When the Repulse Bay Hotel opened on New Year's Day, 1920, it was welcomed wholeheartedly by those in the Colony. Hong Kong was typically known - contrary to today - for its lack of suitable hotels for tourists (see the intro to King Edward Hotel).
Known by many as the "Riviera of the Orient," namely for its beguiling seaside surroundings and enthralling artistic design - deliberately colonial in every detail - the hotel swiftly became a playground for Hong Kong's elite as well as for the jet-setting rich. "Situated on the hill directly above the extensive sandy beach at the head of Repulse Bay, [the hotel is] constructed in a bungalow fashion...[and] stands out consciously in its whiteness amid hillocks rich in wood and venture," stated one paper. Designed by the architectural firm Denison, Ram, and Gibbs, the hotel replicated the colonial enthused structures earlier built by the firm, including the Matilda Hospital in 1906 and the Helena May in 1914. All three buildings were equipped with large colonnades and verandahs, specifically designed to protect from heat and rain and circulate fresh air.
During the opening night, the governor, Sir Reginald Stubbs, spoke about the historic nature of the hotel's establishment. "I have come down to open this hotel because I think it represents an important event in the life of the Colony." He continued, "It has frequently been observed to me by a good many people who pass through Hong Kong that one drawback to the pale is that there is nowhere for the tourist to go when he goes out from his hotel." At the time, Hong Kong hailed a relatively tainted reputation for its lack of quality hotels, especially in relation to the cities it likened to, such as Shanghai and Singapore. The first luxury hotel, Hongkong Hotel, was established on the corner of Queen's Road and Pedder Street in 1868. Others soon followed, opening primarily in the City of Victoria. However, despite Hong Kong's rich countryside and mountainous landscape, there were few escapes from the city's urban bounds, especially for tourists.
The Repulse Bay Hotel was inspired by a gentleman who would soon become essential in monopolizing the hotel industry in Hong Kong: James Harper Taggart. Born in Australia in 1885, Taggart arrived in Hong Kong in 1907 and soon became the Hongkong Hotel's manager. A short, well-dressed man known for his visionary ideas and forward-thinking schemes, Taggart was known to portray a natural competence that typically resulted in him getting whatever he wanted. Perhaps more at home with the nature of Shallow Water Bay (now Repulse Bay) than the busting environment in the heart of the city due to his upbringing in Scotland, Taggart became convinced that Repulse Bay was ideal for a resort-style hotel similar to what one might find in the South of France or Italy. On the hotel's opening night, a spokesman, referring to Taggart's vision, stated, "The edifice which now stands before you bears striking tribute to his foresight, labor, and consoles attention. It reminds me of Sir Christopher Wren's epitaph: "Si monumentum requiris circumspice" (if you seek (his) monument, look around)."
"Additional to its magnificent point of vantage, it affords a delightful auto-drive, and its venue of walks permits of excellent rambles, whilst a restful and spacial balcony allows a means for relaxation. Unquestionably, the Repulse Bay Hotel is the very acme of blissfulness and lends itself to the occasion of sublimity in choice of pleasurable sport in a sphere of quietude." The China Mail, 1932-10-21.
The hotel was a beacon of modernism at the time, with impressive features that regularly turned the heads of members in the highest echelons of society. One example was a cold storage room established near the entrance that housed natural furs (extremely popular among the fashionable in the form of coats, scarves, and hats) to protect them from ruin when not in use.
Desperate to introduce much-loved characteristics of the British Empire in the Oriental scene, tea dances became an established tradition at the Repulse Bay Hotel. Taggart, in particular, had a passion for dancing and soon became a formidable character in establishing Shanghai's and Hong Kong's tradition of tea dances. Made fashionable by the Duchess of Bedford in Britain in the 1830s, afternoon tea provided wealthy women with the perfect opportunity to socialize without their male companions and display each other's finest china. Riding on the success of the afternoon tea dances at the Peninsula Hotel, the Repulse Bay Hotel ventured to make sure its ballroom was packed full of Hong Kong's well-heeled high society.
"Never was there a merrier crowd of dancers than those present at night at the first ball given at the new hotel. The gathering seemed even larger than the one present at the opening. The hotel and grounds were prettily decorated and illuminated for the occasion, Japanese lanterns being used in the garden with artistic effect. Several of the dancers dined at the hotel, and all partook of supper. Music was supplied by the hotel orchestra and included amongst the waters and a composition of Mrs. Target, appropriately entitled "Repulse bay." Hong Kong Daily Press, 1920. (Photo Credit: MMIS, 1930)
Several famous guests frequented the hotel over the span of its existence.
Not only was the hotel used as a getaway for famous tourists traveling in the Colony, but it was also a sanctuary for creative minds who needed a peaceful location to spark creative ideas. It was said to have such a relaxing and distracting atmosphere that when Albert Einstein stayed there in 1922, he was so mesmerized by the view that he missed a telegram announcing that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Ian Fleming wrote of the hotel in his 1961 travel book, Thrilling Cities: "This is set in lovely gardens, and the local beauties, wives, and concubines offer a dazzling display at the Sunday afternoon tea dances. The food is better than at the Peninsula or the Miramar."
During English writer Willaim Somerset Maugham's stay at the hotel, inspired by the striking setting and the salacious drama that unfolded in the lives of the often free-minded upper Hong Kong society, he wrote The Painted Veil. Away from the more formal propriety-driven culture of the British Isles, the Hong Kong expat community was often drowning in a fair amount of gossip. The Painted Veil tells a scandalous story that follows an affair between Kitty, a well-to-do English lady married to a bacteriologist posted in Hong Kong, and the assistant colonial secretary Charles Townsend. The inspiration for the story was ‘ a notorious scandal revealed to him’ (Maugham) while in Hong Kong. The writer was well known for replicating characters and stories from real life in his writing. Maugham had a “willingness to explore moral regions then regarded as taboo," coupled with a fascination with the life of British colonialists in the East. After publication, Maugham was subsequently subject to two libel suits. One was by the Assistant Secretary in Hong Kong, who voiced his displeasure at the novel's setting, finding it “unbecoming that such intrigue and adultery should happen on their soil.”
Perhaps the most 'reported on' guest of the hotel's era was Ernest Hemmingway and his wife, the renowned war journalist Martha Gelhorn. As World War II progressed and expanded to Asian territories, with European regions taking up most news coverage, Gelhorn was determined to report from the Chinese front lines. As they embarked on their trip to Asia - colliding with their honeymoon - they stopped in Hong Kong briefly. Initially staying at the Hongkong hotel, where Hemmingway was said to have caused a considerable ruckus in the hotel bar and later set off firecrackers in a hotel room, Gelhorn insisted they move to a more peaceful location.
It is no wonder that the hotel became so widely regarded by the wealthy classes, especially those living in other British colonies. As travel writer Jan Morris wrote: "It's famous teas, its wicker chairs, its string orchestras, its veranda above the heat - all these were the very epitome of British colonial life."
For all the hotel's colonial glamour, it could not wholly save its guests from one of Hong Kong's dangers: the heat! Of course, guests were free to wear whatever attire they wished during the day, but to dine at the hotel, formal attire was a necessity. For those who enjoyed a more relaxed and informal destination, the establishment of the Lido in 1935 was a highly appreciated spectacle. With a lively bar and restaurant, hosting day, and open-air dancing, many ventured to enjoy the gracious surroundings of the bay. Its lively nature continued to expand, and in later years, a swinging nightclub became a notoriously valued spot.
A snippet from the memoirs of Col. Cyril Munro Faure during his stationing in Hong Kong during the war perfectly sums up the Liddo's popularity:
"In the evening, we drove round to the next
Bay and bathed from the Lido, a steel and concrete building of pleasing design housing a restaurant and bathing booths. The hot weather had set in, but here a cool breeze blew down a gully on the hillside into the windows. I had always liked the place because of its informality. You could eat your dinner and dance and talk in shorts, and so keep cool, as compared with the stricter etiquette of the Gloucester and Hongkong Hotels, or the Repulse Bay Hotel, or even the Peninsular Hotel across the harbour, where several nights a week you were required to don "black ties". The charming English custom of dressing for dinner is ill-adapted to the perspiring tropics."