Remembering The Excelsior, Hong Kong

1 May 2019 by Michael Allen
The Excelsior Hong Kong in the past

The iconic hotel on Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay waterfront has closed its doors for good, but the property is survived by rich and varied memories.

I am about to ascend the hotel steps when the boom of a nearby explosion sets my heartbeat racing. For a moment I panic, then feel like a fool when I check the time – exactly 12pm – and realise it is just the Noonday Gun, which is fired at midday every day.

In August 2011, 51-year-old Francois Aubert, who now lives in Geneva and works as a consultant, trainer and business coach, stayed at The Excelsior, which stands on the site of the original warehouse of trading house Jardine Matheson, next to the noonday gun. Aubert was there to run a seminar for a Korean bank’s management in the hotel.

“The business room I worked in was on a lower floor. I was aware of the Noonday Gun, of course – but my delegates were not. So I didn’t warn them, and enjoyed their surprise when the gun went off. The next day, they all came with their cameras and were ready at 11.55,” Aubert says.

The Excelsior Hong Kong - Old photo of guestroom

The Excelsior, which officially opened on February 20, 1973 with 1,003 rooms and 1,804 beds, was at that time Hong Kong’s largest hotel. It is now set to be demolished and the site redeveloped into office space, in a process that is expected to take around six years.

In the early days of its existence, the hotel’s primary market was tourist groups from Japan; directional signage and notice boards in the hotel were in both Japanese and English. However, the first group which stayed at The Excelsior was a football team from the UK, and as time went by more and more guests from different countries stayed at the property. Consequently, it’s not difficult to find people who have fond memories of the hotel.

One of them is Hong Konger Elisa Henricksen, who works for a financial organisation and describes The Excelsior as having been “an iconic place” in the 1980s. “The Talk of the Town was the disco on the top floor,” she says. “When we were young we always spent a lot of time dancing there and sometimes you met friends down in Dickens to eat,” she says, referring to the hotel’s Dickens Bar, a British-style pub in the basement.

Henricksen says that when she and her friends couldn’t think of a place to meet, the default option was the Dickens Bar. “We didn’t even refer to it as the Dickens Bar; we just said ‘our usual place’.” Having spent many birthdays at The Excelsior, she describes the hotel’s management as “old fashioned” in a positive way. “They were very down to earth. They knew you, and they addressed you and made you feel comfortable,” she says.

Michael Duff, a managing director who now lives in London but was previously based in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, stayed at The Excelsior more than a dozen times over the last 20 years. He was attracted to the hotel by its “affordability, location and service”.

“You got Mandarin service quality at an Excelsior price,” he says. (The Excelsior was owned and operated by the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.)

Duff adds that standout features included the comfort of the bed and the quality of linen, the Dickens Bar and the “amazing” breakfast buffet. “The Excelsior was a central part of my life when I first arrived in Hong Kong to live in 1983. There wasn’t much choice of venues back then,” he says.

The Excelsior Hong Kong - Old photo of Marina Room

Sue Dowds worked as cabin crew for British Airways between 1986 and 2018. For most of that time, The Excelsior served as the airline’s crew hotel when she flew into Hong Kong. Dowds would usually stay there for two nights, four to five times per year. “The hotel buffet was spectacular. Many years ago that was the first time I tried soft-shell crab – not something regularly seen in the UK at the time, certainly not on a buffet,” she says.

“The Dickens Bar would be the meet-up place for crew after a long flight. Every night of the week, year in, year out there would always be anything from ten to 30 crew in there having a good time. This was encouraged by the hotel, which gave the crew a free drinks voucher on arrival. For a more upmarket evening, there was a great bar at the top of the hotel with amazing views. There are hundreds of posts on various crew forums and every one of them is saying how much it will be missed.”

Not only guests but also staff at The Excelsior are mourning the hotel’s closure. Rocky Ng, 56, the hotel’s air-conditioning foreman who joined the company 33 years ago in 1986, says he feels sad that he can no longer work with the hotel’s “amazing” team.

When Ng underwent major surgery in 2012, the hotel’s former director of engineering and director of human resources came to visit him, bringing him a bowl of nourishing Chinese soup. Other colleagues brought Ng a fruit hamper. “I was deeply impressed and felt thankful for what they did,” he says.

Hong Kong is a city in flux. Skyrocketing rental prices are forcing many traditional businesses out. Henricksen is resigned to the hotel’s closure, saying that this kind of change is inevitable in big cities. “All the landmarks are just giving way. Everything is changing in Hong Kong. It’s a city; there’s nothing we can do.”

She hints that this may be a generational shift, with youngsters socialising more in digital spaces than in face-to-face settings. “The young kids like to stay home to play on their phones,” she says. “We liked to party.”

Loading comments...

Search Flight

See a whole year of Reward Seat Availability on one page at SeatSpy.com

The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
Be up-to-date
Magazine Subscription
To see our latest subscription offers for Business Traveller editions worldwide, click on the Subscribe & Save link below