Government building transformed into luxe hotel

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The distinctive sweeping arches of The Murray, Hong Kong’s newest five-star hotel, on Cotton Tree Drive, Central

An old 1960s government high-rise on Cotton Tree Drive has metamorphosed into a five-star hotel, a welcome addition to Hong Kong’s luxury hotel scene. Sitting snug between the Peak Tram terminal, Hong Kong Park and the Cheung Kong Centre, The Murray is wonderfully located in the heart of the city. The views over the park, St John’s Cathedral and across Victoria Harbour to ICC from its 336 guest rooms are some of the best in town.

The distinctive white building with its huge ground-floor archways was originally designed by Architectural Services Department worker Ron Philips in 1969 for the then-colonial government. The brief was to come up with an office block to accommodate the Public Works Department. But Philips designed a 27-storey building so innovative that modern-day buildings struggle to compete with its environmental features.

To reduce air conditioning costs, Philips designed the building with its windows sheltered by concrete ‘fins’ positioned at 90 degrees to the panes to avoid direct sunlight hitting the glass. This passive design was considered innovative enough to win the Certificate of Merit of the Energy Efficient Building Award in 1994. In 1969, it was well ahead of its time and as Foster + Partners, the lead architect on today’s redesign, has pointed out, the modern day glass high-rises that sit shimmering in the Asian sun today don’t seem to have been quite as design-savvy.

Philips in now in his 90s and living in Britain, but he was invited by Foster + Partners to consult on the Murray’s conversion and last December he flew out to Hong Kong for the official opening of the hotel. The building and site had been bought from the government in 2011 by developer Wharf Holdings for $4.4 billion, with a further $3.4 billion spent on the redevelopment. Although the sale of government land to a private party was controversial at the time, The Murray is part of the Conserving Central project which aims to preserve what’s left of Central’s historic heart. This has ensured a sympathetic re-design and subsequent new lease of life. Heritage constraints meant the height of the building could not be altered and original features such as the sweeping archways and clever vehicle ramps that feed off from busy Cotton Tree Drive had to be left in place.

The re-design beautifully ‘opens up’ the building with floor-to-ceiling glass at the lower levels and multiple entry points. The concrete car park has been replaced with gardens and outdoor spaces – the dining room spills out onto a terraced area shaded by a 139-year-old listed Rainbow Shower Tree, which is the centrepiece of the gardens.

The distinctive arches were installed by Philips to solve the problem of steep inclines limiting access to the car park. But as it transpired, the archways not only made the base of the building more accessible for vehicles back in the ’60s, today they provide fantastic shade and rain protection, enabling a superb outdoor venue that is protected from the elements. The hotel is next month welcoming a car exhibition to the space which will be known as The Arches.

The Murray boasts a modern, sleek cocktail bar which will no doubt become a welcome watering hole with workers from the neighbouring central business district – the cocktail menu is named The Tape and features tipples including ‘Opening Bell’ and ‘Nifty Fifty’ as a nod to its locale.

The afternoon tea was delicious – the perfectly warmed and fresh scones were a highlight – and located close to top tourist sites St John’s Cathedral and the Peak tram station. As a stop-off for foot-sore site-seers it couldn’t be better placed.  In June a rooftop bar and restaurant is due to be opened.

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Popinjays rooftop bar and restaurant which opens in June

The guest rooms are, as you would expect of such a high spec re-design, top notch, with free-standing bathtubs, spacious living areas and superb views over the historic heart of Central. Indeed I’m looking forward to many happy moments in this fabulous new addition to Central’s hotel scene.

*The hotel has only received a soft opening so far – most of the hotel restaurants are open but only when reserved in advance. They will be fully available next month, niccolohotels.com

 

 

 

Open air gallery wows Hong Kongers

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A little boy stands transfixed by Gimhongsok’s Bearlike Construction at the Harbour Arts Sculpture Park, which opened today

The Harbour Arts Sculpture Park opened to the public today on Hong Kong’s Harbourfront. Featuring work from nineteen heavy hitting international and local artists, including Great Britain’s Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley, Japan’s Yayoi Kusama and Hong Kong’s Kacey Wong, the ‘museum without walls’ runs for six weeks until April 11.

“There is a real ‘can do’ spirits in Hong Kong,” commented co-curator Tim Marlow at the official media launch. “I hope this (event) plays some role in the continuous momentum that cements Hong Kong’s international status as a growing art centre.”

This is the first event of its kind in Hong Kong, with pieces from 19 local and international artists displayed along the Harbourfront in Admiralty. Asked about his favourite pieces, Marlow said he was moved by Tracey Emin’s piece which is also a memorial to her personal friend Sir David Tang, who died last year.

“But what I’m most excited about is the location. What a privilege to be able to invite international artists to site their sculptures in one of the most exciting urban locations in the world,” he said. “The natural beauty of the harbour and the immense architecture of the buildings make it a really fertile location.”

The sculpture park is accompanied by the Jockey Club Arts Education Programme, a series of free workshops, educational activities, guided tours and a public art symposium. The aim is to encourage discussion of art in the city and create a culturally vibrant Hong Kong, as well as enhancing the accessibility of art in the SAR. By lunchtime on the day following the launch, it would seem this noble aim had already been achieved, with lots of excited children running around on the grass, touching the installations and having their pictures taken with the artwork by eager parents.

Visitors can also take part in a Harbour Arts Sculpture Park Photo Competition sponsored by ICBC (Asia) to capture ‘the most beautiful scene of the park’. Entry is via an app and website to be launched next week.

Harbour Arts Sculpture Park is located at Harbourfront, Admiralty, it’s free-of-charge and runs until April 11.

 

Happy New Year discounts on luxe holidays

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Save 30% on holidays to Gili Lankanfushi, Maldives, until Oct 31, 2018

International curated tour operator Scott Dunn is offering New Year discounts on holidays to the Maldives, Phuket, Cambodia, Oman and Europe throughout 2018.

Scott Dunn recently entered the Hong Kong travel market after acquiring Asia-based travel specialist Country Holidays last December. Scott Dunn has existing operations in London, Singapore and San Diego. 

Scott Dunn was founded in 1986 and offers tailor-made holidays to over 100 worldwide destinations. “We look forward to rapidly capitalising on our combined position as the largest luxury tailor-made travel business in Asia and continuing to offer our guests 24/7 service over the phone,” said Scott Dunn chief executive officer Simon Russell.

Scott Dunn courts the family market with its Explorers kids clubs at selected resorts across the Mediterranean, the Alps and the Maldives, for children aged four months to 11 years. It recently launched Crew for the 11+ age bracket at properties in Greece and Croatia, offering a flexible 18-hour programme of water and land-based activities split over six days for parent-weary teens, scottdunn.com

Food, fun and inspiring stories to celebrate International Women’s Day

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Event co-organiser Mawgan Batt
March 8 is International Women’s Day (IWD) and to mark the date, local entrepreneurs Mawgan Batt, Emma Pike and Lori Granito have put together a networking event for Hong Kong’s business-savvy ladies.
“We’re hoping it will be a low-key, fun and interesting event, bringing together like-minded women and celebrating female successes in Hong Kong,” said Batt.
“The theme of this year’s IWD is Press for Progress and we’ve asked our three speakers to use this theme to share experiences of bringing about change in their personal and professional lives.”
No strangers to professional lives themselves, the trio are all business owners. Pike is the founder of online butcher Farmer’s Market, as well as being involved in a number of other businesses. “The path to success isn’t linear,” she says. “But connecting with other entrepreneurs is always beneficial as it gives new perspectives and ideas.”
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Emma Pike, founder of online butcher Farmers Market
Granito is founder of women’s ‘leadership and success’ coaching company, Legendary Coaching. “I set it up in 2015 after I was asked to coach a few people to do TEDx talks. I’ve now transitioned from my previous career in catering to full time coaching. I’ve been mentoring women entrepreneurs for over 20 years.” Granito reckons one of the most important challenges for women in business is to keep moving forward. “Even when the path to success is not as clearly laid out as it could be.”
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Legendary Coaching founder Lori Granito
Batt founded online media company The HK HUB in 2012, which she sold at the end of 2015. She now runs marketing and communications company Bespoke Consulting, advising small businesses on marketing and strategy. “Running my own business has been a rollercoaster ride and I’ve learnt a tremendous amount along the way,” she said.
The event’s speakers include Nicole Denholder, founder of crowdfunding portal for women Next Chapter; filmmaker Joanna Bowers who directed documentary The Helper; and Bowie Lam, advocator for the rights of female sex workers and founder of Teens Key, which campaigns for sexual and reproductive health rights for young women.
“We want guests to make some great new connections, to be inspired by the stories they hear and to take away some goals for the future,” said Batt. “Networking events can be tough, sometimes awkward, but we’ve all found that women-only events tend to be less intimidating and can help create lasting relationships that are important both socially and in the work environment.”
Dress is smart-casual with a pocket full of business cards.
6.30-8.30pm, Corner Kitchen Cafe, 226 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, $250/person including free-flow food and drink – tickets are not-for-profit and monies will be donated to Teens Key, farmersmarket.com.hk/products/international-womens-day-network-event-pressforprogress.

Holiday luxe – at mates rates

 

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Relaxation in Bohol, Philippines, is just a click away

As expats we all have ‘that’ friend, or friends, with a villa in Bali or a farmhouse in France, a ski chalet in Japan or an apartment in a funky European capital. Or maybe we own a holiday house ourselves.

But what happens to these properties when they’re not being used? Home owners could opt for short-term holiday rentals, but with it comes myriad issues such as cleaning, maintenance and just being constantly available to answer queries. Or there’s long-term rental, but that means you never get to use it. Or just leave it empty, which is often not ideal but the best case scenario.

So former Hong Konger Thomas Bennett and colleague Jorge Munoz claim to have come up with a solution. Stay One Degree is a social network for luxury holiday home rentals. The online platform connects homeowners and friends and mutual connections from around the world.

Bennett says the idea sprang from their own rental experiences, which frequently left them frustrated and disappointed with uninspiring homes at over-inflated prices. Meanwhile, beautiful homes within their social network lay empty.

Word spread, and today Stay One Degree has a plethora of villas, townhouses, apartments and ski chalets on its books in over 40 countries. Prices start at a very friendly ‘mates rates’ of $1,000/night.

All properties are hand-picked by the team, based on ‘outstanding locations and unique elements’. Think cliff-top infinity pools in Bali to villas with vineyards in Tuscany. The social network allows members to grow connections and relationships so owners have the option of renting to like-minded guests of not much more than ‘one degree’ of connection, or to a wider pool of clients.

“We’re finding that owners who would never have considered renting out their holiday homes are now choosing to do so on this exclusive basis,” says Munoz. “Members therefore have access to special homes impossible to find anywhere else.”

Sign up at stayonedegree.com.

Party time with the golden girls

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Those were the days – Ladies Circle members pictured in 1970

 

Join the glitziest date on the calendar this month as Hong Kong’s Ladies Circle celebrates its half-century. President Fiona Bulmer explains how they’ve stood the test of time

When Fiona Bulmer arrived in Hong Kong twelve years ago, she was looking to make a few friends.

“I worked to start with and then broke off from my career for the children. So from working full-time in Central, I was now living in the ‘‘burbs’ of Pok Fu Lam with two babies and I really needed to reach out to create a social network. And then I discovered Ladies Circle, which was kind of a turning point for me.”

Ladies Circle arrived in Hong Kong from the UK in 1968, which makes this year its golden anniversary. Bulmer now presides over the group as president, a role she took up with trepidation a couple of years ago.

“I went from popping in to a meeting just to see what it was all about, and then suddenly I was treasurer – my fault for admitting I was an ex-accountant! – and the next thing I knew I was being voted in as president,” says Bulmer. “This was a huge step for me but I really feel I’ve grown with the role and am very proud about what we’re achieving as an organisation.”

Originally set up in the UK in the 1930s as a charitable organisation for the wives of Round Table members, Ladies Circle now has a global network of over 10,000 members in 37 countries. The Round Table was also founded in the UK, in 1927, and still has a Hong Kong branch.

The initial Circle met on England’s south coast in the seaside town of Bournemouth in 1932. It was predominantly a social group, but word spread and by the late 1930s eight more Circles had been formed up and down the UK. The group struggled during World War 2, but held together despite the odds and in 1947 went international with new groups in Denmark and Northern Ireland.

In the 1960s, it arrived in Hong Kong courtesy of Jeanne Allingham, who became the Circle’s first Hong Kong president. “The idea came from a Round Tabler and his wife who were new to Hong Kong and had been members in the UK,” she tells me from her current home in the UK. “Initially we met in each others homes before moving to the Hong Kong Club. Each month we had to haggle over the price of the meal. We had some interesting speakers, but our main aim was to support the Round Table whenever called upon.”

She recalls that the main event of the year was the Easter Fair, held on the cricket ground at Hong Kong Cricket Club. “We worked towards that event all year round, begging for ingredients from local suppliers to bake cakes and so on. We supported various charities, including Ebenezer Home for the Blind, Little Sisters of the Poor, Sandy Bay Children’s Convalescent Home and the Round Table Village Scheme on Cheung Chau Island.”

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Current Ladies Circle president Fiona Bulmer photographed at Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club, January 2018

Membership grew to the point that a second Circle was set up in Kowloon, although that soon folded. The meeting format today remains similar to that of the early days, with a monthly dinner (these days held at the Aberdeen Boat Club) to which after-dinner speakers are often invited, as well as charity work throughout the year and other social events, including historical walks, craft workshops and food tours.

The Circle’s motto is ‘Friendship and Service’ and the group’s focus charity is the Hong Kong Children and Youth Services Small Groups Homes, which provides foster care for children in Hong Kong. “And we’re very inclusive,” adds Bulmer. “We welcome everyone with open arms, this is not a ‘Brit expat’ association by any means. We’re a friendly bunch.”

Last Christmas, the Circle wrapped and filled an impressive 439 boxes for local charity Box of Hope. “Each year we try and better the previous year,” says Bulmer. “It’s become a major operation, my apartment was rammed with boxes.” The boxes are all baby-related and the craftier members of the Circle spend the year knitting baby hats for them. And for the last 30 years, the Circle has also supported the Hong Kong Charity Pedal Car Grand Prix organised by the Hong Kong Round Table and held in Victoria Park every autumn.

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Manning the cake stall at the annual Easter Fair, Hong Kong Cricket Club, 1986

But the highlight of this year is of course the celebratory black tie Gala Dinner which is being held in the glorious confines of the Renaissance Harbour View Hotel, overlooking Victoria Harbour. Members past and present will be attending, including first president Jeanne Allingham, who will be making the journey from the UK. This will be the first time she has returned to Hong Kong since 1977. “My three sons were born at the Matilda hospital,” she says. “My eldest, Christopher, has been back twice since and has tried to prepare me for the many changes.”

After a three-course free-flow dinner, guest speaker and local historian Jason Wordie will be giving an insight into the Hong Kong of 50 years ago, after which guests will be able to let their hair down at the disco.

“It’s going to be such a special night for us,” says Bulmer. “Ladies Circle has meant so much to me over the years. It’s a very special organisation.”

The Gala Dinner takes place 7pm, March 8, Renaissance Harbour View Hotel, Wan Chai. To book individual tickets at $1,400/person, or a table of ten, please contact community@ladiescirclehk.com or go to ladiescirclehk.com. For membership enquiries, email secretary@ladiescirclehk.com.

 

Hong Kong in the swinging ’60s

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Construction of Plover Cove reservoir, New Territories, mid-1960s

The 1960s were a major turning point in Hong Kong’s history thanks to its booming economy. This was a decade of change but also of disturbances.

Riots were triggered in 1966 over a steep rise in the price of a Star Ferry ticket and the violence continued into 1967 when internal conflict within the Chinese Communist Party resulted in the Cultural Revolution. Rumours spread that China was planning to take over the colony and political tensions soared. The riots ended in December 1967 when the Chinese premier ordered leftist groups in Hong Kong to stop the violence.

There were serious droughts during the decade too, as water supply struggled to support the exploding population. A number of reservoirs were completed at this time, including Shek Pik, Lantau (1963) and Plover Cover, New Territories (1968).

In 1967 the Colony Outline Plan was issued detailing strategies to house a million people in low-cost, high-rise public housing. Slowly but surely, Hong Kong was becoming the booming city we know today.

 

Doggy derring dos

 

Hong Kong author Sarah Brennan reveals her latest Calendar Tale

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Sarah Brennan launches Desmond Dog this month in time for Chinese New Year

It’s the turn of the 19th century and the brave and noble Desmond Dog is the hero of Hong Kong, a little fishing village where Aberdeen lies today. Meanwhile, the South China Sea is being terrorised by the notorious pirate queen Ching Shih and her Red Flags. One fine morning, the Red Flags sail into Hong Kong harbour. Desmond fiercely defends the villagers, but is captured and tied to the mast…

This is the thrilling plotline to Desmond Dog, author Sarah Brennan’s eleventh and latest Calendar Tale, which has just been launched in time for Chinese New Year. She says the story has been a long time coming.

“The first day I moved into my first office in Tin Wan, I looked out of the window and saw a village dog barking on the deck of a fishing boat which was leaving Aberdeen Harbour. That, I said to myself, is my character for the Year of the Dog. And I’ve always loved the true story of Ching Shih and her Red Flags. So putting the two nautical characters together seemed a perfect combination.”

The historical angle to all of Brennan’s Calendar Tales is fascinating. Little by little, she builds up her readers’ Chinese historical knowledge-base. Personally I had no idea, for example, about Aberdeen being little Hong Kong.

“I knew about the pirate queen Ching Shih after writing about her in a series for the Young Post a few years ago,” admits Brennan. “But I didn’t know that Hong Kong was in fact the fishing village where Aberdeen is today, nor that the Brits had mistakenly taken the name of that little village as the name for the whole island! That came up during research for the book – and surprises like this are just one of the reasons I love writing about Chinese history for kids.”

She says the book took about two weeks to research and write, given that the rough story idea had been developed some years ago. “Once I’ve done my research, I always plan my story page by page first before writing the first draft. Then comes the difficult bit which is the editing, so that the rhyming verse sounds natural and unforced. This time it took me a full 19 edits.

“For the research I use the internet of course, referring as much as possible to original sources, but I also have some fantastic books about Chinese history in my own home library to which I regularly refer. In particular I would recommend Ann Paludan’s comprehensive Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors, published by Thames and Hudson.

“As a child myself, I adored Dr Seuss and Enid Blyton and couldn’t get enough of their books. After that, I remember falling in love with series like Anne of Green Gables and The Chronicles of Avonlea, Swallows and Amazons, What Katy Did, Little Women and Little House on the Prairie. And Australian classics like Blinky Bill, Seven Little Australians, and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. When I look at them today, they  still hold up as beautifully written, absorbing stories for kids, and my own girls fell in love with them just as I did at similar ages.”

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Desmond is the hero of Brennan’s eleventh Calendar Tale. Next year the pig takes over…

Brennan now has just one Calendar Tale left to complete the series, which is of course for the Year of the Pig in 2019. “While I can tell you it will be dedicated to my beloved husband, who is a perfect Pig in the nicest possible way, you’d have to torture me to find out the rest,” she smiles enigmatically.

All of the Calendar Tales are available from Bookazine and other English bookshops in Hong Kong and online at chinesecalendartales.com.