I was recently offered the chance to go to Hong Kong. Our small group was to have luxury spa treatments and fine cuisine, and fly on Oasis, the new low-fare long-haul airline. I don’t have anything against luxury, but it wasn’t what I was really interested in: I’ve always wanted to go to China, and I thought this was my chance to discover the real Hong Kong.
I had plans. I would drop into the Foreign Correspondents Club and snoop around Red Cabinet antiques in Hollywood Road. I could order hand-made shoes for £100 at LIII LIII in the Admiralty Centre. I might visit Stanley market to buy pearl earrings for £15 and hand-embroidered sheets from Far East Linen for a snip. I would eat noodle soup at the Red Ant Restaurant and visit Chinese Arts & Crafts in Kowloon. I would swim at Deep Water Bay Beach and walk part of the 50km Hong Kong Trail. I might take the ferry to Macau and hop across to the mainland for a day. Arriving a week before the tenth anniversary of the handover, I was keen to see if British fears that the Chinese would ruin Hong Kong had been justified.
The Mandarin Oriental is utterly convivial and comfortable. Venini chandeliers sparkle everywhere you look and recent renovations include a suite Nicky Haslam designed to celebrate the photographer Patrick Lichfield. My suite had an enclosed bedchamber in wood and mandarin red — and soaking in the tub I gazed through the wooden blinds at the entire panorama of Victoria Harbour.
Stepping out of the hotel, the heat enveloped me and my plans and my hair just dissolved. Hundreds of Filipino maids were spending their day off sitting in the street, giving each other pedicures, eating noodles and chatting happily. I wandered past stalls of dried fish, incense, birdcages, clothes, pak choi — everything. Diving into a glossy air-conditioned mall, I found it was connected to the entire Central district by enclosed walkways. The city is an overwhelming forest of shopping malls. I bought a pair of Ray-Bans and a cake of pu’er tea and retreated to the hotel in a daze.
I was instantly seduced by the Mandarin Spa and spent untold hours immersed in its fragrant twilight world. A Chinese massage, facial and circulation-boosting water treatments seemed just the thing after flying. You just never know when deep-veined thrombosis might strike. In between appointments, I got fat eating at the Mandarin’s Pierre (Gagnaire) restaurant and, pampered almost to death, forgot about discovering the real Hong Kong.
From what I did see in my few forays out, the Chinese have been busy demolishing the past since they took back rule in 1997. I could see no sampans ploughing the harbour, no Star Ferry Terminal, few colonial buildings — and London has more rickshaws.
A gastronomic lunch of Uwe Opocensky’s molecular cuisine in the Mandarin’s private Krug room was astonishing, and if anyone boasts to me now about eating at the Fat Duck, I’m confident I can trump ’em. When we were absolutely stuffed with alchemical mixtures of gold leaf and kaolin-coated potatoes, a car transferred us to the Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel, where we were to stay next. The Landmark is a chic haven of secure holistic exclusivity with a spa covering three floors, and in the evenings the MO Bar heaves with beautiful people in Chloé and Louboutin. We arrived just in time for a 12-course dinner by Richard Ekkebus in the Landmark’s Amber restaurant.
By this time I was thoroughly spoiled and it was beginning to affect my manners. Spotting someone’s terrine of foie gras and smoked eel, I heard myself say, ‘How did you get that?’ This is not good etiquette, even in a private dining-room, and especially if you’ve already got a plate of oysters topped with caviar. But then again I am half-French. The hotel manager clicked her fingers and a slice of heaven materialised. If I’d only known how good it was going to be, I might have asked for two. It was no surprise that I missed my yoga class the next morning, though I did arrive in time to be baked in Rasul mud in a mosaic throne room in the spa.
Before leaving, I bought a T-shirt from women campaigning on the street for The Frontier, the only legal pro-democracy party in China. At last, a connection with the real Hong Kong! These people have a history of protest stretching back to the 1960s under the British — when they didn’t have democracy either.