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

 

 

 

Old-world charm

When you’ve got visitors in town, the China Club is a fantastic spot to head to  for an evening to remember – the 1930s Shanghai teahouse-style interiors, the “noodle show”, the great food and the city-scape views from the little roof terrace all make for a great night out.

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China plate in the entrance lobby – it used to be full of fish but these fun figurines are very cute.
The club is stuffed full of eye-catching nicknacks and paintings – my favourites are the legs eleven plate (pictured above) and the Churchill picture in the dining room (pictured below). I could spend many happy hours snooping around these interiors, the old library on the top floor is particularly fascinating.

The venue has nestled very comfortably into the top three floors of what used to be the old Bank of China Building. The site used to be occupied by the eastern part of the old City Hall, which was constructed in 1869. The western end of this doomed building was demolished in 1933 to make way for the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank Building, while the eastern end was flattened in favour of the Bank of China in 1947.

The Bank of China Building rose out of the ashes of City Hall in 1952 – the goal being for it to be the tallest building in Hong Kong at that time, at a cute 15 storeys – these days it pales beneath the towering skyscrapers surrounding it (ICC, today’s tallest building just over the Harbour in Kowloon, comes in at over 70 storeys).

But things moved on, and in 1991, the bank moved to new headquarters in the nearby Bank of China Tower. Today, along with the China Club, the old building is used as a sub-branch of the Bank.

The China Club and restaurant opened its elaborate doors, thanks to Sir David Tang (of Shanghai Tang and Tang Tang Tang Tang fame), in 1991.

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The China Club’s infamous “noodle man” gets to work, showing diners how it’s done.
A gorgeously-decorated dining room (think old world ceiling fans, modern artwork, art-deco mirrors, fans and elaborate chandelier-lighting), delicious food, and a couple of “shows” – the tea ceremony is fun but doesn’t quite match the lovely noodle man and his deft mastery of traditional noodle-making – seem to be just the right ingredients needed for a fun night out.

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Eye-catching artworks and historic photography adorn the walls.
After stuffing ourselves with crispy duck pancakes, dim sum and an assortment of Sichuan and old Hong Kong dishes, we wound our way up the stairs to the small roof terrace and bar to the side of the library. The cityscape views over the Harbour to one side and the twinkling lights of mid-levels and the Peak to the other are spectacular.

And for good luck we did race around to the front of the neighbouring HSBC building to pat Stephen the lion’s paw while we were waiting for our ride home. You can never have too much good luck, even when you’re fortunate enough to call Hong Kong home.

To dine at the China Club you need to be a member, or be dining as a guest of a member. The China Club, 13, 14/F, Bank of China Building, 2A Des Voeux Road, Central, 2521 8888.

 

Heritage Hong Kong – The Helena May

(Originally printed in the September issue of Expat Parent, http://www.expat-parent.com)

By Carolynne Dear

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Club founder Lady Helena May with her husband, HK Governor Sir Francis Henry May, and daughters Stella, Phoebe, Iris and Dione, 1916.

 

There’s a gentle buzz of conversation and the chink of cutlery scraping china as I am whisked through an elegant Edwardian dining room and into the even more glorious confines of the “Blue Room”. It is lunch time at the Helena May, as members and their guests enjoy a cool catch-up over a meal or a drink, on what is a stinking hot day outside.

This is Hong Kong’s “club for women”, a private institution for Hong Kong’s ladies to meet, socialise and network, and I am here to find out more about its remarkable past from current chair of council, Tina Seib.

It was set-up and initially run by Lady Helena May – wife of Hong Kong’s then governor, Sir Francis Henry May – and financed by various wealthy donors of the day, including Ho Kom Tong, the Ho Tung family and Dr Ellis Kadoorie.

Its raison d’etre was as a safe and comfortable refuge for the increasing numbers of single, expatriate women arriving in Hong Kong. As a mother of four daughters, Lady May was no doubt well aware of the lack of facilities in Hong Kong for single women at that time.

The beginning of the twentieth century was a period of increasing independence and social mobility for women. The suffragette movement was in full swing in Britain, while new technology – such as the telephone and the typewriter – was opening up jobs suited to “female characteristics”, namely “nimble fingers” and a “polite manner”.

Many women ventured overseas – in search of employment and adventure – encouraged by advertising from the British Women’s Emigration Association, as well as male migration.

“Of course a certain percentage came on a husband-hunting mission, as was common at the time,” explains current chair of council, Tina Seib. “But many others came to work. Whatever their reasons, these women needed a safe place to stay, a respectable address for job applications, and somewhere they could meet other women.” Modern Hong Kong is a world away from the city of the 1900s where disease and neighbourhoods of ill-repute were widespread.

Over the years, the club has become somewhat synonymous with its matronly 10pm curfew and “no gentlemen upstairs” rule. But this should not detract from the role it played in enabling many single women to live and work comfortably in Hong Kong in what was then a strongly patriarchal society.

The club still boasts accommodation, both for long and short-term stays. “The residents effectively live in a grand mansion house and have the run of the place,” enthuses Esther Morris in her book “Helena May”. “There is nowhere else quite like it.”

One such resident was Joan Campbell, current principal of the Carol Bateman dance school housed within the Helena May building. She arrived in Hong Kong in the 1950s as a young dancer and initially stayed in the Blue Room at the Helena May, the residential area of the club being full at the time. This year, she found herself on the Queen’s 90th birthday honours list and received an MBE for her contribution to dance in Hong Kong.

 

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The Helena May’s current Chair of Council, Tina Seib.

“We are lucky to have an immense pool of talent and skill-sets amongst our membership today,” says Seib. “Whether they are homemakers, mothers, lawyers, journalists, bankers or architects, Hong Kong born-and-bred or here on a fleeting two-year contract, our members all have something positive to contribute to the club. The varied membership also continues the club’s tradition of being an excellent networking base for women.”

Indeed all members are expected to volunteer towards the running of the Helena May in some shape or form, whether it’s manning desk in the library from time to time, advising on building maintenance, or helping to organise charity and social events.

The grand Edwardian building itself is an adaptation of the Renaissance style, designed by architects Denison, Ram & Gibbs, who also worked on the Matilda Hospital and the Repulse Bay Hotel. It originally boasted a recreation ground, a lecture and concert hall, a reading and writing room, bedrooms on the first floor, and a room “for afternoon teas, where members are allowed to bring in their gentlemen friends.”

Seib is keen to impress that the maintenance of the building, the outside of which is listed, is the responsibility of the club’s council. The last three years have seen extensive renovations, including re-wiring, damp-proofing and the opening up and restoration of original ceilings covered over during the 1980s, most notably in the elegant Blue Room.

The Helena May was deliberately positioned close to Central, close to the Peak tram (the Peak was home for most colonial ladies who would have been involved with the club), close to the Governor’s house on Upper Albert Road, and just across the road from St John’s Cathedral. In those days, Garden Road was just that, a leafy enclave. These days the club battles somewhat with the noise from the concrete overpasses that now thread their way through mid-levels.

To non-members, the club is probably best-known for its extensive library, and for its ballet school – The Carol Bateman School of Dancing – which has seen thousands of tutu-bedecked children trip through its doors since it was founded in 1948. Bateman had been interred in Stanley during the war and was anxious to start children’s dancing classes as she had done in Shanghai before the war – she began with four sessions a week, renting a room for 20 pounds.

The library was founded in the 1920s and today holds the largest private collection of English-language books in Hong Kong.

During the second world war, all the books were removed and replaced with Japanese tomes in a propaganda drive to impress Japanese culture onto an unreceptive local Chinese population. The club itself was used for stabling horses and was completely looted by the Japanese.

After the war, members were encouraged to “bring a book” each time they visited the club in an effort to return the library to its former glory. The children’s section now contains over 6,000 books and junior club membership is offered for free so children can use the library (“book borrowing by children is surprisingly on the increase,” notes Seib).

The Helena May is also still very much a charity-driven institution. It supports a different charity each year – this year the Marycove Centre in Aberdeen. There is a student mentoring programme in conjunction with Hong Kong University, and the club also offers two scholarships each year for the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. A former recipient of a Helena May scholarship, Pik-sun Chan, now a professional musician, returned to perform at the club’s centenary launch celebrations in February.

In a rather nice twist, the club shares its centenary with the Hong Kong Girl Guide Association, a group with which it still retains links. Each year, English-speaking members volunteer to test local Guides working towards their English Conversation Badge at an Annual Assessment Day, where the girls and their families are invited into the club.

Its graceful interiors coveted by many a bride-to-be, the club also hosts around 50 weddings a year.

It may not be the hippest club in town, it has no sporting teams to boast of and its facilities are minimal, but in its own way the Helena May has quietly stayed true to its mission of supporting Hong Kong’s women for one hundred – often tumultuous – years.

As I take my leave, Seib points out a golden plaque that has recently been hung in the front porch. It’s engraved with all the women to have taken the chair of the club since 1916. “We’ve never had anything like this,” she says, giving it a quick polish. “The club has  never really boasted about what it has achieved. And then I thought, why not? These women have quietly worked so hard. So we had this little plaque made.”

Indeed, as remarked by the Bishop of Victoria during the opening ceremony: “The management of this Institute… shall not be an easy task. I shall watch your work with an interest.”

It would seem that the ladies have done him proud.