The Peninsula in Hong Kong
by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo
It is late afternoon in Hong Kong, nearly dusk, and we sit in armchairs
at a table in the lobby of The Peninsula hotel. The Darjeeling and Ceylon
teas steep in their bone-china pots; scones, trimmed tea sandwiches, and
tiny cakes rest on the tiers of a silver server. Around it, on porcelain
Tiffany plates, are preserves and clotted cream. The outside light, softened
by tinted glass and filtered by the sprays of palm fronds feathering out
from massive gilded pots, comes in softly from the arched windows of the
lobby, buffing the gold leaf on the square neoclassical columns and the
coffered ceiling. Through the balustrade of a small balcony drifts the Baroque
pulse of a Bach concerto, the efforts of The Peninsula's string quintet.
Our teas are poured, strained, as deep brown and strong as they ought to
be. We drink. Ah!
Tea in the lobby of The Peninsula. What better way to absorb a helping
of Hong Kong's not-all-that-distant colonial past, in the hotel that,
more than any other of the city's grand hostelries, defines that time?
For the Peninsula, which first opened its doors in 1928, is a rarity in
Hong Kong: an establishment of traditions kept and treasured despite the
currents of instant renewal and change that are going on around it.
Just a year ago The Pen, as it is called with affection by its friends,
opened a new thirty-story tower. The tower grew upward from the central
core of this U-shaped rococo stone pile near the tip of the city's Kowloon
peninsula. With the addition, The Peninsula has managed to become a new
hotel, yet one that-with the faithful refurbishment of its lobby, which
general manager Peter Borer calls "a sacred place," and in the meticulous,
subtle refashioning of its public rooms-has successfully redefined its
essence and its Hong Kong context.
The mix is enchanting, and disturbs not at all one's years of familiarity
with the place. Maps of old Asia and prints of the warehouses along the
Hong Kong waterfront hanging in the mezzanine staircase complement the
giant bronze Fu dog, a menacing-looking creature sculpted by Jim Dine,
that guards the lobby.
I have been a visitor to The Peninsula for more than twenty years, and
with each stay I savor the comfort and sense of recognition I experience.
The exquisite lobby always beckons for tea, for a sandwich or a cocktail,
even for a light supper with muted jazz coming from the balcony. I recall
being told that this lobby was once a theater of colonial manners governed
by an unwritten but understood protocol by which the British took tea
on the right side of the big room, the rest of the universe on the left;
by which attached ladies sat on the right, and those unattached, or perhaps
seeking dalliance, sat left.
It was my habit to enjoy a saucisse de veau (veal wurst), a crisp rösti
made as it would be in Zurich, and a cold Valais Pinot Gris in the restaurant
named Chesa, a small wooden refuge that is a gustatory monument to The
Peninsula's tradition of Swiss management. I look forward to Saturday
afternoons in The Verandah, a room that could be in a colonial trader's
house overlooking the Strait of Malacca, and a tiffin of curries and condiments.
And I revel in the cooking at Spring Moon, an utterly superb Chinese restaurant
where chef Ho Pui Yung is as apt to cook up a Cantonese dégustation
matched with rare teas as he is to turn out perfectly steamed dim sum.
The Peninsula is very much a part of that small network of classic grand
hotels with which European traders adorned their Asian treaty ports, concessions,
and colonies. It is in the mold of The Oriental in Bangkok, Raffles in
Singapore, the Hotel des Indes in Java; all places of considerable grandeur,
all virtual shrines to the course of empires. Even the name of the company
that owns The Peninsula — The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, Limited — evokes another time, and it is nigh impossible to contemplate this hotel
without considering its history.
Built to be a hotel, The Peninsula actually began its life in 1927 as
barracks for battalions of the Coldstream Guards and the Devonshire Regiment,
rushed to Hong Kong to be ready to protect British traders in Shanghai
from the involvement in one of China's civil wars. It opened to the public
on December 11, 1928, when a twelve-year-old page boy in starched whites
handed a bouquet of flowers to the wife of Hong Kong's acting governor.
That page, Chan Pak, is eighty-two years old now, until recently an occasional
banqueting manager. He is also, often an official greeter for the hotel
that he calls "my life."
Chan Pak, a slim and graceful man recalled for me with evident pleasure
those early days of his hotel. "All of the big parties in Hong Kong were
held in The Peninsula, which was the tallest building in the city then;
the St. George's Ball for the English and the St. Andrew's Ball for the
Scottish, up in our Roof Garden Ball Room. Our mezzanine was a sitting
room for the residents who were British government people, and captains
of the British and American fleets always stayed here." The tracks of
the Kowloon Canton Railway ran in front of the hotel along what was then
the waterfront of the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbor. (The lobby served,
in fact, as the waiting room in the 1950's for passengers of the Pan American
China Clipper flying boats and other airlines. "They would announce the
flights in our lobby, and then the people would go by bus to the airport,"
says Chan Pak).
The Peninsula's life as a hotel was suspended abruptly on Christmas
Day of 1941, when the building became the site of the surrender of Hong
Kong by the British to the Japanese invasion force. For a time it was
the invaders' headquarters, and then, on April 10, 1942, the new Japanese
governor of Hong Kong renamed The Peninsula the Toa Hotel. The surrender
of the Japanese on August 14, 1945, saw the hotel handed back to the British,
who also used it as a military changeover headquarters until it reopened
again as The Peninsula in late 1946.
The first of its line of Swiss general managers, Leo Gaddi, came to
the hotel in 1948, and five years later the restaurant Gaddi's opened.
Through its forty-two years, Gaddi's has been a culinary constant, serving
haute French cooking and wines from a diverse, though largely French,
list of great depth. For thirty of those years the blue-carpeted dining
room, with its seventeenth-century coromandel screen from the Summer Palace
in Beijing and two brilliantly cut Christofle chandeliers from Shanghai,
has been the fief of Rolf Heiniger, a mâitre d'hôtel who discusses,
recommends, offers, and dictates, always with deference, but firmly, and
"always for the good of the customer."
Sitting in the small lounge at the entrance of Gaddi's, Rolf sweeps
his hand in an arc to encompass the small sea of tables set with blue
and gold Bernardaud porcelain and skirted with gold silk, and smiles.
"This is my fourth Gaddi's," he says. "We dressed it in 1966, then in
'69, the third time in '78, and now this. It is my new lease on life."
The restaurant's chef, the latest in a succession of Frenchmen, is Julien
Bompard of Provence, a twenty-six-year-old disciple of Louis Outhier.
He sees his mission, he tells me over a loup de mer rôti aux saveurs
de Provence (roast sea bass), as bringing to Gaddi's "some Bourgogne,
some Bourgeois, some Provence, some stories, and some gifts."
Up in the top floor of the new tower, just beneath a new Art Deco-style
China Clipper lounge commemorating that era, The Peninsula parts with
tradition. Felix — a dramatic restaurant with sweeping expanses of marble
and alabaster, mahogany and rippled aluminum, named for another of the
hotel's Swiss managers, Felix Bieger — seems wrought by French designer
Philippe Starck to be not merely a place in which to eat, but a theater.
The unequaled view of Hong Kong's harbor and skyline is muted by metal
blinds, for the restaurant is the focus, a stage. One of its players is
chef David Abella, a thirty-four-year-old Hawaiian whose eclectic cookery
is studded with kimchi and mangoes, with soy sauces and wasabi.
Does this boldness jar? It might. If that be the case, simply return
downstairs to that golden lobby, have tea and a scone, and think of other
times, earlier times, British on the right.
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