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The ‘anti-Trump hotel’ opening in Hong Kong for guests, artists, activists and non-profits

A business venture of Katherine Lo, daughter of the Hong Kong hotel billionaire Lo Ka-shui, Eaton HK will be a hotel like no other with its focus on social change and community engagement

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 May, 2018, 7:18pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 June, 2018, 1:16pm

It is not surprising to discover that the artist drawing on the walls of Eaton HK, the soon-to-open concept hotel by Eaton Workshop, is Jan Curious, a Hong Kong-born illustrator and member of indie rock band Chochukmo.

Curious aligns perfectly with one of Eaton Workshop’s missions: to support the creative arts. His funky black-and-white mural is one of the many local touches added to the hotel in Kowloon’s Jordan neighbourhood.

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Concept hotels aren’t a new thing, globally or in Hong Kong. In 2016, Attitude on Granville opened in Tsim Sha Tsui, giving big nostalgic nods with vintage postboxes, pay phones, radios and old Hong Kong street signs. Last November, The Fleming opened in Wan Chai, offering guests a luxury porthole to the city’s maritime history.

But what makes Eaton HK stand out from the local hospitality crowd is its focus on social change and activism. In the United States – where Eaton Workshop will open its flagship hotel (Eaton DC) in Washington this summer, followed by hotels in San Francisco and Seattle in 2019 – the press has labelled Eaton Workshop as “anti-Trump hotels”.

“We didn’t promote ourselves as anti-Trump hotels – that was the US media,” laughs Katherine Lo, founder of Eaton Workshop, as she settles into one of the Jordan branch’s retro beige couches. “But it’s true that our ideology goes against the Trump grain.”

Hong Kong-born Lo, 36, studied art and anthropology at Yale University and loves travel and film. But hospitality is in her blood – she is the daughter of Hong Kong billionaire Lo Ka-shui, founder of the Langham hotel group.

Her father had asked her to reinvent the hotel group’s Eaton brand as “he started to see the world changing around him in a very revolutionary way because of technology, and [to see] the business-model potential of the lifestyle or boutique hotel model versus luxury hotels,” Lo says.

Lo came up with Eaton Workshop after tapping into the zeitgeist of millennials. She left her executive role at Langham to pursue this “dream” hospitality brand for the new generation – a hotel, she says, for “a global tribe”. That was in 2014; this year, the fruits of her mission will open to the public.

Lo is a keen activist. She has lobbied for Greenpeace at The Hague and attended Kyoto Protocol protests. She recently returned from “an amazing” road trip from Los Angeles to Washington, where she worked on a documentary about the resistance against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which passes through lands sacred to Sioux Native American tribes of the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. The documentary will be released under Eaton Media, one of the four branches of the Eaton Workshop tree (the others are Hotel, House and Wellness).

“It was an amazing experience,” Lo says. “Our Eaton DC hotel is on native American land so we wanted to honour that and make a connection with the DC tribe. The chieftain’s grandson joined me on the road trip. We met activists in towns along the way, heard about their struggles, photographed them. It was amazing. I’d love to do a road trip across China, talk with women in small villages. Let’s see.”

After taking on the Eaton project, Lo’s passion for activism quickly became a central part of the brand’s philosophy.

“I wanted to create a space where artists, politicians and journalists – people of all ages, from all walks of life, all races – can gather and grow; a place to discuss vital issues from gender to climate change, human rights and race relations,” she says.

The location of the Hong Kong hotel is “quite symbolic”, Lo explains. “I went to primary school around the corner, to Diocesan Girls’ School in Yau Ma Tei. And for my father, this [site] was his first hotel, so there’s an obvious sentimental connection there.”

Eaton Workshop isn’t for everyone. It’s for those who think outside the box
Katherine Lo

Due to open in September, the rebranded and refurbished hotel – which in its previous state was one of the Langham group’s Eaton hotels – beautifully balances design and philosophy. Its neon signage, for example, is inspired by the works of filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, who shot many of his ’90s films in the neighbourhood. But it is not just the physical space – much of it reworked by New York-based design house AvroKo – that’s impressive. Eaton Workshop’s ethos – art, creativity, community work and social change – takes this hotel brand to another level.

“In DC, we have already partnered with non-profits, from grass roots to mainstream, from the Nature Conservancy to National Geographic,” Lo says.

Not everyone in the US liked the concept, however. “A few protesters, Trump supporters, turned up and started throwing bricks. It got quite ugly, which is sad,” she says.

But how does a hotel that taps into the minds of millennials cause others to get so angry that they feel the need to throw bricks? Is it the microgreens growing on the rooftop? The brand’s strict policy against plastic straws and bottles? Maybe it is the brand’s decision to only source sustainable produce and seafood, or to only use its own carbonated in-house filtered water.

“Eaton Workshop isn’t for everyone. It’s for those who think outside the box,” Lo says simply.

As we take a tour of the site on a hot May afternoon with Chantal Wong, Eaton Workshop’s director of culture, we go through a door into the hotel’s small cinema which is filled with giant striped cushions.

“Last week we screened River Blue here, a documentary about sustainable fashion. We will show a lot more films like that,” Wong says.

Past the cinema are co-working spaces where another local artist, Afa Annfa, is working on a mural that depicts women orbiting the sun.

“That room over there,” Wong points, “is occupied by an organisation run by a former [female executive] who now mentors other women about smashing the glass ceiling. The Justice Centre also occupies a room over there,” she adds, referring to the charity human rights organisation that fights for the rights of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable forced migrants.

It is clear that Eaton Workshop wants tenants that align with its vision. Another of those is activist-in-residence Holok Chen. “He wears many hats,” says Wong as we walk past his plant-filled space. “He’s an LBGTQ activist who works closely with the Catholic Church, as well as a land-rights activist.” She points at a picture on the wall. “That picture was taken on his rooftop farm in Mong Kok where people in his district gather and help run it.”

Chen’s plan is to make Eaton Workshop a centre for the open-data community to share information. “Right now he’s on a mission to improve transparency and the interpretation of legislation,” Wong says. “He has built an app about open data and data sharing.”

The co-working space is also open to grass roots and independent groups struggling to survive in the city, particularly because of the crippling rents. But exactly who gets to use the working spaces is all very experimental. “We’re just trying to see what works,” Wong says.

By all accounts, the social side of the Eaton Workshop experiment is already proving a winner. It has hosted a number of popular events, including a talk on sexuality and a discussion on combining virtual reality and psychedelics – a potential treatment for mental illness – hosted by a 70-year-old anthropologist.

On the upcoming agenda are workshops for domestic workers, and in September it is hosting a “Women’s Festival” that will feature sex-toy workshops and screenings about the rape culture on US university campuses.

The hotel is also working with the New York-based Magnum Foundation to put on workshops for journalists and photographers; will host local and international artists at its “Tomorrow Maybe” gallery; and has its own radio station. Its live-music venues will host performances, panels, workshops and readings.

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Guests who check into the 465-bedroom hotel can expect all the usual hotel services. There are three signature restaurants – including the Michelin-starred Yat Tung Heen – two cocktail bars, a food hall with 10 food stalls, a cold-pressed juice bar, and a coffee shop. Vegans and vegetarians are also well catered for.

The only thing you won’t find at Eaton HK is a typical treadmill-filled hotel gym. Instead, the focus is on new-age health: yoga and reiki rooms, meditation spaces, tai chi and a swimming pool.