Pay-by-the hour hotels have a bit of a reputation around the world as havens for prostitution. That's not necessarily so in many parts of Asia. Hong Kong certainly has its share of sleazy joints (those back street neon signs are just an indicator, some even boasting of Russian girls). Contrary to stereotypical images in triad flicks, however, a large number of short-stay operations are innocuous businesses that serve an important, if seldom discussed, social function.
In our space-starved city, where many people live with their parents well into adulthood, short stays offer a temporary private oasis. Guests are more likely to be newlyweds saving for their first apartment, university sweethearts or even grandparents taking the afternoon off from babysitting duties.
One such customer is a 32-year-old teacher, who prefers not to be named. He patronised a love hotel for the first time when he was 27 because he wanted some time alone with a girlfriend; both lived with their parents, so they went to a love hotel in Tsuen Wan. Since then, he estimates he has stayed in love hotels "over 100 times", mainly in areas such as Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok and Prince Edward.
He reckons almost every Hongkonger has stayed in a love hotel and there is nothing shameful about it. He says: "Plenty of real couples stay in love hotels - young couples in love who live with their families, for example."
For many people seeking private space, the only other choice would be a karaoke lounge, but he says: "Karaoke is not the same. You have to queue, pay a lot and it is not truly private. But love hotels have everything you could want: you can watch TV, smoke, hang out and have some real privacy."
A 28-year-old businessman tells a similar story. "I've stayed in love hotels no more than six times; I'm a novice, not a veteran," he says. "But sometimes you want to keep parts of your life anonymous: your night life separate from your real life."
Other reasons for turning to short-stays are more practical, he adds, "like when you've had a big night and just need a shower and to rest your head a bit before work".
There are enough of them around that a Chinese-language iPhone app has been developed to let you know where the closest property is located; it also provides peer-written reviews - like an Openrice for love hotels. Although the 76 hotels currently featured on the app are scattered across 19 neighbourhoods, the concentration is greater in areas such as Mong Kok.
Another is the sunny, tree-lined locale of Kowloon Tong, where, bizarrely, the short-stay hotels sit conspicuously next to exclusive kindergartens and some of the city's most expensive mansions. It can be disconcerting to walk out of their gated compounds to find your path blocked by a sea of six-year-olds accompanied by domestic helpers, who stare knowingly.
Most of the hotels lie within a few blocks of each other. They range from quietly charming places that feel more like boutique budget venues, to hotels that wear their amorous badges more proudly.
At one end of the spectrum is Dak Wan Siu Chuk, where attention-shy customers can drive right up to their rooms and parking spaces are curtained off to keep prying eyes from licence plates. Hotels such as the Essex Lodge feature sunken marble baths, beds that seem to go on for miles and, for customers with kinkier tastes, customised furniture with built-in restraints.
But others are more demure. The Boutique Hotel, for example, features opulently furnished rooms with attached jacuzzis. There's also a charming outdoor courtyard which, on one visit, was occupied by a pair of octogenarian love birds chatting over cups of tea.
Love hotels originated in Japan, the term derived from Hotel Love, which opened in Osaka in 1968. The use of short-stay venues for amorous trysts soon spread, with Tokyo hotels vying with each other for the gaudiest accommodation. Hong Kong's versions don't run to the fancily themed rooms common in Japan and South Korea, but they have become an undeniable part of life in the city.
Still, many Hongkongers have yet to come to terms with their presence. A 31-year-old manager from Fanling declares, "Love hotels are glorious!" But he quickly adds that he has never stayed in one. "In Hong Kong love hotels have a shady reputation, not like in Japan where they are really nice."
But do Hong Kong's love hotels really deserve their scurrilous reputations?
The staff tend to be gracious (and discreet) and the amenities often rival other more conventional hotels: large bathtubs, big beds, even free internet access are not uncommon. There is also the price: a stay in a love hotel is usually a fraction of the cost at a regular one, for an experience that is really not all that different.
True, they are not child-friendly although many reception staff say they would welcome families. Most show free adult movies on a loop on their television, and mirrors on the ceiling might inspire more questions than you are comfortable answering, but neither are they the moral cesspits some might imagine.
The Windsor Palace Hotel in Jordan, for example, is on the second floor of a building many probably wouldn't like to be seen walking into: a mix of massage parlours and dubious karaoke bars, with plenty of pink lights and posters of bikini-clad women on the grubby walls.
But the atmosphere changes completely inside the Windsor. Admittedly, there are mirrors around circular beds, but rooms are clean, warm, and, after a hot bath, even cosy. The sweet-natured proprietress gives the place an almost homey feel. Adult, maybe, but certainly not gross, the Windsor is typical of many love hotels in less reputable areas.
That's not to say they will always prove a good experience. But there are more gems than you might expect.
And because of the nature of the business, many love hotels have invested in heavy-duty soundproofing, which is great if you're seeking a respite from the constant din of the city. The drawback is, with the curtains pulled, you may find yourself sleeping well into the day without the usual early morning noises to wake you.
A few like the Boutique Hotel are exceptionally pleasant.
Mingle Place at the Eden in Central is clean, bright and professionally run, as are the hotel group's four other properties in Hong Kong. But unlike Mingle Place at the Star, which caters to tour groups and business visitors, the Eden offers rooms in two- and three-hour blocks. Its VIP rooms feature circular beds and fancy chandeliers, and it's attached to a popular singles bar.
The Hotel Victoria chain, which operates six properties in Hong Kong, doesn't hide its role. Guests are greeted in the lobby by nude statues of Aphrodite and the lighting has a distinct pink hue. However, the rooms are spacious and spotless, and all come with large beds, flat screen televisions, and toiletries. Staff are efficient, gracious, and eager to please. A colleague even opted to stay with his wife at the Wan Chai branch when she felt too ill after a hospital visit to make a ferry ride home.
Affordability makes short-stay hotels practical in all kinds of situations. Lose your keys at 2am and need a place to crash? Feeling drowsy at the office? How about an hour-long power-nap at the love hotel? Miss the last ferry home? Had one too many? Even if you just need a quiet place where you are guaranteed to be left alone, a love hotel is never far away. In the chilly depths of winter, some Hongkongers have even been known to buy an hour or two at a love hotel just to relax in a hot bath.
The facilities are far better than hostels at Chungking Mansions and the price is often the same. Plus they are safe, clean, and conveniently located. So, if you have friends visiting and don't want them staying on your couch, a love hotel down the road might well be an option.
The slinky, and the kinky
Beverly Hotel: rooms at this Lockhart Road property start at HK$180 an hour. Unlike most love hotels, it welcomes groups and staff say its affordability makes it especially popular with Filipino and mainland families on a budget.
Dak Wan Siu Chuk: with drive-up rooms and curtained parking spaces, Dak Wan is a popular choice for conducting secret trysts. The rooms are a bit grubby, but ideal for those who require absolute privacy. HK$250 an hour.
Essex Lodge: this Kowloon Tong standby means business with kinky specialised furnishings, huge beds and sunken bathtubs. It's not fancy but it is clean, and the staff are friendly. HK$282 for three hours.
Hotel Victoria: it's perhaps the most famous of all Hong Kong love hotels. Rooms start at HK$285 for two hours. Besides the branch on Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, the chain runs five other hotels across the city.
Mingle Place at the Eden: the Mingle Place group operates five hotels in the city. But it is the property on Wellington Street where rooms are available for a couple of hours at a time. A good beginner's love hotel.
Windsor Palace Hotel: although located in a seedy-looking building in Jordan, walk inside and you find a clean, friendly place. Of course, there are still circular beds, mirrored walls and big bathtubs. HK$180 an hour.