Hong Kong’s Skyline Icons: Cheung Kong Center and the Hongkong Hilton

Nine years ago, as protesters rallied in support of striking dock workers camped out in front of the Cheung Kong Center, two activists broke off from the crowd to rummage through the lush garden behind the tower. 

“What are you doing?” asked an acquaintance.

“We’re going to find Li Ka-shing’s feng shui crystal!” they replied with a hint of mischief. Li is Asia’s richest man, with a net worth of nearly US$30 billion, and through his conglomerate Cheung Kong Holdings, he runs a property empire and businesses like Hongkong Electric and supermarket chain Park’n’Shop – as well as the docks where the workers were striking. Rumour has it he buried a feng shui crystal in the lush garden behind his headquarters. But it may just be that—a rumour—because the two activists’ search was fruitless. 

It’s a quirk that belies the staid exterior of what on the surface appears to be the least remarkable of Hong Kong’s landmark towers. It stands 283 metres tall, just shy of the exclusive 300-metre club of the city’s “supertall” skyscrapers, including the IFC, ICC, Central Plaza and The Center. And it stands in the heart of Central, next to modern eye-catchers like the HSBC Building and the Bank of China Tower, and historic monuments such as the Court of Final Appeal and the Former French Mission Building. Unlike its peers, however, the Cheung Kong Center seems designed to be as unremarkable as possible. It’s a big glassy rectangle that fades into the background. Whatever drama it has is limited to its corporate boardrooms and the exclusive penthouse office of Li Ka-shing.

That was a deliberate decision – but more on that later. First, it’s worth considering the more enticing landmark that once stood in the Cheung Kong Center’s place: the Hongkong Hilton. When it opened in 1963, it was less a hotel than a centre of gravity. Along with 849 rooms, it had restaurants, bars and clubs that were a magnet for Hong Kong’s night owls. Its suites played host to foreign dignitaries, celebrities and, for a time, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. It even played a pivotal role in the history of hospitality by becoming the world’s first hotel to introduce minibars in every room. As one commenter on the Hong Kong history website Gwulo enthused: “This was an exciting building from day one.”

It was hard to miss. Built on the former parade ground of Murray House, one of the oldest buildings in Hong Kong, the Hilton was designed by venerable Hong Kong firm Palmer and Turner. Its lead architect was James Kinoshita, a young Japanese-Canadian architect who had recently arrived in Hong Kong, and who would go on to design Jardine House, the PolyU campus and many other local buildings. The hotel’s multitude of rooms were housed inside a 19-storey tower perched atop a seven-storey podium that curved alongside Queen’s Road. It was very much a product of its era, with breeze blocks along the façade of the podium, which was capped by an undulating roof structure that resembled the sides of a fluted cake pan. The breeze blocks made another appearance at the top of the tower, on which the words Hongkong Hilton were prominently mounted. The tower itself was a classic International-style affair, sober but not particularly remarkable. 

But its heft led it to dominate the skyline from any angle. In her article “Temporary domesticities: The Southeast Asian hotel as (re)presentation of modernity, 1968–1973,” Eunice Seng, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong, links the Hilton to a new cohort of prominent hotels around Asia that marked the emergence of newly industrialised economies. More than just a place to stay, these hotels were ambassadors of the places where they were built. When the Hongkong Hilton opened in 1963, Conrad Hilton—founder of the hotel chain and, yes, great-grandfather of Paris—declared that “guests would return to their home countries and report on the city’s development and their own personal experience of the Orient,” Seng writes. 

To that end, the Hilton’s interior décor was unlike any other in the chain. Whereas the Hilton’s North American and European hotels were relatively interchangeable, its Asian outposts were made to feel as exotic as possible. Interior designer Dale Keller likened the approach to theatre, creating “a style that creates a mood to give the individual an experience he had never had before – and at the same time a good time,” he said. True to its role as an emerging global hub, the Hongkong Hilton’s interiors took inspiration from across Asia, rather than just Hong Kong. Paintings by Hong Kong-based artists like Douglas Bland were exhibited in the lobby alongside batik art from Southeast Asia, while a Philippines Arts and Craft Centre showcased works from that country. Six function rooms were decorated in the theme of various Asia-Pacific countries.  

The influence worked in two directions. Along with exposing visitors to Asian cultures, Hilton hotels were conceived as a bulwark for American influence abroad – “weapons on the frontlines of the Cold War” that “helped naturalise American capitalist practises in foreign cultures,” as art historian Annabel Wharton described them. Seng notes that this approach was willingly embraced by places like Hong Kong. That was made abundantly clear during the 1967 riots, when the Bank of China Building, located directly across Queen’s Road from the Hilton, was transformed into a giant propaganda billboard for the Cultural Revolution. To counter the non-stop revolutionary songs being blared from the bank, loudspeakers were mounted on the Hilton, blasting music from Mozart and other classical composers.

As the riots raged outside, reporters at the Foreign Correspondents Club—which was housed in rooms at the Hilton from 1963 to 1969—wrote stories and telexed them to faraway newsrooms, all while enjoying meals from the Hilton’s various kitchens. The hotel’s food and beverage options were renowned. There was the 24-hour Cat Street coffee shop, the top-floor Eagle’s Nest supper club, a Turkish restaurant called the Den, the Dragon Boat bar and the Grill Room bar. 

The latter was a hangout for many Hong Kong newsmen, and it banned women until China Mail reporters Vicky Wong and Linda Siddall staged a highly publicised raid in 1973. “I was trying to reason with the GM and convince him that discriminating against half the population was not a good look for the Hilton when Vicky got bored, walked up to the security hunk and kneed him in the groin,” Siddall told journalist Maria Spackman some years later. “Then, as he doubled over, she calmly walked in and sat down at the table we’d pre-booked under a male name. The rest of us quickly followed, with the GM stuttering in protest.”

Zolima CityMag contributor and nightlife history enthusiast Aidyn Fitzpatrick remembers the vibe at the Hilton as being distinctly British, despite the hotel being an American brand. “They used to do epic roast beef lunches at the Dragon Boat bar and the place would be rammed with HSBC types and very senior coppers,” they say. “Not really my scene, but the bread and butter pudding was even better than the Hong Kong Club’s.”

The stage at the Eagle’s Nest was helmed by beloved Filipino pianist Bading Tuason, who worked at the hotel through its entire 32-year existence. Fitzpatrick remembers it also hosted the Hilton Playhouse, “fairly low-brow dinner theatre that ran for years, targeting expats of late middle age. In my drug-crazed, would-be Gonzo journalist phase, I savagely satirised the Hilton Playhouse in an article I wrote for the Eastern Express, and it provoked a furious letter to the editor from the late producer, Derek Nimmo, god rest his soul. He didn’t deserve it.”

Fitzpatrick was more likely to spend time in the upstart bars of Lan Kwai Fong, or at underground raves inside an abandoned rice warehouse in Sheung Wan, but the fact that they still have vivid memories of it speaks to just how big of a presence it had in Hong Kong’s cultural life. When Zolima CityMag asked members of the Hong Kong in the 1960s Facebook group to share their memories of the hotel, it sparked a long chain of lively responses. One person remembered how white-gloved bathroom attendants would hold up a man’s tie as he washed his hands, so it didn’t get wet in the sink. Others remembered milkshakes, hot dogs and pink lemonade at Cat Street; Oktoberfest at the Eagle’s Nest; weddings in the ballroom; handmade burgers next to the pool; suits made at tailor shops in the commercial arcade. One man even recalled getting his appendix removed in the hotel clinic. 

Katherine Wong, who now runs Katherine Kwei Handbags in New York, remembers living in the hotel for several months when her family first moved to Hong Kong in 1980. She and her brother, seven and eight years old, played in the pool and built massive jigsaw puzzles on an extra-large table the hotel staff brought to their room. “The staff at the Hilton were always so kind and professional to us,” she says. “My parents were always off working, so they were our unofficial guardians. I believe that they instilled and showed [us] good manners, discipline, restraint and kindness. We ran around the hotel like it was our home, and in a way it was for those precious months.”

A decade after Wong’s memorable stay at the hotel, it was renovated at great expense – only to be demolished a few years later. What happened? It all has to do with Li Ka-shing. The Hilton was built and owned by Hutchison Whampoa, a British trading house that was founded in 1863. Cheung Kong bought the company in 1979, marking a shift in Hong Kong’s economic landscape from old colonial money to a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs. In the early 1990s, Li wanted a prominent location for his new headquarters, and few sites in Hong Kong were as prominent as the Hilton. Hutchison Whampoa bought out the remainder of the Hilton’s lease and knocked the building down in 1995. 

Years later, when architect James Kinoshita was asked how he felt about his first building being demolished, he was taciturn in his reply. “If change has to be done, it has to be done,” he said. His son, Andrew, was more sentimental. “My wife and I spent a night in the hotel after we got married in 1994,” he said. “It was our last chance to be able to see one of my father’s [earliest] works.”

In the Hilton’s place now stands the Cheung Kong Center. Designed by Cesar Pelli—the same architect as the nearby IFC—its sober appearance reflects Li’s reported desire not to stand out. Though the building cuts an elegant figure on the skyline, with curtain glass that reflects the surroundings and a framed tube structure that adds visual interest, it is not a particularly memorable tower. That seems to suit its owner just fine. Li is famously a great believer in feng shui, and the Cheung Kong Center’s simple form—a monolith with bevelled edges—is meant to mitigate the supposedly negative feng shui of the angular Bank of China Tower, built next door on the site of Murray House. 

In many ways, the Cheung Kong Center’s quietly imposing nature is a good symbol of Li’s pervasive influence, which stretches to nearly every corner of Hong Kong life, not to mention his heavy investments in other countries like Canada. “If I sell this building, you should start to worry,” he said in 2013, when there were rumours that Li was divesting from Hong Kong and China. It’s hard to say if and when that will happen, and for how long the tower would remain standing afterwards. But if it eventually suffers the same fate as the Hilton, it’s unlikely to inspire as many vivid memories. 

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