The Peninsula turns 85
Last Wednesday’s 85th anniversary party at The Peninsula was a truly memorable event. And I’m usually unimpressed by such things. So often they are overblown and over the top, but as befits its history as Hong Kong’s classiest surviving hotel, this was picture perfect. Heaven only knows how much it cost Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels chairman Sir Michael Kadoorie to throw open the doors for 2,000 or so guests is anyone’s guess.
If you can relate to a child being let loose in a sweet shop, this was the adult foodie equivalent, being allowed to graze around every outlet in the hotel. It kicked off with champagne and canapes in the lobby. You could only goggle at the big pots of caviar and try to resist the urge to politely take a loaded blini and bolt back to join the line for another. Stacks of oysters threatened to topple over and waiters wilding magnums of champagne were so plentiful they were a health hazard.
Sir Michael made his speech on the forecourt, back to the harbour, standing on a chunky box. He joked that he would have loved to do it from his vintage Rolls Royce parked alongside, but that no one would have been able to see him. VIPs were deftly escorted to the front, penned in and separated by a human security chain. This was quite bizarre: plain clothes men and women determinedly clasping hands in crisp white gloves around the stage so no ordinary guests could get through. Judging from their faces after half an hour, this was harder than it looked.
Illuminated animated spectacle
Then a huge light show – an “Illuminated animated spectacle” - was unleashed on the façade. This took on a surreal feel as buses and cabs continued to drive past just a few feet away. The show, by the way, will be shown again tonight December 12th and on the 13th and 14th at 7.30pm, 8, 30 and 9.30pm. It was supposed to be the history of Hong Kong but I’ll take their word for it. It was very colourful, whatever it was, finishing with just a few fire works. From up close it was hard to see – the best vantage point would be a Central-bound Star ferry, mid-harbour.
Gourmet free for all
Then it was time for the serious consuming. I have no idea who was on the guest list, but judging from the number of plain clothes security rushing about, a lot of them were important. Among the melee of local socialites and important others were several guests speaking French. Hearing snatches of conversation, many seemed to have flown in specially. First pit stop was the Verandah, transformed into a desert wonderland. Coloured chocolates and macaroons, candy floss, gingerbread, ice-cream lollipops, vodka jellies, tiny brownies, runny chocolate fountains – I had to move swiftly on before I made a pig of myself. And I had not even started the culinary tour. As well as mounds of cured meats, Swiss restaurant Chesa was serving melted Swiss cheese with tiny new potatoes, with queues out the door. It always astonishes me how much tiny sylphlike ladies with size zero figures can eat at such events. Onwards to the Sun Terrace, where mini-burgers in brioche rolls jostled with lamp chops and every kind of barbeque delight. I didn’t stay long, places to go, different food to try.
I kept to my resolve not to overindulge, but only by missing out Gaddi’s and the Japanese restaurant, Chinese restaurant Spring Moon was a scrum. As I stood trying to avoid being harpooned by a spiked high heel while waiting for Shanghai dumplings, the Australian lady beside me said: “Is it always like this?” I shook my head. She explained her son was due to marry a Hong Kong girl this week but had called it off it at the last minute. She decided to come anyway. “Looks like I lucked out then,” she said, eyeing the Peking Ducks. She sure did. As did the other hotel guests who happened to have booked the Pen last night.
It was much more than an unbelievable feast. Had you been interested in the drinks, the selection was just as spectacular. The Peninsula’s 85th was hosted with elegance, panache and real old fashioned glamour, from the music to the decorations and the catering. But it was more than that; it had what so many events lack these days: it was done with exquisite taste and dignity.
Peninsula history landmarks
It could all have been different – the Pen could have been Hong Kong side. In 1900 it was decided that the Hongkong Hotel was no longer in the deluxe category. A scheme was proposed to sell it and rebuild on 50,000 sq ft of newly-reclaimed land bordered by Chater Road, Ice House Street and the New Praya (now Connaught Road), but the scheme was voted down at an EGM.
In 1927 The Peninsula, not yet open, was taken over by the British military authorities, accommodating The Second Battalion, The Coldstream Guards and a battalion of The Devonshire Regiment. Luckily the soldiers vacated a year later, so it could open as a hotel.
During the Second World War, Japanese entered The Peninsula and the Company was precluded from continuing its business from the time of the Japanese occupation until August 1945. In 1942 the hotel had been sensibly and temporarily, re-named the Toa (East Asia) Hotel, while it was the Japanese wartime headquarters. At Christmas in 1945 the Japanese surrendered, at The Peninsula.
In 1953, Gaddi’s opened in the hotel, followed by the Swiss Chesa in 1963. Both restaurants are still thriving today.