60 fantastic years: The iconic Mandarin Oriental, one of the world’s great hotels, celebrates a significant milestone

By Neil Dolby
Nov 24, 2023

Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental celebrated its 60th anniversary last month and the luxury hotel remains one of the world’s finest. Since opening in 1963, then known simply as The Mandarin, this graceful building has played host to thousands of guests and remains close in the affections of locals who patronise its fine bars and restaurants daily – many of whom have a particular fondness for afternoon tea in the iconic Clipper Lounge.

Greg Liddell, General Manager of the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, hails the property for having a unique place in the hearts of Hong Kong people and many loyal visitors from overseas. “It was launched as the first luxury hotel on Hong Kong Island in 1963,” he says. “It is where local families have enjoyed special celebrations and where business travellers have held significant meetings and negotiated their deals.”

He believes the hotel is the epitome of contemporary luxury combined with Oriental heritage and remains “a much-loved address for those seeking an exclusive sanctuary in the heart of the city”. He adds: “It is the quintessential ‘home away from home’ for discerning leisure and business travellers alike.”

Initial doubts

With the benefit of hindsight, it is amazing to think that, way back in July 1960 when the idea of building a ‘first-class hotel’ in place of the soon-to-be- demolished Queen’s Building was first proposed at a board meeting of the Hong Kong Land Investment and Agency Co. Ltd, there were many who thought the idea was crazy. A passionate advocate was Hugh Barton, then Chairman of the board, who showed infectious enthusiasm for the idea. According to a book written by Nigel Cameron to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the hotel, titled simply The Mandarin, the project was referred to as ‘Barton’s folly’ in certain circles.

Of course, it is now clear the timing of the project could not have been better. Hong Kong’s economy accelerated over the ensuing 20 years and visitor numbers to the territory skyrocketed, from 315,000 in 1963 to 2.8 million in 1983, as Hong Kong transformed itself into one of the most important commercial centres in the world.

Great reputation

Demand for the luxurious services and accommodation The Mandarin had to offer exploded, helped by the fact that it was quickly establishing a fine reputation. Indeed, just four years after opening, in 1967, Fortune magazine cited The Mandarin as among the 11 great hotels of the world.

Revealingly, this is part of Fortune’s definition of a great hotel: “[It] must be ready for everything, it is not enough that most rooms are faultless; all of them must be, in service as well as in décor and furnishings. It is not enough that the food and wine are impeccable; they must also be served impeccably, even when the restaurant is unexpectedly crowded.”

Every detail was carefully considered during the design stage of The Mandarin. For instance, the hotel lobby was designed to give arriving guests the feeling of luxurious use of space. Many visitors regularly comment on its sense of old-world charm and superb service standards. Its rooms and suites offer interrupted views overlooking the magnificent harbour.

“The hotel is a culinary destination of nine outstanding restaurants and bars with an award-winning spa and wellness facilities; it is truly an urban oasis in the heart of Hong Kong,” says Liddell.

High service standards

The Mandarin spawned the Mandarin Oriental chain of luxury hotels that now spans the world. Liddel says high service standards are fundamental, with every client whim actioned: “What differentiates the hotel is our colleagues and their passion to deliver exemplary service to each and every one of our guests. It is our mission to delight and inspire our guests at every opportunity; every need is anticipated as we aspire to exceed our guest expectations.”

There have been numerous upgrades and improvements to the hotel over the past 60 years. It has been ahead of the curve in some areas, such as incorporating an elegant swimming pool. Indeed, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group has been awarded the World’s Best Hotel Spa Brand for the past two years.

Constant improvements

The hotel never rests on its laurels, according to Liddell: “We strive for constant improvement and innovation, as it is inevitably essential for hotels to stay competitive and relevant in the market.”

He revealed that in 2021 the hotel undertook extensive renovations for Man Wah, the much-loved Chinese restaurant that has been delighting diners since 1968. They also opened The Aubrey, offering an eccentric izakaya experience, which is now ranked at number 17 in the list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars.

“On the hotel’s 23rd floor overlooking Statue Square garden and the surrounding Hong Kong harbour and cityscape, we have also introduced a brand-new club lounge, The Mandarin Club, to provide a luxurious all-day retreat where our guests will enjoy a host of exclusive privileges and bespoke services including an array of culinary delights from breakfast, afternoon tea to evening cocktails,” he adds.

Ongoing celebrations

The hotel has been hosting special events and initiatives to commemorate its anniversary. ‘The Mandarin at 60 Exhibit’ is a permanent historical archive in the East Lobby for public viewing. They welcomed four two-star Michelin chefs from their sister properties as well as a number of bartenders from Asia’s 50 Best Bars, who performed guest shifts at The Aubrey. The Mandarin Spa took the opportunity to launch new brand partnerships and bespoke treatments, and a limited-edition chinaware collection was crafted and is available for purchase.

“We have also launched The Mandarin spirit in collaboration with Two Moons Distillery, a local zero- waste distillery equipped with its own composting machine, a testament to the hotel’s dedication to sustainability,” says Liddell.

The Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong has partnered with numerous local charities in a bid to give back to the community, and staff have delivered thousands of hours of community services. The 60th anniversary gala celebration, which took place on 26th October, was attended by longstanding guests over the generations.

On a roll

Liddell revealed photographs of guests arriving at the glittering party were interpreted live by an AI artist. These real-time portraits, produced in conjunction with Sir Peter Blake and the Studio of Art & Commerce, were painted in a style inspired by traditional Chinese ink calligraphy and compiled into a celebratory collage. The ‘AI on Canvas’ project will be featured on the side of local trams for all to enjoy.

“It is the perfect expression of the innovation, personal service and handcrafted details that have epitomised the hotel since its launch in 1963,” says today’s proud GM.

The roll-call of distinguished guests the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong has welcomed – from royalty to notable statesmen to preeminent businesspeople to famous film stars – grows longer. Liddell believes part of its success lies in its “unparalleled location in the beating heart of Central”.

The hotel has undoubtedly amassed a rich history and reputation as the central hub of activity in Hong Kong. “If only walls could talk,” he muses.