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Story of a Classic | The Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong

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Photo: Andrea Fazzari

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 Now Vong has been replaced by—ironically—a formal French restaurant, run by the great Pierre Gagnaire.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.

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