[One of the great things about being a foreign correspondent is the opportunity one has of staying in classic hotels around the world. During my career, I stayed in my share of them–some more classic than others. In some cases, I lived in a hotel for months at a time [the Continental Palace in Saigon, the old Le Phnom–now the Royal–in Phnom Penh, the Rosarito Beach Hotel in Baja California, etc.]. From time to time I will post a story I wrote about one of these classic inns. Today, I am sharing my look at the Grand Dame of Asia, the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.]
There are some experiences every traveler to Asia should savor at least once. There is the experience of strolling through that ancient and sprawling citadel of opulence and imperial intrigue called the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing.
There is the experience of visiting the Grand Shrine on Japan’s lush Ise Peninsula–the most revered spot in The Land of the Rising Sun. Its assortment of ascetic Shinto shrines, surrounded by ancient forests of cedar and cypress, is where the spirits of Japan’s past emperors are enshrined.
And there is the experience of sitting in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel on the southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula in what was, until July 1, 1997, the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong.
True, the lobby of The Peninsula cannot match the verdant panoramas of Ise or the expansive dimensions of the Forbidden City.
But sitting in the legendary lobby of The Pen is nevertheless one of those splendid little Asian experiences that should not be missed.
From the time the hotel opened in 1928 the long, rectangular, neoclassical lobby has been Hong Kong’s most elegant gathering place. For 80 years the phrase “Let’s meet at The Pen” has meant “Let’s meet in the lobby of The Peninsula.”
And that’s exactly what thousands of people do every year. Some are attracted by the traditional afternoon tea with its strawberry cakes, sandwiches, and the hotel’s fabled green mango juice–all served in Tiffany chinaware on tables topped with marble.
A live string quartet plays Mozart, Haydn, and Vivaldi from a small corner balcony overlooking the lobby. In the evening the mood changes. Jazz supplants Rococo and Baroque, and more robust liquid refreshment flows forth.
But even though the music and refreshment are terrific, there is another, more compelling reason to visit the lobby of The Pen. It offers Asia’s best venue for that age-old pastime: people watching.
It’s an eclectic, multinational crowd that passes through the hotel’s massive glass doors and into the lobby today–some in linen and jeans, some in Dior and Armani.
But back in the early 1970s when this correspondent first made The Pen’s acquaintance, the lobby was still frequented by aging relics of the British Raj, who would gather in the evening for gin and tonic and watch the last rays of sunlight evaporate in the azure waters of Victoria Harbor.
Some would reminisce about pre-World War II Hong Kong, reflecting on a simpler era when high-rises didn’t obscure the jade hills of Hong Kong Island and rickshaws still scurried along the colony’s streets.
In those days, the only way to travel between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon was on the Star Ferry. The 12 green and white ferries have been making the 8-minute trip between Tsim-Sha-Tsui and Central Hong Kong Island since 1898, and the fare of HK $1.70 (about 22 U.S. cents) for the upper deck and HK $1.40 (about 18 cents) for the lower deck hasn’t changed in 98 years.
Despite those prices, the Cross Harbor Tunnel under Victoria Harbor is the route most car, bus, and truck traffic takes between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island today.
Although Hong Kong’s old hands offer parsimonious approval of the tunnel’s convenience, they are less forthcoming in their praise of Hong Kong in general. Some are still skeptical of the colony’s future since control shifted in 1997 from the British to the Communist regime in Beijing.
“Too damned many cloud scratchers,” opined a retired Swiss trader named Felix Hartfeld as he regarded the Hong Kong skyline with its ever-expanding forest of glass and granite skyscrapers. “The place is losing its character . . . .Its charm. If it had looked like this in 1938, I never would have come here. I certainly wouldn’t have come here if the Communists had been in control. Just wait. They’ll make a proper mess of everything.”
Old hands like Hartfeld are more forgiving of The Pen and the changes it has made through the years.
Nevertheless, Hartfeld and others of his generation affectionately recall the lobby of The Pen “B.A.C.” (before air conditioning) when teakwood paddle fans hung from its 25-foot ceilings, cool evening breezes blew through open doors from the harbor, and “ladies of ambiguous virtue” lounged at the tables on the left side of the lobby.
Why the left side? Because in those days it was the part of the lobby that was out of view of the front desk and, therefore, a discrete place for those to meet who didn’t want to be noticed.
“The left side of the lobby was for ladies who were, shall we say, available,” recalled Bryan Reid, a former Australian merchant marine captain who, in the 1960s and ’70s, ferried supplies between Hong Kong and Saigon. “The right side was for more virtuous Hong Kong society.”
Reid, now in his 70s, sighed. “Those were times,” he said lifting a glass of Tsingtao beer to his lips. “Those were some damned good times.”
The 1960s and ’70s were also a time of intense, internal turmoil for The Pen. For the first time since it opened its doors, The Pen was faced with a sudden burst of competition.
The first serious international competitor was the Hong Kong Hilton, which opened in 1963. As difficult as it is to believe today standing amid the opulence of The Peninsula, the Hilton–not the Peninsula–was Hong Kong’s first official five-star international hotel.
Located across Victoria Harbor from The Pen on Hong Kong Island, the Hilton was one of those glass and granite towers so despised by people like Hartfeld. Its 820 rooms overlooked Queens Pier, the Star Ferry, and Chater Park. It had all the latest gadgetry, including the first Xerox copy machine in Hong Kong. (Sadly, the Hilton closed its doors in April 1995. The hotel was a favorite of many of the region’s foreign correspondents–due in large part to longtime general manager James Smith, a Scotsman, who had a soft spot for itinerant hacks. Even though the Hilton was earning about $500 million a year in revenue, it was sitting on land that could earn more than $1 billion annually as an office complex.)
Within a few years of the Hilton’s debut, other international hotels opened in Hong Kong, among them the Mandarin and the President.
The Regent Hong Kong, regarded as The Pen’s stiffest competition today, didn’t open until 1980. The 16-year-old, 602-room hotel sits on the shore of Victoria Harbor just down Salisbury Road from The Peninsula. Like The Peninsula, the red granite, 17-story Regent consistently ranks among the top five hotels in the world.
But back in the early 1970s, before there was a Regent to worry about, the Peninsula Group (the operations and marketing division of Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd.) which manages The Peninsula and six other hotels, was faced with another problem.
Those with eyes fixed firmly on the bottom line argued that with only 168 rooms The Pen couldn’t possibly compete with Hong Kong’s newer and much larger hotels. Across Salisbury Road, directly in front of the hotel, the Canton-Kowloon Railway station already had been torn down and prime waterfront real estate was beckoning to the bean counters.
It all added up to a compelling argument–even for the sentimentalists in the Peninsula Group who were reluctant to scrap decades of history and tradition.
And in the end, the profit motive did indeed win out, and plans were made to raze the old hotel and rebuild a much larger Peninsula along the edge of Victoria Harbor, about 100 yards from its current location.
When word got out about the plans to demolish The Pen, many of Hong Kong’s old hands were infuriated. How could the Peninsula Group even remotely consider demolishing one of Hong Kong’s icons–especially one that was the repository of so much of the colony’s fabled history?
Hong Kong was suddenly rife with amateur historians, recalled one Peninsula staff member. And each was intent on reminding the hotel’s management again and again of the role The Pen had played in that history.
Some of that history was made even before The Peninsula officially opened.
In 1927 Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists were battling China’s communists for control of mainland China. Faced with the genuine possibility that the struggle would spill over into Hong Kong, the British rulers of the colony brought troops into Hong Kong from India and the Middle East. They promptly commandeered the almost finished Peninsula and turned it into a barracks for the Second Battalion of the Coldstream Guards.
Machine guns were mounted on The Pen’s balcony so the troops could conduct target practice. Rooms became billets. Ammunition and supplies were stored in the hotel garage.
A year later, with order restored in China, the troops departed and at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 11, 1928, the hotel officially opened its doors to its first paying guests.
The first person through the doors was Hong Kong’s governor, the Honorable Sir Wilfred Thomas Southorn. Hotel documents show that as Sir Wilfred entered The Pen’s lobby with his wife and several official guests, the band played “God Save the King,” followed by a march titled “Steadfast and True.”
Some 3,000 people roamed through the hotel that day, and it didn’t take long for the lobby to become what one colony wag called “Hong Kong’s emporium of gossip.”
That lasted until Christmas Day, 1941, when, after three weeks of fighting, Imperial Japanese troops took the colony. On that day British Governor, Sir Mark Young surrendered Hong Kong to the Japanese. The ceremony was conducted (where else?) in the lobby of The Peninsula. Immediately afterward, Sir Mark was placed under house arrest in Room 336.
Hong Kong’s new governor, Japanese Lt. Gen. Rensuke Isogai, ordered the Rising Sun flag hoisted over The Pen and then turned the hotel into Imperial Japan’s official Hong Kong headquarters–but not before renaming it the “Toa (East Asia) Hotel.”
The Pen’s new name was meant to reflect Imperial Japan’s attempt to create what it called “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
For almost four years the hotel resonated with the sounds of Japanese. Then, on Aug. 14, 1945, another surrender ceremony was held in The Peninsula. This time, it was Imperial Japan’s turn to capitulate.
In the months immediately following the war, the hotel became a refugee center, with some 2,000 homeless men, women and children packed into its 168 rooms, lobby, and corridors. Many were prisoners repatriated from Japanese POW camps.
When the hotel was finally turned over to the Peninsula Group at the end of 1946 by the British government, they found a building in dire need of repairs. Two feet of water stood in the basement–the result of a street-level hole created by Allied bomb damage. And most of the hotel’s crockery and cutlery had been liberated by the Japanese and the throng of postwar refugees.
By 1947 the hotel had returned to normal operations. And by the early 1950s, it was not only ranked as Asia’s top hotel, but its historic role in the war also had given The Pen a kind of official significance and magisterial stateliness that elevated it to something more than an elegant bivouac for travelers.
The Pen was now, more than ever, a part of Hong Kong lore–a place awash in the ebb and flow of legend and fact. As a result, it attracted a who’s who of writers, from Noel Coward and Eric Ambler to Arthur Miller and Sterling Silliphant.
In the 1960s James Clavell moved in for almost two years and began penning books such as “Noble House,” “Taipan” and “Shogun.”
There was little doubt that the Pen had become the primary magnet for the social, literary and political elite of the region.
That’s the way things continued until the early 1970s when talk of razing the hotel thundered through Hong Kong like a spring typhoon.
It was in this atmosphere that this correspondent first set foot in The Pen’s lobby. You couldn’t have a conversation there in those days without someone commenting on the future of the revered hostelry.
“If they rip the old place down, the owners should be taken out and flogged, by God,” huffed one of The Pen’s aging regulars one evening in the lobby. “It would be a bloody outrage . . . like scuttling the Star Ferry or shearing off the top of Victoria Peak.”
The man, a British businessman, named Thomas Crowell who arrived in Hong Kong in the early 1930s and married a Russian woman born in China, earned his livelihood in the shipping industry. During the war, he was captured by the Japanese and, like thousands of other British POWs, spent almost four years in a POW camp on the island of Hainan.
“I was billeted in The Peninsula after the war with a lot of other chaps from that bloody awful POW camp,” he recalled. “There was no electric, no running water, and nothing coming up from the kitchen. But even if we smelled like hell and cooked beans over Sterno cans in the hallway, it was still The Pen. And it felt like home. And it still does, by God. And I’ll be damned if I’ll let it go without a damned proper scuffle.”
As it turned out, Crowell needn’t have worried.
The global oil crisis and a precipitous drop-off in tourism during the recession-plagued early 1970s combined to scotch plans to raze and rebuild across Salisbury Road. The Pen was saved.
Instead of being razed, the hotel has undergone a series of renovations–the most recent of which ended in 1994 after $200 million was spent to upgrade the hotel’s original 168 rooms and to construct a 30-story tower at the rear of the original building.
The new tower adds 132 rooms and suites, giving the hotel an even 300. It also adds ten floors of commercial office space and twin helipads on the roof that will ferry guests between the hotel and Hong Kong’s new airport that opened in 1998 on Chep Lap Kok Island some 30 miles away.
The new addition also solves another problem. When The Pen didn’t buy the land across Salisbury Road, somebody else did. Today, just across the road–and blocking the view of the harbor from the hotel’s original seven-story facade–is the Hong Kong Space Museum and Theater.
The chalky geodesic dome-like building seems as out of place along historic Salisbury Road as a Chinese junk on the Mississippi River.
“Rather an eyesore isn’t it,” quipped a British hotel guest standing near the small fountain that fronts The Peninsula. “Looks like a great white wart.”
The Pen’s 132 new tower rooms, which start on the 17th floor, offer unobstructed views over the “wart” across Victoria Harbor to Hong Kong Island. The tower also has a new spa with a 60-foot-long pool, two Jacuzzis, a sun deck overlooking Victoria Harbor, gymnasium and massage salon.
The new rooms–each about 500 square feet–come equipped with Chinese lacquered coffee tables, writing desks, oriental wicker lounge chairs, sofas, silent fax machines, five telephones (three in the room and two in the bathroom), laserdisc/CD players (with individual headphones) and computerized controls in a bedside console for the TV, radio, curtains, air conditioning and lights.
The outdoor temperature and humidity are even displayed on a panel located in each room’s foyer.
The large bathrooms are done in marble and come with a deep bathtub, separate shower stall, private toilet, a TV set housed in the wall above the tub, a regular telephone, and a hands-free telephone.
As opulent as the original Pen’s rooms were, veteran visitors say they don’t come close to the new digs.
“I first stayed here in 1955,” said a guest from London who preferred to give only her first name: Libby. “It was a wonderful ambiance back then. Lots of class. Very nobby. But the rooms today are much nicer. And so is the lobby.”
The lobby should look nicer. Between 1994 and ’95 it underwent a multi-million restoration project. Craftsmen were brought in from England and, working from original blueprints, every plaster figurine, filigree, frieze, fillet, quatrefoil, and flower was cleaned, reconditioned and repainted.
“Absolutely bang on . . . back of the net,” said Libby. “But one wonders about the taste of some of the clientele today. Just look.”
Visitors and guests were wandering through the lobby in the de rigueur travel attire of the today–baggy, knee-length shorts, T-shirts emblazoned with advertising and high-top Reeboks.
“People looking like that would have been turned away at the door back in 1955,” said Libby. “It may be the indulgent and mannerless ‘2000s, but class is timeless. You either have it, or you don’t. And frankly, not many of these people have it.”
Just then a woman in skin-tight canary jogging tights padded into the lobby. Headphones from a portable stereo tape player were clamped to her ears; perspiration dripped from her face, and her running shoes squeaked abrasively against the marble floor as she tramped toward the elevators.
“Isn’t that just perfectly frightful?” Libby said. “I certainly hope she isn’t English.”
She wasn’t. The lady in yellow was French.
“Well, that explains it,” sniffed Libby.
What about those golden days of The Pen back in the 1950s? Any interesting tales to tell?
Libby, now in her late 70s, flashed a wicked smile.
“Now you’ll understand why I don’t want my family name in print,” she said. “I recall sitting in the lobby one night and seeing William Holden sitting alone in the lobby drinking a vodka tonic. So I walked over and introduced myself.
“He was in Hong Kong filming `Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.’ I was an air hostess on holiday. He bought me a vodka tonic, and then another, and then another, and we talked for several hours. It was magical. Then he walked me to my room. And well, that’s as much as you need to know, or I want to say . . . .”
You get the feeling that it was one of those little Asian experiences that could only have happened in the lobby of The Pen.