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Story of a Classic | The Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong

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Launch Slideshow
Photo: Andrea Fazzari

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.

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