Eaton HK: The Counterculture Haven That Wants to Be More Than Just a Hotel

The first clue that Eaton HK is not an ordinary hotel may be the feminist film festival it hosts every year. Or perhaps it is the LGBTQ+ zine fair that takes place inside Eaton House, the coworking space and cultural centre nestled inside the hotel’s lower floors. Or maybe it’s the radio station, contemporary art gallery and music venue. 

If none of those suggest something different, then it ought to be the fact that Eaton HK has a curator – and her job isn’t just to decorate the lobby with pleasant works of art. “The vision is to turn this into a space that supports new experimental creations,” says Chantal Wong, the hotel’s director of culture.

If all of this sounds a bit surprising, don’t worry; it wasn’t long ago that the Eaton Hotel was a well-regarded but unremarkable business hotel. Opened in 1990 by Great Eagle Holdings, a company controlled by the family of the late property tycoon Lo Ying-shek, the old Eaton had small rooms but a reputation for agreeable staff and decent facilities, including Yat Tung Heen, the kind of Cantonese restaurant where middle-class families gathered for Sunday dim sum or special dinners. It was only when third-generation Great Eagle heiress Katherine Lo took over in 2013 that the hotel’s metamorphosis began.

Today, the Eaton Hotel has become Eaton HK, with a fresh design and a new sense of purpose. The hotel is part of a growing collection of properties conceived by Katherine Lo not simply as places to stay, but as places to gather – specifically for artists, activists and people from marginalised communities.

The Eaton DC, located one kilometre from the White House in the heart of the American capital, has been described in many media reports as an “anti-Trump hotel,” a label Lo has embraced. Under the curatorship of African-American artist Sheldon Scott, Eaton DC has become a progressive oasis in an otherwise stodgy part of Washington, with workshops on hot-button social and political topics, cultural events like vinyl record sales, and a lobby library stocked with provocative literature from writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Langston Hughes.

Eaton HK hopes to offer something similar to Hong Kong. “I want to move beyond hotels as places to hang out to places where you can build something more substantial and in-depth,” says Lo. “I wanted to reconceive of the hotel as a place of art and social change.”

Lo may have been born into the hotel business, but it was never her plan to build a career in hospitality. She has long had an activist bent. Not long after starting her undergraduate studies at Yale, she stirred up controversy on campus by hanging an American flag upside down from her dorm room in protest of the US invasion of Iraq. “I was a very involved activist throughout my college years for environmental and human rights and social justice issues,” she says. After graduating from Yale, she went on to study filmmaking at the University of Southern California. That led her to make her first unexpected foray into the family business.

“I had moved back to Hong Kong and my dad mentioned he had just purchased a Mies van der Rohe building in Chicago,” she says, referring to the IBM Building, one of the last structures designed by the influential modern architect. She asked if she could make a short documentary about the building’s conversion into a new hotel, the Langham Chicago, but she ended up becoming more involved than she had intended. “I learned so much from doing that project –but as much as I loved the Mies history and meeting Mies’ grandson in Chicago, I decided that the luxury brand of Langham was not for myself. I actually resigned from the family business.”

Lo returned to filmmaking, but it wasn’t long before her father pulled her back into his world. In 2013, he asked her to come up with a new concept for the Eaton. “I was inspired by a lot of community-based experiences I’ve had, things like music festivals and new-age wellness centres,” she says.

She built a new hotel brand, Eaton Workshop, based on five core values. One is culture. “We do a lot of artist residencies, commissions, a lot of original artworks for the sites, and expand beyond visuals arts into performance art, tech and other areas,” she says. Earlier this year, Eaton HK partnered with Videotage to launch a video art residency, putting up British artist Rob Crosse for a month and offering the hotel’s cinema for screenings and talks on queer art practices.

Another pillar is community, based around Eaton House, a coworking space geared towards activists and artists, offering space for organisations such as Justice Centre, which represents refugees and asylum seekers. There’s also a focus on media, with an in-house radio station that promotes local musicians, and short films commissioned from underrepresented voices. “We really want to commit to our values of equality and diversity and justice and put our resources towards commissioning 12 short films this year,” says Lo.

Lo also says Eaton is geared towards wellness; “In my own personal journey, I’ve really been sustained by meditation, treatments like acupuncture and reiki,” she says. But perhaps its biggest—and most ambiguous—goal is impact. Lo says that includes environmental sustainability, like furnishing the hotel with eco-friendly materials and trying to reduce waste by avoiding single-use plastics, but it also refers to leaving a lasting social and cultural imprint on Hong Kong.

“We are open to doing anything – the space is a lab,” says Chantal Wong. Before she joined Eaton HK, she co-founded Sham Shui Po art space Things That Can Happen and worked as the head of strategic development at the Asia Art Archive. In November, her experimental approach was made clear in Human/Progress, an arts festival that took place throughout the hotel. Artists Alice Rensy and Yang Hao curated site-specific performances in the rooftop pool, basement restaurant and other spaces, while the work of Xyza Cruz Bacani—the Filipina domestic helper turned renowned street photographer—was splashed over the three-metre-tall billboards that surrounded the hotel’s façade.

Wong says the challenge with conventional galleries is to reach audiences outside the bubble of the art world. A hotel is just the opposite. “There’s something very mysterious about a hotel – you don’t know who you will encounter,” she says. “It creates a very multifaceted community, especially since we need this to be a space not just for international travellers but for the local community.”

That’s something reflected in the hotel’s physical space, which was redesigned by New York-based AvroKO, with a team led by Philip Pond in collaboration with Lo. The hotel’s previously staid decor has been replaced by a lively mix of warm and cool colours, along with metalwork and mosaic tiles that pay homage to Hong Kong’s vernacular architecture. In the basement, Yat Tung Heen has been reworked in a sultry 1960s style that is a deliberate reference to the moody atmosphere Wong Kar-wai’s film In the Mood for Love.

More than decoration, though, Pond and Lo changed the very structure of the hotel, punching a hole in its north-facing façade to connect a sunken public plaza with a new food hall that is busy every day with mainly local customers. Once desolate, the plaza is now a popular place to gather. “They engineered the space to be porous,” says Wong. “It’s become this very democratic space.”

When she was a child, Lo attended Diocesan Girls’ School, right across the street from the Eaton, and when she took over the hotel she wanted it to feel less walled-off to the surrounding neighbourhood. “Jordan has such an old-school feeling, with the neon signs and old businesses, and I wanted to do something that would fit in,” she says.

More than that, though, she wanted it to become a second home for anyone looking for space in a city where space is at a premium. “In my experience of getting to know the underground art and activist scene, there are very few physical spaces where they can gather. I really wanted to reenvision [the Eaton] as this ultimate gathering place for a community, for young people who don’t have a lot of space if they’re living with their parents, or for musicians who need a place to rehearse and practice their art.”

It’s an aspiration that brings to mind New York’s Chelsea Hotel, the imposing redbrick edifice that became a magnet for artists, writers and musicians in the 1960s and 70s, including Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, Stanley Kubrick, Madonna and dozens more. But that happened almost by accident, whereas Lo is trying to engineer something similar and yet even more ambitious: a hotel that is not just a haven for creative people but a platform that actually amplifies their voices.

That raises the question of whether a hotel—still a profit-making business, when it comes down to it—can genuinely play such a role, or whether it is simply exploiting an avant-garde image in order to carve out a niche for itself in the crowded hospitality market. “It’s tempting to dismiss the hotelier as part of an activist movement more concerned with aesthetics than with actual change,” noted a profile of Lo in last July’s edition of Vogue magazine.

Lo chooses her words carefully when asked about operating as an activist hotel within Hong Kong’s thorny political reality. Whereas Eaton DC is unabashedly opposed to Donald Trump and his policies, it would be risky for Eaton HK to take such an overtly critical line in a city where anti-establishment political candidates have been barred from standing for election because of their beliefs.

“I think we recognise that we can only do good if we continue existing,” she says. “That drives our decisions. As much as possible we want to programme artists and speakers and people who support our values. It is a complicated situation in Hong Kong. I think that working through artists that explore things in a multidimensional and thoughtful way, we can still support art and culture and political and cultural and social commentary in a way that has integrity.”

In recent days, it seems Eaton HK hasn’t been afraid to court controversy. It was the only hotel in the city that publicly expressed support for the anti-extradition protests, giving its workers the blessing to join the citywide strike organised by democracy activists. And its goal of making an impact is reinforced by its impending B Corp Certification, which subjects its social and environmental performance to independent scrutiny.

When she attended an LGBTQ+ travel conference at Eaton HK last November, commentator Athena Lam praised it as “a hotel that walks the walk from what I’ve seen,” noting that it is the only hotel in Hong Kong that has gender-neutral toilets, using clever signage to circumvent official policies requiring them to be gender-segregated. “We decided to combine the legally required specification but add the gender neutral sign,” says the hotel’s managing director, Dirk Dalichau. “This was originally not accepted but we were able to demonstrate that no regulation prohibits these signs.”

Meanwhile, the hotel is powering through a packed calendar of events. Over the next week, the hotel will offer yoga sessions, a Tibetan singing bowls workshop, a stand-up comedy performance by Vivek Mahbubani and a festival in honour of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which kicked off the LGBTQ+ pride movement in 1979.

Lo isn’t around to experience much of the hotel’s programming – she is busy working on new Eaton locations in Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto. But she is happy to see her Hong Kong property take shape the way she wanted it to. “It’s really taken on a life of its own,” she says.

Note: This story was amended to clarify that interior designer Philip Pond was working at AvroKO during the time of Eaton HK’s renovation.

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