If you were young and well-off in pre-war Hong Kong, there was only one thing to do on a Saturday night: dance. And the place to do it was in the ballroom of the Hongkong Hotel, where every winter weekend there was a ‘Saturday Night in the Far East’ ball. Tables were set up along the edges of the dance floor and the crowd of youthful expatriates – the sons and daughters of Hong Kong’s colonial elite – waltzed and foxtrotted between courses as a Filipino band played hits.
‘They all praised me for my dancing,’ wrote former resident Betty Steel in her diary of Hong Kong life between 1910 and 1933. ‘And who could resist dancing in those grand hotel ballrooms with their smooth, shiny, brightly polished wooden floors, to the music of a sweet sounding orchestra. I could have danced forever!’
In the summer, the crowd retreated to the Repulse Bay Hotel, where they danced in the warm evening breeze. ‘From the hotel verandah the view over Repulse Bay was quite lovely, especially so on nights when the stars shone and the fishing boats were out in the bay, each boat with a brilliant lamp for attracting fish,’ recalled Steel.
Don’t bother looking for a dance at one of these hotels today: they’re both gone. Hong Kong is a city of landmark hotels that flashed through the sky like shooting stars. This month, The Excelsior will join that storied league of hotels as it shuts its doors after 46 years. When it opened in 1973, it featured a Suzie Wong-themed bar festooned with birdcages and a groovy lobby that starred in the 1978 comedy Revenge of the Pink Panther. In more recent years it was celebrated for the sundowners enjoyed on its rooftop bar, Talk of the Town. The hotel will now be redeveloped into offices.
Hong Kong’s original luxury hotel, the Hongkong Hotel, met a similar fate. Built in 1868, it stood at the corner of Queen’s Road Central and Pedder Street, a grand four-storey structure with a clock tower and deep verandas that offered respite from the subtropical heat. ‘The food is good, the attendance all that one need desire and the house kept clean; the proprietors are civil and obliging, the wines fair and the terms not excessive,’ recalled an Australian guest in 1882.
By the time the hotel was torn down in 1952 to make way for the Central Building, which still stands today, its glory years were far behind it, though it was still popular for Gripps restaurant on the ground floor. It had a good run.
The Peak Hotel, a sprawling Victorian pile that opened at the Peak Tram terminus in 1873, stood for half the time before it succumbed to the mist and mould of high mountain life. It burned down two years after being shuttered in 1936.
The prosperity of the post-war decades brought a new wave of hotels to Hong Kong. Built in 1973, the Furama Hotel on Chater Road was known for its rotating restaurant; it closed after a raging farewell party in 2001. The Ambassador Hotel, which stood on Nathan Road from 1961 to 1998, was known for its 17-storey mosaic mural, created by artist Yip Poon Chiu-fong, that depicted the travels of Confucius.
Probably the best known of these post-war hotels was the Hong Kong Hilton. Designed by venerable architecture firm Palmer & Turner, responsible for Central’s Jardine House and many other icons, it opened in 1963 with 750 rooms. It was an instant hit thanks to the 24-hour Cat Street coffee shop, top-floor Eagle’s Nest supper club and the Opium Den lounge.
The hotel’s playhouse attracted top-flight talent like Latin music star Xavier Cugat, who played at the Hilton in 1966. The hotel was torn down after it was sold to Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong Holdings in 1995 – the company’s headquarters now stands on the site – but its legacy can be felt every time you turn on a Wong Kar-wai picture: the director was a fan of Cugat and included his music in many of his films’ soundtracks.
For every hotel that’s been demolished, a dozen new ones have risen. Data from the Hong Kong Tourism Board shows that the city now has more than 93,671 hotel rooms, compared to 41,829 in 2002. Among these are many instant classics such as The Ritz-Carlton, with its views from 490 metres above Victoria Harbour in West Kowloon; The Murray, refashioned from a 1960s Central office tower; and the newly revamped Eaton Hong Kong in Jordan, which is making a name for itself as a cultural destination with documentary screenings and indie music gigs.
There’s probably no foxtrotting going on any more, or anything named ‘Saturday Night in the Far East’, but a whole new generation of hotel memories is being created for the purposes of future nostalgia. Enjoy your stay.
1. Ambassador Hotel
- Opened: 1961
- Closed: 1998
2. Excelsior Hotel
- Opened: 1973
- Closed: 2019
3. Furama Hotel
- Opened: 1973
- Closed: 2001
4. Hongkong Hotel
- Opened: 1868
- Closed: 1952
5. Hong Kong Hilton
- Opened: 1963
- Closed: 1995
6. Repulse Bay Hotel
- Opened: 1920
- Closed: 1982
7. The Peak Hotel
- Opened: 1873
- Closed: 1936