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The Peninsula in Hong Kong
by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

It is late afternoon in Hong Kong, nearly dusk, and we sit in armchairs at a table in the lobby of The Peninsula hotel. The Darjeeling and Ceylon teas steep in their bone-china pots; scones, trimmed tea sandwiches, and tiny cakes rest on the tiers of a silver server. Around it, on porcelain Tiffany plates, are preserves and clotted cream. The outside light, softened by tinted glass and filtered by the sprays of palm fronds feathering out from massive gilded pots, comes in softly from the arched windows of the lobby, buffing the gold leaf on the square neoclassical columns and the coffered ceiling. Through the balustrade of a small balcony drifts the Baroque pulse of a Bach concerto, the efforts of The Peninsula's string quintet. Our teas are poured, strained, as deep brown and strong as they ought to be. We drink. Ah!

Tea in the lobby of The Peninsula. What better way to absorb a helping of Hong Kong's not-all-that-distant colonial past, in the hotel that, more than any other of the city's grand hostelries, defines that time? For the Peninsula, which first opened its doors in 1928, is a rarity in Hong Kong: an establishment of traditions kept and treasured despite the currents of instant renewal and change that are going on around it.

Just a year ago The Pen, as it is called with affection by its friends, opened a new thirty-story tower. The tower grew upward from the central core of this U-shaped rococo stone pile near the tip of the city's Kowloon peninsula. With the addition, The Peninsula has managed to become a new hotel, yet one that-with the faithful refurbishment of its lobby, which general manager Peter Borer calls "a sacred place," and in the meticulous, subtle refashioning of its public rooms-has successfully redefined its essence and its Hong Kong context.

The mix is enchanting, and disturbs not at all one's years of familiarity with the place. Maps of old Asia and prints of the warehouses along the Hong Kong waterfront hanging in the mezzanine staircase complement the giant bronze Fu dog, a menacing-looking creature sculpted by Jim Dine, that guards the lobby.

I have been a visitor to The Peninsula for more than twenty years, and with each stay I savor the comfort and sense of recognition I experience. The exquisite lobby always beckons for tea, for a sandwich or a cocktail, even for a light supper with muted jazz coming from the balcony. I recall being told that this lobby was once a theater of colonial manners governed by an unwritten but understood protocol by which the British took tea on the right side of the big room, the rest of the universe on the left; by which attached ladies sat on the right, and those unattached, or perhaps seeking dalliance, sat left.

It was my habit to enjoy a saucisse de veau (veal wurst), a crisp rösti made as it would be in Zurich, and a cold Valais Pinot Gris in the restaurant named Chesa, a small wooden refuge that is a gustatory monument to The Peninsula's tradition of Swiss management. I look forward to Saturday afternoons in The Verandah, a room that could be in a colonial trader's house overlooking the Strait of Malacca, and a tiffin of curries and condiments. And I revel in the cooking at Spring Moon, an utterly superb Chinese restaurant where chef Ho Pui Yung is as apt to cook up a Cantonese dégustation matched with rare teas as he is to turn out perfectly steamed dim sum.

The Peninsula is very much a part of that small network of classic grand hotels with which European traders adorned their Asian treaty ports, concessions, and colonies. It is in the mold of The Oriental in Bangkok, Raffles in Singapore, the Hotel des Indes in Java; all places of considerable grandeur, all virtual shrines to the course of empires. Even the name of the company that owns The Peninsula — The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, Limited — evokes another time, and it is nigh impossible to contemplate this hotel without considering its history.

Built to be a hotel, The Peninsula actually began its life in 1927 as barracks for battalions of the Coldstream Guards and the Devonshire Regiment, rushed to Hong Kong to be ready to protect British traders in Shanghai from the involvement in one of China's civil wars. It opened to the public on December 11, 1928, when a twelve-year-old page boy in starched whites handed a bouquet of flowers to the wife of Hong Kong's acting governor. That page, Chan Pak, is eighty-two years old now, until recently an occasional banqueting manager. He is also, often an official greeter for the hotel that he calls "my life."

Chan Pak, a slim and graceful man recalled for me with evident pleasure those early days of his hotel. "All of the big parties in Hong Kong were held in The Peninsula, which was the tallest building in the city then; the St. George's Ball for the English and the St. Andrew's Ball for the Scottish, up in our Roof Garden Ball Room. Our mezzanine was a sitting room for the residents who were British government people, and captains of the British and American fleets always stayed here." The tracks of the Kowloon Canton Railway ran in front of the hotel along what was then the waterfront of the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbor. (The lobby served, in fact, as the waiting room in the 1950's for passengers of the Pan American China Clipper flying boats and other airlines. "They would announce the flights in our lobby, and then the people would go by bus to the airport," says Chan Pak).

The Peninsula's life as a hotel was suspended abruptly on Christmas Day of 1941, when the building became the site of the surrender of Hong Kong by the British to the Japanese invasion force. For a time it was the invaders' headquarters, and then, on April 10, 1942, the new Japanese governor of Hong Kong renamed The Peninsula the Toa Hotel. The surrender of the Japanese on August 14, 1945, saw the hotel handed back to the British, who also used it as a military changeover headquarters until it reopened again as The Peninsula in late 1946.

The first of its line of Swiss general managers, Leo Gaddi, came to the hotel in 1948, and five years later the restaurant Gaddi's opened. Through its forty-two years, Gaddi's has been a culinary constant, serving haute French cooking and wines from a diverse, though largely French, list of great depth. For thirty of those years the blue-carpeted dining room, with its seventeenth-century coromandel screen from the Summer Palace in Beijing and two brilliantly cut Christofle chandeliers from Shanghai, has been the fief of Rolf Heiniger, a mâitre d'hôtel who discusses, recommends, offers, and dictates, always with deference, but firmly, and "always for the good of the customer."

Sitting in the small lounge at the entrance of Gaddi's, Rolf sweeps his hand in an arc to encompass the small sea of tables set with blue and gold Bernardaud porcelain and skirted with gold silk, and smiles. "This is my fourth Gaddi's," he says. "We dressed it in 1966, then in '69, the third time in '78, and now this. It is my new lease on life." The restaurant's chef, the latest in a succession of Frenchmen, is Julien Bompard of Provence, a twenty-six-year-old disciple of Louis Outhier. He sees his mission, he tells me over a loup de mer rôti aux saveurs de Provence (roast sea bass), as bringing to Gaddi's "some Bourgogne, some Bourgeois, some Provence, some stories, and some gifts."

Up in the top floor of the new tower, just beneath a new Art Deco-style China Clipper lounge commemorating that era, The Peninsula parts with tradition. Felix — a dramatic restaurant with sweeping expanses of marble and alabaster, mahogany and rippled aluminum, named for another of the hotel's Swiss managers, Felix Bieger — seems wrought by French designer Philippe Starck to be not merely a place in which to eat, but a theater. The unequaled view of Hong Kong's harbor and skyline is muted by metal blinds, for the restaurant is the focus, a stage. One of its players is chef David Abella, a thirty-four-year-old Hawaiian whose eclectic cookery is studded with kimchi and mangoes, with soy sauces and wasabi.

Does this boldness jar? It might. If that be the case, simply return downstairs to that golden lobby, have tea and a scone, and think of other times, earlier times, British on the right.

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