This year, Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong – the Island’s revered and iconic hotel and home to the city’s residents and travellers alike – celebrates its 50th anniversary. In homage to this momentous event, our correspondent goes behind the scenes to meet the staff who make the hotel tick

Executive pastry chef Yves Matthey

Executive pastry chef Yves Matthey

Early one morning on 7 October 1963, a young man left his home on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island and took a bus to the heart of its business district. His name was So Kwok-wah, he was 17 and a trained carpenter. A friend of his who had worked at the old Gloucester Hotel had told him about a new property that the Gloucester’s owners were about to open. This edifice, with its mightily soaring 27 floors, would be the tallest building in Hong Kong and the first hotel in Asia to have a bath in every room (prompting the astonished architect to wonder aloud, ‘Are the guests amphibious?’). It was supposed to be called the Queen’s Hotel, but during construction it picked up a new name: The Mandarin.

The exterior of the hotel

The exterior of the hotel

On that first day, So Kwok-wah didn’t use his carpentry skills. He went to work in the Receiving Department, which is where all the comestibles – vegetables, fruit, fish, chicken, meat – that eventually filter their way through the hotel’s kitchens and onto guests’ plates, arrive for inspection. Like most Hong Kong people at that time, he had never set foot in a hotel before.

The lobby lounge

The lobby lounge

A few weeks after his arrival, on 25 October 1963, The Mandarin officially opened its doors, and presidents, royalty, film stars, writers, not to mention a superstar-housewife called Dame Edna Everage (who made her first full cabaret appearance in the hotel in 1973), came to stay. Within four years, Fortune magazine had designated it one of the greatest hotels in the world. Outside, momentous events took place, some of which sent distinct shivers through Hong Kong – these included typhoons, landslides, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square protests, the handover of sovereignty from the UK to China and, more recently, Sars. The hotel kept going and so did So Kwok-wah, who, as the years passed, picked up a new name: Wah Gor, or Brother Wah.

In October 1963, The Mandarin officially opened its doors, and presidents, royalty, film stars and writers all came to stay

Fifty years later, Wah Gor still works in the Receiving Department of what is officially called – after it merged with the Group’s other flagship property, the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok – Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. On his lapel sits a fan-shaped pin made of platinum, which to mark his 50th year of service is set with a diamond sapphire. Out of a staff of 840, he’s the only one to have been at the hotel since the very beginning.

Today, however, Wah Gor’s title is receiving officer and he sits in his ground-floor office checking produce on a computer screen (‘Cucumber Long Green House’ it reads, or ‘Shallot Peeled Fresh’, with the quantity and price ticked alongside), and the vegetables don’t come from the now-built-up New Territories, but from all over the world; and they don’t arrive by boat, almost at the front door, any more because since that October morning when Wah Gor set out for work five decades ago, three cross-harbour tunnels, a vast underground rail network and a staggering amount of land reclamation has transformed Hong Kong.

You might be inclined, standing next to Wah Gor at M Bar’s 25th-floor window, to feel a pang at how the city has shape-shifted. Apart from the old Supreme Court Building (dating from 1912), the Bank of China Building (1952) and City Hall (1962), none of the architecture jostling into the current view existed in 1963. Nearby Chater Garden was a cricket pitch and the days when the hotel towered over the rest of Central have long gone.

The living room of the Mandarin Suite

The living room of the Mandarin Suite

But some things don’t change. Ask Wah Gor what he thinks of world events that have occurred beyond the hotel’s walls and his focus turns, professionally, to his own domain. For him, history is told through food. The bird-flu epidemic? He declined local chickens. The 1997 handover? ‘A normal day except we had to order more for all the guests.’ Fukushima’s nuclear disaster in 2011? Japanese products were put on hold.

The hotel has been his constant. ‘We see history every day and we are part of it,’ he says, in Cantonese, looking out over Central. ‘We are located in the heart of Hong Kong. We are the heart of Hong Kong.’

Perhaps this is truer of Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong than any other luxury hotel in the world. Unlike, say, in London or New York, the people you might see using the hotel – having breakfast in the Clipper Lounge, tea at Café Causette, drinks in the Captain’s Bar, or simply availing themselves of the lobby’s comfortable sofas – are often the city’s residents. It’s a characteristic of Hong Kong that people socialise outside their homes, not within. Flats are small and not ideal for entertaining; and in a city full of transients – Hong Kong, after all, was created by refugees fleeing China and Western expatriates who planned their retirement back on another continent – a hotel is the perfect meeting place.

The tram that passes near the hotel

The tram that passes near the hotel

When people claim, therefore, that Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong feels like their second home, they’re not always joking. In 1972, as a result of colossally heavy rainfall, there was a landslide on Hong Kong Island in which many people died and apartment blocks were destroyed. ‘After that,’ says one local man-about-town, ‘my grandmother always booked the family into the Mandarin when the typhoon signals went up because it made her feel secure.’ In the hotel’s rooms, families have also celebrated marriages, women have checked in after giving birth, children have marked rites of passage, and long-term residents have held their farewells and then their returns, because Hong Kong is the sort of city it’s hard to leave.

Standing in the lobby to assist them all for the past 40 years has been Danny Lai. Although he is now executive assistant manager – guest relations, he has held a variety of roles, including that of porter and baggage master. But perhaps it’s best to describe him exactly as one Hong Kong resident does: ‘Danny? He’s an icon.’

While it’s customary for Mandarin guests to claim they’re treated like family, Lai – who arrived in Hong Kong from Shanghai, aged two, with his grandfather – has inverted the procedure and twice been adopted by hotel visitors as a mark of affection. First, by the grandson of the chef of Pu Yi, the Last Emperor of China (a drawing of a chrysanthemum by the emperor’s younger brother marks the official occasion); then by a lady guest from Taiwan who became ill in 1999, summoned Lai to Taipei, conducted an adoption ceremony, and has remained in perfect health ever since. When Lai himself fell ill in 2002, the city’s ladies-who-lunch flocked around to care for him.

‘I’m the ambassador of Hong Kong,’ Lai says, after relating a saga involving the Queen of Denmark, a famous Danish brewery, an outside catering event in a far-flung corner of Hong Kong and 5,000 champagne flutes, of which only 3,800 survived the potholes. ‘And I’ve been honoured to look after four governors and three chief executives,’ he adds.

A selection of afternoon tea treats at Café Causette

A selection of afternoon tea treats at Café Causette

After all, it has been Lai’s task for 33 years to greet Hong Kong’s ‘leader of the moment’ as they enter the hotel. The colonial-era governors used to host a lunch on the second Friday of each month in the Connaught Room, while the post-handover chief executives prefer to host their monthly lunches on the second Thursday. Apart from that calendar tweak, it’s been business as usual since 1997 – indeed, the hotel is owned by Jardine Matheson, a conglomorate with property interests that has been trading in Hong Kong since the island was ceded to the British Empire by China in 1842.

‘Hong Kong has changed for the better!’ exclaims Giovanni Valenti, from Florence, who arrived at the hotel in 1979 as restaurant manager for the Grill, and is now concierge ambassador. ‘I love to work with Chinese people – they are the most hard-working people on earth.’ Valenti, like Lai, is such a fixture that no one addresses him formally, and he keeps tabs on the wonders the city has to offer, placing them at the guests’ feet. He deliberately lives close to the hotel. ‘I spend more time here than at home,’ he says. ‘And I know the secrets of guests!’

When asked how he keeps the secrets, Valenti – a monkey according to the Chinese zodiac – hides his face behind his hands with a grin. ‘I don’t see, I don’t talk, I don’t hear. You have to be diplomatic. And sometimes it helps to hit the tennis ball!’ he says, laughing. (Indeed, he is a member of the nearby Ladies’ Recreation Club, established on Old Peak Road in 1883.)

The Captain’s Bar

The Captain’s Bar

Such qualities are instilled in all members of staff. On their first day of work they’re handed precepts on a printed card, always to be carried with them, which are also written on the noticeboards behind the mysterious doors that separate guests from employees (during this visit everyone is exhorted to be ‘warmly engaging’). And at the entrance to Chopsticks, the staff canteen, there’s a huge fan made out of chopsticks on which everyone’s name is written. Celebrities might front the ‘He’s a fan’, or ‘She’s a fan’, campaign, but it’s the Hong Kong employees who literally constitute the fan of this flagship property.

People using the hotel are often the city’s residents. It’s a characteristic of Hong Kong to socialise outside the home

A cocktail at the Captain’s Bar

A cocktail at the Captain’s Bar

Slipping into this backstage world is astonishing because there’s no sense of the ‘building within the building’ and because space is at such a premium in Hong Kong. ‘We have to use the space as best we can,’ says Jean Chen, the hotel’s executive housekeeper, standing in a pantry, a row of umbrellas and hangers dangling behind her, tea baskets stacked neatly in front.

She’s out on her rounds – instinctively running a finger along picture frames in the ginger-flower-scented corridors, testing a hair-dryer or tweaking a tissue. In one room, on the fourth floor, five trainees are learning how to make beds; the challenge, she tells them, is the ‘foot-fold’, a specific tucking of quilt and sheets that ensures guests feel comfortably swaddled but not constricted (this is harder to execute than it sounds, as the trainees are told to touch the bedding as little as possible).

In the kitchens, executive pastry chef Yves Matthey is also inspecting his domain. He has been with the hotel since 1987 and is a repository of statistics – every day, his staff bake 3,000 scones and 8,000 tiny cookies, to be served with each cup of tea or coffee, and a minimum of 1,500 French pastries (in low season). They also make 50 types of bread and 30 sorts of cake, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Next door, Bob Tay, whose name card reads ‘Assistant Executive Pastry Chef – Artist’, is working on one of his fabulously clever sculptures, which will be displayed in The Mandarin Cake Shop next to Café Causette.

Service at Café Causette

Service at Café Causette

When the hotel closed for nine months in 2005 for its US$150 million renovation, there was wailing among locals and a wry, two-minute silence on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange trading floor. The street-level coffee shop was also shut, before re-emerging as Café Causette upstairs. Causette means gossip; and if you stand by the main lifts, where the Chinese symbol for longevity is inscribed on the floor, and pause for a moment, you’ll hear a murmur and a hum, as if the city’s threads are being gathered up and woven into its history, just as they were 50 years ago when Wah Gor first arrived for work. 

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Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong

Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong

5 Connaught Road Central,
Hong Kong

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