Beloved Mandarin Oriental concierge Giovanni Valenti passed away on May 19, 2023. Zolima CityMag correspondent Annemarie Evans shares her encounters with this ebullient figure at one of Hong Kong’s most iconic hotels.
Giovanni Valenti was a fixture at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong for 38 years. Many in Hong Kong will remember this perfectly attired Italian chief concierge who was often to be seen greeting guests in his frock coat in the lobby of the five-star hotel in Central. Valenti died on May 19 at the age of 78 in Florence. I had the pleasure of interviewing him a few times over the years and sat with him on one of the sofas in the lobby lounge for our last chat, which was in late 2020.
He had some sage advice for anyone in the business of hospitality: “Never, never contradict the guest,” he said, wagging his finger and speaking in a strong Italian accent that never seemed to diminish over the years. Valenti had charm but also a genuine warmth that many, who have paid their respects since learning of his death, have spoken of. He was also fun and there have been plenty of passersby who would swing into the Mandarin walking through from Connaught Road on the one side and over to Statue Square – in part to take advantage of the air conditioning in the summer, perhaps, but mainly to have a chat with Valenti, who always had a story to tell. Just not about the guests: in his decades at the Mandarin Oriental, he met so many famous faces, but you never got past how divine Sarah Ferguson, the former wife of Britain’s Prince Andrew, was, or how undemanding Princess Diana was – no trouble at all. “So sad what happened, but such is life” he said with a wave of his arm.
Ebullient and effusive, Valenti also had an ability to be everyone’s friend, whether a president, prime minister or princess, or in Peter Wood’s case, a would-be photographer who just flew in from London and was new to the city in the early 1990s. “He was a kind man,” he recalls. “When I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1993, green around the gills, I would traipse around the city lugging my heavy A1 portfolio from Lamma Island to prospective clients in the city. Often I snuck into the Mandarin to cool down and relax. Giovanni took pity on me and allowed me to stash my folio at the Mandarin whenever I wanted. It was a gesture I never forgot.”
Born on July 14, 1944, Valenti cited his birth date, coinciding with Bastille Day, as one reason why he had to be proficient at French. He also spoke “acceptable English, Spanish and a lot, a lot of Cantonese” – all languages he used to good effect with his guests. He was born in Messina, Sicily, in poor circumstances. His twin sister died in infancy and good nutrition was an issue at that time. His father was a construction worker, his mother a part-time seamstress and full-time carer for Valenti and his two older sisters and younger brother.
“I was a child when I left Sicily,” said Valenti. “I grew up in Florence, really. I finished school and I started to work in a shop selling shoes. So my English started to improve with American tourists. Size eight and a half, narrow? All this rubbish.” Valenti’s work was interrupted by 15 months’ compulsory national service, which took him to military school in Spoleto, near Perugia, and then on to Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, where he became an army sergeant. He returned to Sutor Mantellassi, the shoe shop, but when the River Arno burst its banks during heavy rain and his family home was flooded, “We lost everything and I lost my job. Enough! I went to the UK.”
Valenti’s aunt had married a British man during World War II and she lived in Portslade, near Brighton. Valenti joined them. It was 1967, and he worked as a waiter at the famous and centuries-old tavern, the Prospect of Whitby, in the East End borough of Tower Hamlets on the banks of the River Thames. “I worked there nearly three years. Princess Margaret used to come in,” he recalls.
He learned to wait tables and then, through a friend in the French embassy, ended up in a job in Cannes, where he eventually became restaurant manager. He moved to Asia in 1978 with stints in restaurant work in both Hong Kong and Singapore before an opening came up at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, which had been built in 1963. Preceding Valenti by seven years was Danny Lai, who had worked as a hawker and street entertainer before joining the Mandarin as a porter, before eventually being promoted to Executive Assistant Manager of Guest Relations. Danny and Giovanni, as they’ll be remembered, were a team that became a Mandarin brand in a way. Both knew how to treat the guests as friends. Lai died last year.
Valenti’s first job at the hotel was managing the Mandarin Grill restaurant. He would be sent for a stint at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and described how for years there was a competition between the two hotels as to which could be the best. He was also sent for training to the prestigious Savoy Hotel in London. “My first general manager was Andreas Hofer,” said Valenti. “Tough but professional and I like that – you really learn a lot. One year at the Grill, then front office at Bangkok, then to London to learn at the Savoy.”
Valenti would spend the next 38 years at the Mandarin Oriental — the first hotel in Asia to have a bathtub in each room — smoothing feathers, ironing out any wrinkles and ensuring his guests got five-star service. He oversaw more than 70 staff members and a fleet of cars. He told the South China Morning Post in a 2013 interview, on the 50th anniversary of the hotel, how he had helped countless men set the scene for proposals and lent an ear to troubled guests.
“For guests, I am more than just a concierge. I am also a priest, confidant, consultant, dispenser of information, and sometimes even a banker,” he was quoted as saying. He was a discreet shoulder to cry on. He also had the memory of an elephant, recalled one Facebook commentator of this head concierge’s ability to squirrel away specific details of a guest and what their foibles or special requests might be.
Valenti never lived at the Mandarin Oriental. He emphasised how a line had to be drawn between his home and work life, otherwise he would be constantly on duty. That said, it was a huge component of his life. It was his passion. Along with tennis, where he is remembered as having “a wicked serve” as a regular, and very good, player at the Ladies Recreation Club, followed by a couple of post-match bottles of Prosecco. A highlight for Valenti was meeting the Swedish Wimbledon champion and tennis legend Bjorn Borg and playing tennis with him. “Of course he was fantastic,” he recalled. “To me he was an icon of tennis, the best in the world.”
There were sombre moments as well. On April 1, 2003, Valenti had left for the night when he was called urgently and rushed back to the hotel. Cantopop icon and actor Leslie Cheung had jumped from the 24th floor of the Mandarin to his death on the street below. To this day, his fans still remember him on that day and bring flowers to that spot. While Valenti didn’t know him personally, he would often smile and greet him in the lobby or lift. “I had gone to the Excelsior and they called me,” he said. “Mr. Valenti, you must come back very quickly to the Mandarin. And it was just on the corner. First of April every year there are many flowers donated to his memory there.”
The prominent guests who Valenti met and served over his decades-long career at the hotel are a Who’s Who of politicians, royalty, stars of screen and stage, singers and other well-heeled personalities. He met Richard Nixon — shortly after the Watergate scandal in 1974 — as well as French president Jacques Chirac and a host of entertainers. But Valenti was unfazed by someone’s fame and was blessed with an ability to treat everyone the same, whatever their status.
British filmmaker Neil Macdonald recalls making an industry sales film for the Mandarin Oriental in 1994 called Moments of Delight. “We ended up shooting at more or less all the group hotels around the world, and so met most of the concierges, who were all brilliant. But what made the irrepressible Giovanni quite possibly the best, was that he was every man’s equal. He treated everyone the same – presidents, businessmen, film stars, locals and film crews and they respected him for that. Because of his nature, the man he was, no one treated him as a hotel employee, a lackey, so to speak, or as someone who was there just to provide a service – they treated him as a friend, a family member, a trusted and much loved soul and his ability to make us feel that way about him, without even trying, was his gift to us. He was one of a kind.”
It was a quality that engendered respect. “I think there is something born in you, attitude,” he said. “Be firm when you talk to people but don’t be arrogant, but don’t be aggressive there is a way of making yourself understood.” With a guest, he would say, “any complaint, call me, I know how to handle.” The cases of unacceptable behaviour on the part of a guest were rare, but when that happened, a member of staff would urgently enter the room and say, “Mr. Valenti, you have a long-distance call,” which gave him an excuse to leave and avoid the guest.
Throughout our 2020 conversation, Valenti would stop sometimes to show treasured photographs on his smartphone: him with an older sister, then 81, or with his nephew, a chef, his French friend Claude, or his nieces in Florence. There was a photo of Valenti with Bjorn Borg and also one of a framed certificate and medal, an accolade awarded to him by the Italian government in the 1980s, the Cavaliere della Repubblica Italiana, the order of merit of the republic of Italy. His 38 years of service with the Mandarin Oriental ended in 2017. In the last year of his life, Valenti returned to his family in Florence.
There are many in Hong Kong and across the world who will always remember this ebullient Italian man in his frock coat and striped trousers in the lobby at the Mandarin Oriental, where a request would be answered with a capable, “Yeah, sure!” and there was a smile, a personal connection and a little story to tell.
Photo in slider: Giovanni Valenti, 2013, courtesy of the Mandarin Oriental