THE PENINSULA, HONG KONG: A building through space and time

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THE PENINSULA, HONG KONG: A building through space and time

Only a fool would try to suggest that a single building – in this instance, worse, a luxurious hotel – could refract the story of city. But let's be foolish, because the history of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, and the way we see it today, contains bright flashes of that unique city's history.

The first time I saw the Peninsula was more than four decades ago when Hong Kong – then a British colonial outpost -- was a very different city.

I was with my father and had grown up with stories of places like the Peninsula and the equally famous Raffles in Singapore. My parents weren't of that old-style Empire-and-the-Raj-mentality – indeed my dad was outraged that mum's father who had served with distinction during the Great War was a doorman at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh and was obliged to salute junior doctors.

But they saw these handsome places as repositories of glamorous stories and intriguing politics, where writers such as Somerset Maugham would hold court over a gin sling. The Peninsula and Raffles belonged in that exotic age of PanAm Clippers or the trans-Siberian railway when only the most privileged could afford to travel in them.

IMG_2670I'd also been aware of such risque stories about Hong Kong as The World of Suzie Wong about a kind-hearted prostitute – we had a funny illustrated book with a Suzie in a daring cheongsam – and that the British had signed their articles of surrender at the Peninsula in 1941.

At that time with my dad we couldn't afford to stay there – we stayed with friends and my parents most often took a room at the nearby Mariners' Club if I recall. But I can well remember walking through the handsome, airy lobby as people, Europeans mostly, went about their mysteriously elegant business.

The Peninsula confirmed everything of my boyhood imaginings.

Every time I passed through Hong Kong subsequently I would admire the place, but never once went back inside.

I watched it change and grow, just as the city around it did. In the early 90s two huge tower blocks of rooms reared up behind the reassuringly solid and delightfully columned frontage, and I heard that high-end fashion shops like Cartier and Louis Vuitton had moved into the chic shopping arcade. More recently I read about the Philippe Starck-designed restaurant and bar on the 28th floor. I wanted to have a cocktail there and watch the night lights of that remarkable city with its “Fragrant Harbour”.

And in all this, the Peninsula Hotel mirrored the changing face of Hong Kong from colonial outpost where locals were servile to Europeans, through those years when it served as a listening post on China, and to the closing overs of Empire when the Union Jack came down in '97. Then Hong Kong became that outward-looking Chinese city which, in an interesting reversal, now listened in on the rest of the world, and broadcast something of itself and its ambitions.

Money always talked in Hong Kong, and perhaps nowhere more visibly than in the changing face of the Peninsula which opened in 1928, a more elegant era.

And then, in what seemed like a dream, my wife and I stayed there.

I'm sure I bent her ear with stories my parents had told me, of my previous encounters from the outside, of how I wanted to see Starck's famous Felix overlooking the harbour and Hong Kong island opposite . . .

I needn't have worried about the view from Felix because our room on the twentysomething floor – with a large telescope and wrap-around windows -- took in everything.

The previous place I had stayed at in Hong Kong had been a shabby place way up and off Nathan Road where barely a word of English was spoken and there was none on shop signs. It was up past what used to Juno's revolving restaurant where I'd been with my dad all those decades back and everything was in English, and you could eyeball passengers in planes landing at Kai Tak.

So because of that previous experience I convinced myself I deserved this brief residency in the sumptuous Peninsula which I had long admired.

In truth, I had done nothing to earn it.

We were guests of the hotel, and had been since the Rolls Royce Phantom picked us up at the airport. It had been a seamless transition from Business Class through Customs (someone else got our bags) and into the Roller. From disembarking to back seat in fewer than five minutes.

“So this is how Rod Stewart lives,” I said to my wife as we crossed those handsome bridges above Ma Wan Island, where two days later we would go to see a bizarre life-size replica of Noah's Ark.

IMG_2684If there had been a check-in at the Peninsula it went past with equal ease and within a few minutes – arriving in our suite just after out luggage – we were looking out towards Hong Kong island draped in misty low clouds of humidity and glowering blue-black thunderheads above. On any day the vista would be dramatic, the unexpectedness of this made it more so.

The Peninsula today is an emblem of Euro-directed style and the commercial life of this city where money flows, and where there is a visible line between the new thrusting Chinese version of capitalism and the old world down backstreets just a few blocks away.

From Starck's sky-high restaurant where we watched lasers cut the sky at night and toasted my wife's birthday with that long-promised cocktail to the discreetly located, tasteful, luxurious and muted Salon Da Ning with its themed rooms (Madame Da Ning's boudoir, the Africa room with its animal skins and wooden furnishings, Bailar room with an old gramophone) some 30 floors below, the Peninsula breaths style and cool internationalism.

5_hong_kongThe world is smaller and more integrated than it ever was – and the Peninsula reflects that change. It is now part of a global group with sister hotels in New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Beverly Hills, Beijing . . .

As with the city itself, the Peninsula is grabbing at the 21st century – yet it also keeps elements of its past.

Yes, there is a breathtakingly beautiful and relaxing spa, and a Greco-Roman pool I had to myself one morning. There are restaurants and cocktail lounges, Gucci and Armani and 80 other boutique stores. There is a cooking academy (with classes for kids) and all the rest. But the tradition of high tea remains.

IMG_2567The difference now is that where once -- a long time ago I have to remind myself -- this was when proper English ladies and their daughters might gather for cucumber sandwiches and tea in the fan-cooled lobby, now it is young and elegant Chinese women and their daughters – some even in long white gloves – who pose gracefully over the teacups.

The history goes on, in a new and different way. It seemed to me a lot more had been gained than lost.

On our last night, after spending an hour just looking out the window at the ferries, junks and white-hulled gin-palace yachts plying the harbour, we went back to Felix for a farewell drink.

We knew we would probably never be back to the sublime comfort and luxury of the Peninsula Hotel, but once in a lifetime was enough to dwell on for years to come.

I thought of what my Scottish mum used to say, “Och, if yer ain folk could see you the noo.”

Well, they wouldn't have recognised me anyway.

I was Rod Stewart.

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