Thanks for the memories: landmark Guangzhou hotel attract nostalgic crowds

Sentimental locals flock to Guangzhou's White Swan Hotel to relive their happy memories as it reopens after a three-year renovation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 July, 2015, 4:39am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 July, 2015, 4:39am

Liang Dalun recalls vividly the day he set foot in Guangzhou's White Swan Hotel 33 years ago. It was his first contact with modernisation, he said.

"Everyone was eager to see what a five-star hotel was like even if they could not afford to stay in it," Liang said of the 34-storey hotel that sits against neat rows of European-style houses at the tip of Shamian Island overlooking the Pearl River.

At the time, cars, air-conditioning and even the telephone were all still quite foreign to him - and most Chinese people, for that matter.

Yet three decades later, luxurious living is no longer such an alien concept for the affluent Chinese of today - testament to just how far the nation has come.

"My grandfather gave me my name. It means 'to achieve the standard of London'," Liang said. "It was the dream of many Chinese people then for China to become as developed as Britain and the United States."

The last three decades of hard work have also paid off for Liang as the 56-year-old revisited the newly renovated hotel this week - no longer as the impoverished youth he once was, but as a successful logistics businessman.

He exuded joy as he excitedly located the hotel's signature indoor waterfall near a traditional wooden bridge, where he had posed for a photo 33 years ago.

Liang is just one of tens of thousands of sentimental locals who have been flocking to the hotel to relive their happy memories since it reopened on July 15 after a three-year renovation.

White Swan drew 20,000 visitors on its reopening day, with some queueing for a table at its dimsum restaurant from as early as 3am. Less than a third of the hotel's 520 rooms are currently ready, but the hotel will return to full operation by September.

The renovation, which covered 100,000 square metres and cost 800 million yuan (HK$1 billion), was aimed at countering increasing competition from big foreign operators, according to Jeff Huang Yincong, president of the White Swan Hotel group. Facilities were upgraded and a range of issues including structural and fire safety concerns were resolved, he said.

"[The hotel] is a window to China's reform and opening, as well as a Guangzhou landmark bearing the collective memory of many locals," said Huang, who is also the hotel's general manager. "It was rebuilt … to carry through people's sentimental attachment to it and pass on its legacy."

The hotel would leverage on its unique cultural and historical advantage with a creative business model targeted at high-end business travellers while offering resort-style rooms for families on vacation, he said.

The White Swan's history goes back to 1978, when the State Council set up a committee to attract overseas investments in hotels, shortly before paramount leader Deng Xiaoping put China on the path of reform.

The committee's task was to build eight joint-venture deluxe hotels in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Nanjing , and it was against this backdrop that Xinhua's Hong Kong branch - Beijing's de facto consulate in the then British colony - proposed that Hong Kong tycoon Henry Fok Ying-tung invest in Guangdong's tourism business, according to an authorised book about Fok and the White Swan.

White Swan, in which the late Fok was the sole investor, was the mainland's first five-star hotel to have been "designed, constructed and managed by national Chinese". Today, it is part of a state enterprise owned by the Guangdong provincial government.

Fok chose to build the hotel on Shamian Island for its political importance, and soon after it opened in 1983, it hosted three of the country's most important political figures - former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang that year, former premier Zhao Ziyang the following year, and Deng in 1985.

The dignitaries were not restricted to just Chinese leaders. Other important guests have included Britain's Queen Elizabeth, former US presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

"It was a real privilege back then if you had a son or daughter working in the White Swan Hotel as it aimed for the highest quality of serving staff," a Guangzhou cabby said.

Huang recalled his first visit to the hotel as a boy, with his grandfather.

"We were intimidated and scared to walk in, fearing we would be thrown out as we were not paying guests."

But the hotel was open to the public whether they were paying guests or not.

Hong Kong resident Ng Kwok-wah, 73, is a loyal fan of the White Swan, having stayed more than 5,000 nights at the hotel.

"Back in the day, it was an honour if you told others you came to the White Swan for yum cha or to get a haircut," he said.

Liang said: "We're no longer short of fancy venues [but] I'm here for the memories. I hope my next generation will live an even better life over the next 30 years."