Veranda rooms, the balconies are now sunrooms, boarded in white English burl oak, giving them an airy, beach-house feel; bathrooms are done entirely in black and white marble and are separated from the bedrooms by a wall of glass.
And, of course, all rooms have been equipped with a dizzying array of tech. You can connect an iPod to the stereo and control it via a TV menu. A handy desktop panel provides an s-video port for hooking up your laptop to the plasma TV. And if all of that sounds baffling, the hotel now has a team of IT butlers—i.e., nerds—on call to assist.
Space-age elevators and direct-dial phones, s-video ports and iPod docks—the old Mandy has always kept up with the times. Not just in technology, either. Tracing the Mandarin’s history is like tracing the global evolution of hotel and travel culture across a half-century of trends and tastes: if it happens out there, it’s reflected in here. Take, for instance, the beloved Mandarin barbershop, now doubled in size—testament to the revival of male vanity. It’s not just for haircuts now; men come for facials too. Ditto the addition of a full-service spa, a veritable requirement in luxury hotels these days.
It’s the hotel dining rooms, however, that most reflect the shifting tastes. "In the early days, nobody left the building to eat, so the hotel had to provide the food and drink and excitement," says Peter French, who ran the hotel in the 1980’s and has now returned as general manager. And provide it did. From a swank supper club in the sixties (the Button) to a cabaret in the seventies (the Harbour Room) to a formal French restaurant in the eighties (Pierrot) to an Asian-fusion joint in the nineties (Vong), the Mandarin caught every current. Now Vong has been replaced by—ironically—a formal French restaurant, run by the great Pierre Gagnaire.
Two old standbys remain. The Mandarin Grill, site of countless business deals and wedding engagements, has been dramatically reworked by Terence Conran, with a cozy lounge and a sleek open kitchen running the length of the dining room. Conran also uncovered all the windows—which had been boarded-up since 1965, giving the old room a dim, bunkerlike aura. But he’s kept the original Pullman armchairs, the boardroom-size tables, and the acres of space between.
The top-floor Cantonese restaurant, Man Wah, which opened in 1968, is still the prettiest room in the building, with its rosewood furniture and floating-on-air Chinese lanterns. The designers even had replicas of the original pink tablecloths custom-made by the same Irish linen company and created a pink-and-fuchsia carpet based on the old Man Wah’s turtle motif. The whole room fairly glows with warmth, yet never distracts from the fabulous skyline views.
On the whole, the new-look Mandarin is a marked improvement, likely to age well until its inevitable next incarnation. The updates are fresh and contemporary but don’t scream oughties. Then again, in a city that has erased so much of its past, history may be the Mandarin’s best asset. And enough of the old, characterful elements remain that the place still has plenty of soul—which is more than can be said for most hotels built in the last 10 years. Or, for that matter, the last 44.
5 Connaught Rd., Central, Hong Kong; 866/526-6567 or 852/2522-0111; www.mandarinoriental.com; doubles from $373.
Peter Jon Lindberg is a T+L special correspondent.