Fifty and fabulous
A Hong Kong hotel celebrates a big birthday in grand style
DOCTOR Szeto is at the door, proffering his business card and introducing himself as ‘‘trained at the University of Edinburgh’’. I step aside as he wheels into my guestroom a big black suitcase, which he duly opens to reveal myriad compartments, like a terrifically organised bento box. There are little pills and capsules, cotton swabs and syringes, and what may or may not be a dried seahorse or a ginseng root.
I am at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong and clearly I am in good hands; on my bedside table is a phial of Uplifting Room Mist ‘ ‘ to freshen [ and] restore energy’’. Between several vigorous spritzes of this lively potion and the eventual effects of the good Edinburghreturned doc’s healing tablets, I feel as if I’m astral travelling, zooming out the picture window and hovering over Hong Kong harbour like a tethered blimp.
If you are going to feel poorly away from home, then what better spot to recuperate than this effortlessly elegant hotel, turning 50 this year amid many celebrations and much merrymaking? I am feeling quite a bit more than 50, thanks to a pesky tropical infection and the proliferation of lesions that make me look like a knobbly marine creature — an octopus, perhaps, although as Dr Szeto kindly points out, I have just four appendages.
Next morning, twinkle-eyed Giovanni Valenti, chief concierge and exquisitely tailored ‘‘Mandarin ambassador’’, is too old-school continental to mention my blistered extremities as we meet for a chat about his long tenure at the hotel. ‘‘Since 1979,’’ he tells me, hands spread expansively to take in the lobby, the staircases and the Clipper Lounge where the golden figurehead from Billy Budd was installed by set designer Don Ashton, who worked on the 1962 film. ‘‘The Clipper Lounge is Hong Kong’s living room,’’ says Valenti.
In the cool, fragrant realms of the triple-storey Mandarin Spa — all 1930s Shanghai glamour and practices as mystical as meridian massages, moxibustion and imperial jade rituals — I learn all about the finer points of the Shanghai pedicure, a procedure involving the peeling of heels with fiercely sharpened blades, buffing ‘‘wrinkled toenails’’ and forensic investigation of crusty soles.
Spa operations manager Genesis Day Lagasca tells me the pedicurist in residence, Samuel So, comes from a veritable dynasty of ‘‘footmen’’ and has been at the hotel since 1999. He is not here this morning, however I chat to barber shop stalwart Stephen Wan, an employee since 1966. He remembers the heyday of the 1970s when there were ‘‘nine shampoo girls’’ in attendance and ‘‘Pan American stewardesses’’ by the planeload. Lagasca and Wan are too well mannered to ask why I am wearing slippers or to point out my feet are swelling curiously before their eyes.
Wan is brimming with (discreet) stories about encounters with the coiffures of famous guests — Eartha Kitt, Dame Edna Everage, ‘‘the wives of George Bush and Henry Kissinger’’, and Lavender Patten, wife of Chris, the 28th and last colonial governor of Hong Kong. LOOKat the skyline of Hong Kong Island’s Central district from the harbour — while on board, say, the pleasantly comfortable tourist junk Aqua Luna — and the Mandarin Oriental appears tiny. It could fit under the armpits, as it were, of its neighbouring buildings, their thrusting spires all but colliding with the clouds. But it was not always so. When the hotel, then known simply as The Mandarin, opened in September 1963, it was the tallest building in Hong Kong, which, according to its advertising of the day, could be observed ‘‘towering 25 storeys above the world’s most exotic harbour’’.
The South China Morning Post reported ‘‘space-age’’ elevators that ‘‘catapulted’’ guests to the top floor ‘‘in 21 seconds’’. There were pageboys in button-topped hats and white gloves, direct-dial phones and the hitherto unimaginable luxuries of a rooftop swimming pool and ensuite bathrooms. It’s said that when the architect was told of such bathing requirements, he asked: ‘‘Are the guests amphibious?’’
The hotel was on the waterfront Connaught Road back then, all but lapped by the wash of ferries and cargo boats; Hong Kong has engaged in a frenzy of land reclamation since that era and now the hotel sits back a bit, with construction in progress out front, although it is a low-rise and landscaped development, apparently, with parkland and walkways. That superb chronicler of cities Jan Morris has long been a fan of this one-time outpost of empire and her 1988 book Hong Kong remains the most perceptive account of its storied history. She’s long been a regular at the Mandarin, although never too keen on its boxy architecture. ‘‘Nobody could call it a beautiful building,’’ she once wrote.
Morris was back, sampling ‘‘perfect toast and marmalade’’ at the ‘ ‘ still Anglophile’’ hotel in 2005 , while praising Hong Kong as ‘‘a marvellous anomaly, a historical epitome, a boast, a marvel and a show, whirling away night and day in the South China Sea’’ and pondering its changing fortunes since 1997, the year FIFTY years doesn’t seem such a long time in the world of hotels. The Peninsula across the water on the Kowloon Peninsula turns 85 this year; Paris’s Plaza Athenee is clocking up a century. But the arrival of the Mandarin (few Hong Kongers use its full title) heralded a coming of age for the then British territory. The hotel was terribly cosmopolitan. It attracted high-flyers and supperclub stars and embraced the thrilling idea of the swinging 60s. Surely the mop-topped Beatles could pop