With the addition of the new Murray hotel, the lure of Hong Kong’s Central district is hard to resist.
In an amphitheatre in Hong Kong Park, tai chi master Daisy Kan is taking me through a series of fluid poses, my thighs protesting the held lunges and my preconception of how tai chi was too gentle a form of exercise for me to be bothered with being steadily sweated away in the humid mid-morning heat. One of the resident gym trainers from the Murray, a newly opened five-star hotel right across the road from the park in the city’s Central district, minds our gear as my fellow hotel guests and I attempt to perform the routines with some semblance of grace.
The trainer is soon joined by a swarm of schoolgirls in tracksuit uniforms, who take up spots on the amphitheatre steps for morning tea, spreading out plastic picnic squares and unpacking snacks. Their giggles and chatter drown out the classical Chinese music being played on a Bluetooth speaker at Kan’s feet, but she seems unperturbed as she continues her unhurried routine, even when some of the more bold schoolgirls stand next to her and strike exaggerated poses for the benefit of their friends.
After an hour of being taken out of my comfort zone in slow motion, I happily retreat to the air-conditioned oasis of the Murray, a 1960s-era former government building that has been reworked by Foster + Partners to create Hong Kong’s latest luxury hotel. The exterior of the Murray is soberly geometric, with the windows are angled at 45 degrees to the face of the building, so that the sun doesn’t shine directly in during the city’s fierce summers. The spacious, sumptuous guest rooms are also offset by 45 degrees to align with the windows and maximise the sweeping views, although you wouldn’t realise this if you didn’t notice the sharp angles of the doorways in the discreetly lit halls.
The makeover of the Murray is part of the city’s Conserving Central project, which seeks to preserve historically significant buildings in the original military and administrative colonial centre. Taking in the views from Popinjays, the Murray’s rooftop restaurant, you’re separated from the phalanx of apartment blocks rising up the steep hills of Mid-Levels and the imposing towers of Central’s financial district by the massed greenery of Hong Kong Park, with its vaulting arched aviary and museum of teaware, the grounds of Government House and the zoo and botanic gardens. There’s a marvellous sense of space here that’s a rare commodity in this city of over seven million.
One of the most dynamic and charismatic of these seven million residents is Douglas Young, the co-founder of Goods of Desire, a lifestyle and fashion store in Central’s SoHo. When Young, who trained as an architect in the UK, learns I’m staying at the Murray he casually mentions it was he who first suggested in an open letter to the Hong Kong government that the decommissioned office building be reborn as a hotel rather than being torn down. We’re on an expedition to check out the garment district of Sham Shui Po in Kowloon, a taste of old-school Hong Kong for visitors and a source of inspiration for Young, who trawls the fabric and button stores and street stalls for near-forgotten patterns and prints he can refashion for his own line of tongue-in-cheek products.
“My mission,” says Young, “is to find things that are obvious to local people and turn them into objects of desire.” The results of his forays into the city’s rich cultural past can be anything from a graphic shower curtain printed with oversized Chinese characters from old newspaper headlines to homewares decorated with mahjong tiles and advertisements for Victorian-era hotels.
This chaotic, rough-and-ready garment district is slowly becoming gentrified, with Michelin-starred restaurants, chic cafes and art spaces moving in among the ramshackle stores and crowded streets. “Hong Kong is constantly changing,” says Young. “It’s always in flux, which is why I love it so much.”
As we drive back to Central from Sham Shui Po I mention to Young that I’m going to the buzzy Ho Lee Fook, a two-minute walk from his SoHo store, for dinner that evening. The seemingly best-connected man in Hong Kong sings the praises of the eatery, then tells me he was responsible for the mischievous moniker, a riff on the name of the famous – and now defunct – London restaurant Lee Ho Fook.
There are an estimated 18,000 restaurants in Hong Kong – with their tiny apartments and even more tiny kitchens, many locals often eat out three times a day. These include a multitude of back-to-basics Chinese ‘tea restaurants’, so named as they serve tea as a refreshment (as opposed to Western-style diners offering table water), alongside an increasingly rarefied strata of fine dining. The latest addition to the fine dining scene is Arbor, whose youthful Finnish chef Eric Räty uses premium Japanese ingredients and classical French techniques to create incredibly complex dishes on the 25th floor of a high-rise on Queen’s Road in Central. It’s a cultural mash-up that’s very Central, and very much Hong Kong.
For more details on the Murray, go to www.niccolohotels.com. Vogue flew with Cathay Pacific, which offers more than 70 flights a week to Hong Kong from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Cairns; www.cathaypacific.com.
Looking down at Central from Victoria Peak.
The facade of the 1969 building in Central that now houses the Murray, Hong Kong’s newest five-star hotel.
Clockwise fromtop left: a snapshot of the city as viewed from a Mid-Levels escalator in Central; the signature Murray Suite at the Murray, which comes with his and hers walk-in wardrobes; the heavenly bathroom in the Murray Suite; Douglas Young outside his Goods of Desire store in Central’s SoHo.