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Story of a Classic | The Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong

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Photo: Andrea Fazzari

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.

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