The development of up-market hotels across Asia was a response to the growing popularity of steamship travel in the mid to late nineteenth century. Great ocean liners transported a new breed of leisure traveller across the world, eagerly seeking adventure whilst cocooned in the same luxury and hospitality afforded to guests in a first class hotel. Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the first direct passage between Europe and Asia, opulent first-class hotels began to appear along the shipping route. Hong Kong soon became a centre for Asian travel and a connecting port for several important European-Asia sea routes. Before the 1860s, Hong Kong had relatively little to offer by way of tourist accommodation, with short-term stays arranged in small guest houses and hotels which offered only basic conveniences. The Hongkong Hotel Company, incorporated in 1866, signified a turning point in the port's nascent tourist trade and provided Hong Kong with its first luxury hotel in 1868.
Situated directly on the waterfront at the heart of the city's bustling business and shipping district, the Hongkong Hotel was soon recognised as ‘the most commodious and best-appointed hotel in the Far East' following its opening in 1868. The hotel became one of Hong Kong's most favoured institutions and was home to the famous 'Gripps' bar, a hot spot for balls, tea and dinner dances where dignitaries, businessmen, stockbrokers and international travellers of the day would meet.
Shanghai: Paris of the East
In the nineteenth century, the port of Shanghai was the commercial capital of China and the largest port and industrial centre in the Far East. With its rich trade, Shanghai attracted budding tycoons and adventurers from around the world as well as visitors enticed by the city's famous dance halls, theatres and the majestic Bund. All European and American steamship lines trading to the East made Shanghai a port of call for their steamers, and consequently it was from here that many visitors from Europe and America had their first glimpse of China.
Central Stores Limited was established in 1896 and marked a revolution in the nature of hotel keeping in Shanghai. In 1909 the Company opened the Palace Hotel, majestically situated on the Bund and Nanking Road, known as the 'Oxford Street of the East'. The Palace was considered one of the most 'homelike' hotels for visitors to the Far East and offered city tour guides arranged through the hotel office. In 1915, the Company, later renamed The Shanghai Hotels, Limited, purchased the Astor House Hotel (established in 1858) under the drive and vision of newly elected board member and shareholder Edward I. Ezra. The hotel was considered the most luxurious hotel in Shanghai during its heyday, with a famed ballroom that played host to new Jazz Age dances and the popular Argentinian 'tango teas' craze of the early 1900s. The Herald touted the ballroom as the finest in Shanghai, with murals in cream and white matte highlighted with gold, and a polished oak floor 'in beautiful condition for dancing'.
The Riviera of the Orient
The Hongkong Hotel Company's new Managing Director James Taggart had previously managed the Hongkong Hotel and was again selected by the Company to build a new hotel in Repulse Bay. Taggart's idea was to provide an opportunity for sun weary travellers to rest and relax in the calm, clear waters of the Repulse Bay and to enjoy the full benefits of a luxurious hotel sited nearby. The Repulse Bay opened on New Year's Day 1920 at an event attended by Hong Kong's elite including Governor Sir Reginald Stubbs and nearly every motor car in the city. By the 1930s, Hong Kong had acquired the reputation of 'The Riviera of the Orient', a place where travellers could enjoy a perfect winter climate of sunny days and cool, peaceful nights. This new-found status was in part thanks to the gracious surroundings of the Repulse Bay Hotel and later, the Repulse Bay Lido which opened in 1935 to much fanfare and excitement. The addition of seashore pastimes during the day and open-air dancing to the exotic sounds of a South Seas orchestra at night provided the city's residents with a much-anticipated new destination. In the years that followed the Second World War, the Lido's reputation as a swinging night spot only increased, as travel writer Sydney Clark noted: 'the Lido, on Repulse Bay, is an out-and-out nightclub, with an orchestra that purveys its contagious rhythms until 1am'. The Repulse Bay Hotel continued to win the hearts and minds of the literati until it finally closed its doors in 1982.
Following Ezra's death in 1921 and the sudden passing of Board member Ellis Kadoorie in 1922, The Hongkong Hotel Company acquired The Shanghai Hotels, Limited - marking the historic birth of The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels (HSH) in 1923. The Company now controlled some of the most exceptional hotel properties in China and Hong Kong, and with the arrival of The Peninsula Hotel in 1928, the Company's reputation for luxury and excellence was cemented.
The Finest Hotel East of Suez
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Hong Kong, like Shanghai, was facing a serious shortage of hotel accommodation. To meet this demand, the Hong Kong Government decided to build a new hotel at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, opposite the railway terminus and close to the quays of Kowloon. It was the railway station, with its steam engines connecting Hong Kong to Europe via Beijing or Moscow, which ultimately made the site an ideal location for a grand railway hotel.
Envisaged as a catalyst for the wider development of Kowloon, the project was soon open to outside investment and in 1922 HSH Company Chairman A.R. Lewis announced his intention to build 'an up-to-date hotel with accommodation for 500 guests'. The hotel was designed by prominent architects and civil engineers from the Hong Kong Realty and Trust Company Ltd. with Arts & Crafts Limited of Shanghai taking care of much of the hotel's decoration, including its modelled fibrous plaster, stained glass, and bronze and metal work. Following years of protracted construction work, the Peninsula Hotel finally opened its doors on 11 December 1928 to the greatest party of the decade. James Taggart gave a cheerful welcoming address remarking that 'this edifice may justly be regarded as not only a worthy addition to the everyday life of the residents of the Colony, but also (in view of its location as a gateway of this great port) as an establishment which may be fairly expected to enhance the popularity of the Colony by affording to transient visitors.' The evening's festivities continued apace with a Carnival Dinner Dance in the Roof Garden Ballroom catering to hundreds of guests, all marvelling at this new hotel standing proud as the tallest edifice in Kowloon.
The Talk of the Town
The arrival of the Peninsula hailed a new era in Hong Kong's social calendar as the hotel became the focal point for the city's dances and balls, with Sunday concerts, nightly dinners on the terrace and twice weekly dinners in the Rose Room quickly filling the diaries of Hong Kong's rich and powerful. The opulent surroundings and beautiful interiors of the hotel lured many guests away from long established local haunts. Situated near the Middle Road entrance of the hotel was the popular Moorish Bar, considered one of the Pen's show rooms. The bar boasted latticed wood work, stained glass windows and swinging lanterns in the archways. The Grill Room, situated on the Roof Garden atop the hotel, was a popular meeting place for the entire community. Dinner dances were held every night to the music of a riotous Jazz orchestra, with Afternoon Tea Dances for those more inclined to a leisurely day-time spin. Adjoining the Grill Room was the Banquet Room which came complete with a domed ceiling, orchestra balcony and yet another dance floor.
The hosting of royalty, on 26 April 1929, put the Peninsula firmly on the top rung of Hong Kong's social calendar from its earliest years of operation. For the banquet in honour of the Duke of Gloucester, and hosted by the Chamber of Commerce and China Association, the Rose Room was decorated with roses and violets and seating was arranged along a horseshoe table down three sides of the room. 'All in all', approved the South China Morning Post, 'the arrangements generally were excellent'. The St Andrew's Society also crossed the harbour in the same year, forsaking its traditional venue at the City Hall located on Hong Kong Island. For pomp and ceremony, the St. Andrew's Ball was impossible to top, with attendance by the Governor and pipers providing music in formation. A decade later – royalty of a different genre arrived at the hotel – in the form of Hollywood's golden boy Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, stars of the 1936 classic Modern Times.
Tales from the Lobby
The Lobby in particular quickly became the place to see and be seen. Having started life as a tea lounge, the Lobby became a popular rendezvous for locals and travellers alike. Graceful Romanesque arches with slender columns, hand wrought bronze grill work, delicate marble-carvings and heavy velvet drapes extended from ceiling to floor across the entire frontage of the Lobby. The Lobby was Hong Kong's arena for society ladies, businessmen, travellers and residents: a meeting place for the rich from both East and West. It was where society gossip was relayed and Peninsula legends were made. One famous Lobby character was John 'Jock' Prosser-Inglis, who occupied table number 44 as his personal office space and meeting point for friends and clients. One of Jock's many friends was the famous movie star Clark Gable who was at the hotel on location for Soldier of Fortune. Legend has it that reunion drinks at Jock's table became so frequent that the film's producer banned Gable from this magic table until his work was done.
With the inception of efficient, comfortable and speedy mass air travel in the post-war years, the Lobby became the natural home for the major airline companies of the day. Following minor construction work and the hanging of a BOAC shingle where the Moorish Bar once stood, the Peninsula became the world's first city-centre check-in terminal – and was ready once again to welcome a new clientele of international travellers.
Further information is available at The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels website: www.hshgroup.com