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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of the iconic Peninsula hotel

By Min Ji Park 18 August 2022

Header images courtesy of The Hong Kong Heritage Project

Hong Kong certainly has no shortage of prestigious hotels, from the historic Mandarin Oriental and the opulent Ritz-Carlton to the stunning Rosewood and more. But no hotel is as synonymous with Hong Kong hospitality as the Peninsula. If you have even a passing knowledge of the city, you’ll have heard of this colonial luxury landmark. 

However, while you dine at one of its Michelin-recognised restaurants or spend a night in a decadent room with a glorious view of Victoria Harbour, what you may not know is that you are staying in a piece of living history—the oldest hotel in Hong Kong still in operation. Join us as we take a look through the pages of the Peninsula’s storied past.

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The Peninsula under construction in 1925. Photo: The Hong Kong Heritage Project

Doors open and the party begins

In the early twentieth century, hotel accommodations in Hong Kong were desperately lacking. More and more people were making the trip over to the Pearl of the Orient, but there were few options for travellers when it came to grand places to stay.

Seeing this gap in the market, Ellis and Elly Kadoorie—two brothers from the wealthy Jewish-Iraqi Kadoorie family of Baghdad—founded the Peninsula under the Hong Kong Hotels Limited banner, with the goal that it would be “the finest hotel east of the Suez.”

Plans for what would become the Peninsula were first drawn up by architects as early as 1921. Originally slated for a 1924 opening, multiple delays put the project on hold for a few years. Located in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, the hotel was in a prime position to attract business, located just opposite the quays where ocean liners disembarked and the Kowloon-Canton Railway that served as a connecting station for passengers. It was also the last stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway that brought travellers from Europe.

It wasn’t until 11 December 1928 that the Peninsula would finally open its doors to the public. Its grand opening was met with much fanfare, and celebrations included a carnival dinner dance in the roof garden ballroom to welcome the hotel into the Hong Kong social scene. Its location would become a haven for the who’s who of the city, with fashionable dinners, dances, and balls that made the Peninsula the place to be seen in Hong Kong.

Pretty soon, the Peninsula became a beacon for the rich, the famous, and even the royal. In 1929, a banquet honouring the Duke of Gloucester placed the hotel on the map as a venue for prestige and glamour. In the next few decades, the Peninsula would go on to host many more elite guests, including Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, and Elizabeth Taylor. Hong Kong’s “Grande Dame” drew a large clientele with its extravagant events, who were all eager to take part in the nightly festivities and spot some famous faces in the crowd.

Battle of Hong Kong surrender. Photo: Mainichi Newspaper (via Wikimedia Commons)

War times and military occupation

World War II was a dark period not just for the Peninsula, but for all of Hong Kong. As one of the first battles of the Pacific War, the Battle of Hong Kong was a gruelling, weeks-long confrontation between Japanese invading forces and Hong Kong defenders.

The Japanese Army took the Peninsula as its headquarters and it was there, on 25 December 1941—what would become known in Hong Kong as “Black Christmas”—that the end of the battle took place. In Room 336 on the third floor, Hong Kong governor Sir Mark Young surrendered to Japanese forces before being confined to the hotel for two months until he was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Shanghai. It marked the first occasion wherein a British colony surrendered to an invading force. From December 1941 until August 1945 during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the Peninsula was renamed the Toa (“East Asia”) and used as headquarters for Japanese officers and dignitaries.

Post-war aid and back to former glory

Hong Kong’s dark years would soon be over when, in 1945, World War II came to an end and the British regained control over the colony. With it, the Peninsula name was restored and the hotel was well on its way to serving the city’s community again.

In that vein, the “Pen” played an important role in post-war relief and aid. Directly after the war, its grand ballroom was used to house new arrivals awaiting accommodations and Jewish refugees from Shanghai who were displaced and waiting to collect visas to head back to the West. As the Kadoories were a Jewish family, they provided these lodgings as well as petitioned the Hong Kong immigration department on behalf of the refugees.

By the 1950s, the Peninsula regained its former pomp and circumstance. New restaurants made their way into the hotel, including the now Michelin-starred French restaurant Gaddi’s and the Verandah, which was a converted and enclosed outdoor terrace. It was once again the place to be, with tea in the lobby, parties in the ballrooms, and luxury stays in the suites.

Among the Peninsula’s many innovations, one of the most notable is the opening of Chesa, a Swiss restaurant that was established in August 1965 following the unexpected success of a food promotion with airline partner Swissair. Echoing the rustic alpine interior design style that Switzerland is famous for—think knotted pine beams, textured plaster, and wood panelling—the restaurant pays tribute to the Chesa Grischuna in Klosters and serves Swiss favourites such as raclette, fondue, rösti, spätzle, and handmade sausages.

Increased air travel in the 1950s and 1960s further elevated the status of the Pen, as many guests chose to stay on the Kowloon side due to the proximity to Kai Tak Airport. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Kowloon Peninsula underwent massive redevelopment, resulting in the demolition of many historic buildings. Fortunately, the Peninsula stood firm.

Before construction of the 30-storey tower. Photo: The Hong Kong Heritage Project

In the modern age

The Peninsula has remained the “Grande Dame of the Far East” and continues to reach new heights. A major expansion project went underway in 1994, adding a 30-storey tower on top of the original hotel to increase the room count from 168 to 300. In addition, the tower provided new office spaces, shops, facilities, and the Philippe Starck-designed rooftop restaurant Felix, plus two helipads to transport VIPs to the airport in just seven minutes.

Nevertheless, throughout these changes, the Peninsula has loyally retained its original Baroque-style architecture and further embellished its colonial-meets-modern influences. In 2012, ahead of its eighty-fifth anniversary, the hotel underwent a refurbishment project that cost $450 million and provided new digital enhancements to fit the modern age.

Construction began in 1990. Photo: The Hong Kong Heritage Project

The Peninsula’s association with luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce became another distinct signature. The old Silver Shadows model—synonymous with the hotel at the time—was famously mentioned in the 1974 James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun

In 2006, the Peninsula made headlines when it placed the largest single order in Rolls-Royce history for a fleet of 14 Phantoms in its trademark “Peninsula Brewster Green” finish. The Rolls-Royce fleet has since been integral in the hotel experience for guests, providing them with a luxury transport experience even before even stepping into the lobby.

The Peninsula has been featured numerous times in popular culture, confirming its status as an icon of Hong Kong. The original run of the show Dynasty showcased the hotel many times as a site for negotiations and deals. Hollywood blockbuster The Dark Knight showcased parts of the hotel in the film during its notorious Hong Kong scenes.

Today, the Peninsula attracts throngs of guests daily to its historic grounds for a myriad of indulgent activities. The five-star hotel continues to set hospitality standards worldwide with its state-of-the-art spa, extravagant rooms, world-class restaurants, and signature afternoon tea experience. Stays at the Peninsula remain as popular as ever, giving guests a glimpse into what the “Grande Dame” may have been like in its heydays in the 1920s.

The Peninsula, 22 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui | (+852) 2920 2888

The Peninsula launched its extended Rolls-Royce Phantom fleet in 2006. Photo: The Hong Kong Heritage Project
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Min Ji Park

Writer

Born in Korea and raised in Hong Kong, Min Ji spends most of her time wishing it were a little bit colder. A fan of low-key yet meaningful experiences, she can be found watching movies with her dog, taking photographs, and listening to any and all kinds of music.

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