Fifty and fab­u­lous

A Hong Kong ho­tel cel­e­brates a big birth­day in grand style

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

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

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