The Excelsior goes out with a party and a bang as iconic hotel bows to commercial pressure and makes way for an office tower

By Louise Moon / | April 1, 2019 6:37 PM SGT
Seven hundred guests bid farewell to The Excelsior on Saturday night, as the iconic waterfront hotel closes its doors on 46 years of Hong Kong history on Sunday to make way for an office tower.
The lobby of the 869-room, four-star hotel was filled with music from Revenge of the Pink Panther, the 1978 Peter Sellers comedy that was filmed in the same venue, and re-enacted with original props during a cocktail reception. In one corner, partygoers queued up to pose in a sedan chair next to an actor in old Chinese dress, and another in a British top hat.
Guests flew in from as far away as London and Australia for a HK$4,844 Fond Farewell Package " inclusive of a stay in the hotel's final night of operation " and sampled special courses at the hotel's restaurants, cafe and pub.
They described the party as "full to the rafters", with a buzzing atmosphere full of emotion, yet happiness, and a strong sense of taking part in a momentous occasion in history.
The lobby of The Excelsior on 20 February 2019. On the final night of its 46 years, the lobby recreated the set of Revenge of the Pink Panther, the 1978 comedy that was filmed here. After the final guest checks out on Sunday, March 31, the staff will have the hotel all to themselves for a few hours. The reception desk will turn into a bar, and the concierge desk will become a DJ station. Photo: SCMP / K. Y. Cheng
Staff, meanwhile, told them the waterworks were likely to kick in on Sunday.
On Sunday, the most loyal guest " with 2,200 nights over 63 visits, equivalent to six years of stay at the hotel " will be invited to fire the Noonday Gun, a naval artillery piece held over from Hong Kong's history as a British colony. As he is driven away in a limousine after checkout, the hotel's doors will close for the last time.
"That is it, that is really the ending," said The Excelsior's general manager Torsten van Dullemen, who had twice asked for the job before taking on his assignment in February last year. "At midnight on the 31st, we will unplug all the lights, and [we are] done. We will go."
General Manager of the Excelsior Hotel, Torsten van Dullemen, photographed at The Excelsior Hotel in Causeway Bay on 18 March 2019. Photo: SCMP/Winson Wong
The hotel's closure was announced last year by Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, a unit of the Jardine Matheson conglomerate, after a 2017 sale failed to meet the minimum price.
Instead of selling it, Jardine will spend US$650 million over six years to develop the building into a 26-storey Grade A office.
The decision was the result of weighing Hong Kong's office rents " the highest in the world by square footage " against the millions of dollars needed to upgrade The Excelsior to keep up with newer and posher hotels in the city.
The late Peter Sellers on the set of Revenge of the Pink Panther, at The Excelsior hotel's front entrance some time in 1975. Photo: The Excelsior.
"We have to be practical," said Mandarin Oriental's chief executive officer James Riley. "If one looked at this site and the value that could be realised from redeveloping the building as a hotel, it was significantly less than the value that could be realised from redeveloping it as an office block."
The Excelsior, which opened for business in 1973, was built on Lot One, the very first parcel of land sold in 1842 when Hong Kong became a British colony. A two-year license granted by the government in September 2018 allows redevelopment into a building with a gross floor area of about 685,500 square feet: a 15 per cent plot ratio increase.
Sir Noel Coward, the English playwright, firing the Noonday Gun opposite The Excelsior in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong on 21 March 1968. Photo: SCMP
Often described as iconic and run by a family of employees, the hotel's occupancy still tops 80 per cent, with a flood of restaurant bookings since closure was announced.
Many have worked at The Excelsior for two decades, some for 40 years, and no one resigned since the closure was announced. Another 400 former staff returned to celebrate in one of the ballrooms earlier in March.
"It is like when you finish a really good book, you are in awe of the writer," van Dullemen said. "Tomorrow when you come home it is not there any more."
In its heyday, the hotel was a frequent meeting place for Hong Kong's socialites, celebrities, power brokers and men about town. Sir Run Run Shaw, the late movie mogul, was a regular.
Sometimes described as "tatty" and "run down," the hotel has seen better days, being superseded by plusher and more glamorous addresses some time in the 2000s.
Still, the hotel has the feel of a private club, where the connections between guests and staff strays to the point of "possessiveness," van Dullemen said.
View from Talk of The Town (ToTT's), the roof top restaurant at The Excelsior in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP/Handout
One guest said he had dined at the hotel's rooftop restaurant Talk of The Town (ToTT's) three times a week for the past 30 years, while others have invited employees on holidays, to weddings and out for meals.
Another, who has been visiting for 20 years, recently stopped van Dullemen on the street to say she had booked a 10-person table at ToTT's on Saturday, at HK$2,688 per person.
TOTT's was decorated as a 1980s nightclub, serving classic cocktails alongside a six-course dinner, washed down by Moet & Chandon champagne. A live band played up a repertoire of 70s and 80s songs.
(L-R): Danny Yip Ho-yin, 47, an assistant restaurant manager at The Excelsior's Cafe On The 1st; and his wife Stella Ip Sau-chi, 48, a food and beverage call centre officer at the hotel, photographed on 12 March 2019. Photo: SCMP/Tory Ho
Yee Tung Heen, the hotel's Chinese restaurant, put on a Sichuan face-changing performance and rainbow calligraphy along with a menu by a Michelin-starred chef. Fortune telling stalls entertained guests in the corridors.
A seafood buffet at Cafe on the 1st was set to an Alice in Wonderland theme of extravagance, featuring tuna flown in overnight from Japan, and 400 kilograms of chocolate.
Dickens, the in-house British pub, served its own beer brew along with a curry buffet during a quiz night and auction led by stand-up comedian Benjamin Quinlan.
Rwinky Lau Kam-yuk, 51, a bar tender at The Excelsior's Dickens bar since 1996, photographed on 12 March 2019. Photo: SCMP/Tory Ho
"This [gig] is quite special for me," said Quinlan, who remembered visiting the hotel with his mother Maria, the first manager of ToTT's. "There is a lot of nostalgia. Nothing in Hong Kong hospitality has that feel any more. It is iconic. It is run down, dated, but that is what I love."
To give employees and selected guests a lasting memory, the hotel sold them 48,000 items, from bottles of wine, to glassware, duvets and robes with the hotel logo.
Other items will go to sibling properties connected with Jardine: Hong Kong University will take all the gym equipment, local Po Leung Kuk charity has taken 20,000 items while the Hong Kong Society for the Aged will take all tables and chairs from Excelsior's restaurants.
Memorabilia at a mini museum in The Excelsior in Causeway Bay on 12 March 2019. Photo: SCMP / Tory Ho
After the last of the guests checks out on Sunday, The Excelsior's 485 staff will have the premises to themselves for a few more hours. The reception desk will turn into a bar, and the concierge desk will become a DJ station.
"The saddest goodbyes are always the best goodbyes," said van Dullemen. "If you are really sad about something, it means whatever you had was very meaningful and dear to you. Treasure the hardest farewells, because they are nothing more than a confirmation that everything you have lost really was special."
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.