Excelsior Hotel will be just the latest luxury Hong Kong hotel to be knocked down for redevelopment

Since Hong Kong’s first luxury hotel was built in 1868, the city has seen many high-class hotels come and go, destroyed, by fire or torn down for redevelopment. Here are some classics from a bygone age

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 6:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2018, 10:25am

Hong Kong’s glitzy hotels of yesteryear, with their majestic furnishings and champagne-sipping patrons, were the epitome of luxury in the colonial era. For decades, foreigners residing in the British colony adopted them as second homes. Hotels were also places of merrymaking for expats and became an integral part of the city’s social fabric.

Today, Hong Kong has more hotels than ever, with everything from international brands to hip boutique hotels and themed Disney rooms. Last year, more than 26 million visitors stayed overnight in Hong Kong, most of them in the city’s 263 hotels and almost 75,000 rooms.

Hong Kong’s iconic Excelsior hotel to shut in March 2019

Due to redevelopment pressures, however, high occupancy rates do not guarantee long life. Here are six once-popular hotels that have come and gone over the decades.

The Hongkong Hotel

When Hong Kong’s first luxury hotel opened in 1868, it seemed to have everything: a grand staircase, London-style decor, and a prime location on Queen’s Road and Pedder Street. Before reclamation took place in Central, it was so close to Victoria Harbour that “you could fish from the hotel windows”, the Post commented.

The hotel got mixed reviews, however, from Scottish geographer John Thompson in his 1873-1874 book Illustrations of China and Its People, which described it as comfortable but with unexceptional fare. “The native waiters are remarkable ... for the fluency of pidgin English in which they converse,” he wrote. “This is, however, a jargon intelligible only to the residents.”

The hotel experienced a hiccup when a fire on New Year’s Day 1926 destroyed the north wing. Much later, in 1952 and after 75 years in operation, Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels – who today own The Peninsula Hotel group – closed the property.

An article “Last Days of Famed Edifice” lamented its untimely end. “The scene in the hotel last evening was one of sombre desolation,” the author wrote, noting that patrons toasted the hotel before smashing their glasses on the lobby floor. “The guests left with a deep regret in the realisation that a place which they had come to know almost as well as their own homes was to be no more.”

The Central Building and Landmark now stand on the spot formerly occupied by the hotel.

Peak Hotel

The Peak was rather a solitary place until Scottish railway man Alexander Findlay Smith began promoting the idea of trams to improve access, and turning the high-altitude spot into a fashionable, expat-only suburb.

In 1881, about the time the Peak Tram opened, Findlay Smith opened the Peak Hotel adjacent to the terminus. The grand venue catered to expats who preferred hotel life to renting more permanent quarters – especially since the lofty spot was cooler in summer. In 1922, the Hongkong Hotel Company – which later morphed into The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Company – bought and renovated it “with a view to bringing the establishment up to date in every respect”.

The new owners also set up a coach service to Repulse Bay, and created a cold storage and ice depot because the fresh markets were far away down the hill.

But the Peak Hotel was short lived. In 1936, management decided it had “outlived its usefulness”. The hotel was closed with an “enjoyable cocktail party” attended by many guests past and present.

There was no chance for a rethink: two years later the building was destroyed by fire.

The Peak Tower stands on the spot today. The only surviving remnant is the present-day Peak Lookout restaurant, which reportedly was once a terminus for sedan chairs.

Ambassador Hotel

When it opened in July 1961, the ultra-modern Ambassador Hotel dominated the Kowloon skyline. The 17-storey, 317-room hotel overlooked the waterfront from Nathan Road, and had an exterior mosaic wall as tall as the building itself, depicting Confucius’ travels. The HK$70,000 mosaic was the work of Yip Poon Chiu-fong, constructed from 400,000 small tiles, each “about the size of one of Mrs Yip’s elegant finger nails”.

The interior decor was conceptualised by Filipino designer Dr Arturo Santos, who drew inspiration from ancient art to create spaces such as the Colonnade Room, marked by Grecian columns, and the Dynasty Room, adorned with imperial Chinese motifs.

On the ground and first floors was a shopping arcade, and in the basement the Cellar Bar, a “cruising area” for many closeted gay men at the time, according to the book Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies.

The hotel was bought for HK$2 billion in 1994 by Stelux Holdings for redevelopment. Shortly after the purchase, the top floor of the Ambassador became engulfed in fire, scattering scaffolding and debris onto Nathan Road.

The Ambassador was replaced in 1998 by the 28-storey commercial building Oterprise Square.

Hong Kong Hilton

Once the only five-star hotel on Hong Kong Island, the Hilton in Central was a bastion of luxury. At the time of its construction, on the old Murray Parade Ground, the 26-storey hotel was said to be the largest outside North America and cost HK$14.3 million to build.

It opened officially in June 1963 but got off to a bumpy start when water shortages halted the festivities and limited guests to a bucket of water a day.

The 750-room hotel embodied the grand old style of its era, and was an after-hours locale for police officers. “Saturday Girls” lunched at the Grill on weekends due to a weekday ban on women.

There was the prominent “Eagle’s Nest” supper club on the top floor, where celebrities and dignitaries dined, a Dragon Boat Bar, and the initially controversial Opium Den lounge, where girls in cheongsam served spirits and wine.

The hotel was sold for redevelopment to tycoon Li Ka-shing’s Hutchison Whampoa in 1994 for HK$975 million.

Before the Hilton closed its doors in April 1995, a long-time singer at the Eagle’s Nest chided the commercial decision in her swan song – “The Hilton Hotel soon will be demolished/ For that great decision, we must thank Mr Li”. Li was reportedly not amused.

The Garden Road site was redeveloped into the Cheung Kong Center.

Hotel Furama Hong Kong

When the Furama opened it was heralded as the “hotel of the future”, but it almost didn’t get off the ground – literally. At one point during the 18-year saga to bring the hotel to fruition, piles broke through the reclaimed land and divers had to be called in to fix the problem.

Finally the 600-room, 32-storey, HK$80 million hotel emerged from its “bamboo cocoon” in 1973. Articles gushed about its hi-tech facilities – rooms with colour televisions and fridges – and a dark green colour scheme “contrasted with warm shades of peach ripening to deep apricot”.

A major draw was La Ronda, a restaurant on the 30th floor that made a 360-degree rotation every 75 minutes, giving diners views of the harbour and The Peak as they ate.

At the opening ceremony, hundreds of guests sipped champagne and dined on caviar and lobster in the “spectacular and futuristic ballroom”, where lights were “suspended on ornate golden stalks coming down from the ceiling like gilded stalactites”.

For 28 years, the hotel – across the road from the Legislative Council Building – was used as a de facto canteen for lawmakers, officials and media guests.

The hotel closed on December 1, 2001, after being bought for HK$1.88 billion by Singapore property company Pidemco Land, and AIA. It was redeveloped into the 430,000 sq ft AIA Central tower.

The institution didn’t go quietly. On the last night, its five restaurants were packed to capacity, revellers joined a “boisterous farewell party”, and fans queued at the cake shop, where bakers churned out three times more goodies than usual.

The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong

As Furama’s neighbour, Hong Kong’s first Ritz-Carlton also became a favourite gathering place for lawmakers and businessmen after it opened in 1993. But at one point, it seemed the hotel would never welcome a single guest. The Ritz was completed in August 1991, but was a “ghost hotel” for two years due to the tenuous financial state of its Japanese owner Ginzu Golf Service, placing it into receivership.

Suggestions were floated to knock down the 25-storey hotel to make room for an office block, and one industry source claimed in late 1992 that it would never open.

The hotel was eventually purchased by Lai Sun Development – which also owned the Furama – for just under HK$1.2 billion. The Ritz-Carlton finally opened in August 1993 to much fanfare, with many eagerly checking out the avant-garde grandeur of its European-style furnishings and crystal chandeliers, the Post reported. Rooms went for an average of HK$1,700, but its penthouse suites – with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the harbour, lavish drapes and silk sofas – cost HK$8,800 a night.

In early 2008, after just 15 years, the hotel closed its doors. The site was to be redeveloped into a high-rise commercial office building. Amid tears and champagne, the general manager described its closure as “the end of an era”.