"To Hurt Nobody and Benefit Many": The King Edward Hotel
Updated: May 14, 2021
Today it is hard to imagine Hong Kong lacking in luxurious first-class hotels. But such was the case at the turn of the nineteenth century. Described as a “long-suffering place,” Hong Kong had “suffered for a long time from the want of proper hotel accommodation.” The first luxury hotel, Hongkong Hotel, opened on Queen’s Road and Pedder Street in 1868. Originally stood on the site of the present Central Building, the hotel expanded into the Victoria Harbour in 1893. The extension consisted of a six-story north wing and had entrances on Pedder Street, Queen's Road, and Praya Central (Des Voeux Road).
The King Edward Hotel opened on October 6th, 1902. Situated in the Chung Tin Building/The Royal Building on Des Voeux Road, the building neighbored the Alexandra Building and overlooked Icehouse Street. The building was ranked as one of the most imposing buildings in the heart of the Colony. Described during its initiatory banquet, the hotel was described - rather ironically in hindsight - as one that would “hurt nobody and benefit many.” The 200 guests present at its house warming all spoke in terms of greatest praise regarding “the excellence of the arrangements…[from] the basement to roof, kitchen to drawing-room, and from billiards to sleeping apartments, it was the same - suitably and tastefully furnished throughout, an expense not having been spared in a single instance.”
The seven-story building, designed by an architectural firm Leigh and Orange, consisted of nearly 200 bedrooms, a billiards room, a drawing-room, and a giant royal dining room that housed giant portraits of King Edward and Queen Alexandra. Like the Queen's Building and Prince's Building, also designed by Leigh and Orange, the King Edward hotel was a fine example of Neoclassical architecture in Hong Kong. The chiffoniers and side-boards were made of massive design in teakwood. Electric fans hung in every room, and electricity ran through the whole building, a statement of its modernity.
Beneath the pantry laid the grill-room and pastry-room. The kitchen was entirely separate from the Hotel, connected by a covered hallway with a grill room and fitted with the latest cooking paraphernalia. The range was capable of cooking for 600 people. The ground floor was floored, fitted, and paneled in wax-polished teak, and each room fitted with one or more fire-places with carved teak mantels and tiled stoves. Regarding the billiard room and the lounge bar on the opposite side of the hall, corresponding to it in size and situation, one newspaper described it as styled more like a first-class club than a hotel. The bar was handsomely furnished with lounges, leather-seated armchairs, and small tables scattered about. Off the entrance hall was a ladies’ waiting room with writing materials and speaking tubes to each floor of the Hotel.
The first electric street lamps were erected in 1890 on Queens Road, Central and Upper Albert Road using two steam-driven generators. The first private houses slowly began using electricity in the 1890s. In 1898 a substation was built to service lifts in new tall buildings. By 1905 Hong Kong Electric Company was supplying power for 15 lifts, one of which was for the Prince Edward Hotel. The hotel was most likely one of the first buildings in Hong Kong to use electricity in large capacities throughout the building, making it a place of modern fascination for many people.
On the first, second, and third floors, the hotel contained upwards of 40 bedrooms, all extremely spacious - mirroring the size of a suite now - each 27 feet by 18 feet, the majority opening on to wide verandahs next to Ice House Street and Des Voeux Road, with polished marble floors. The rooms contained polished teak floors, parallel ceilings, and carved teak mantels. The rooms were approached by a carved teak staircase, 8 feet wide, and an electric lift.
The hotel was established by Dorabjee Nowrojee (Bombay-born), a notable individual in the hotel business. He gained an excellent reputation in the colony after a number of successful business ventures in Australia. Nowrojee was widely praised for his opening of the King Edward Hotel, particularly due to Hong Kong’s reputation as “underhoteled.” One newspaper article indicated that people frequently had to leave for Macau or Canton every time a crowded Empress arrived due to the inadequate accommodation services present in Hong Kong during the spring and autumn tourist seasons.
Fire at The King Edward
On March 11, 1929, at around 3 a.m., a monumental fire swept through the hotel. It was one with such tenacity that it remained burning until 9 a.m. The initial flames that sparked in the building seemed to engulf the entire building in only a matter of minutes, causing massive alarm. One man who returned to the hotel just after two o’clock remarked on his confusion concerning how quickly the fire spread. “Just a few moments after I saw the flames in the basement, I saw flames on the top floor!” He, fortunately, made a slippery escape via the verandah, where he saw firefighters in the street below holding out a sheet. A witness from a neighboring building gathered his family and went outside to assist with the jumping sheet. Ten or twelve people held out the sheet, and several people jumped to escape the flames.
One officer who was a guest at the hotel made a sensational escape in his room by swarming down knotted bedsheets. The next day all the was left of his room was a small dressing table, half of which had practically burnt away. Two glasses filled with very “flat” beer stood on it. The following morning the great steal beams were left “twisted and torn by the heat.” One officer asked, “what chance would a man have if he was cut off? The heat was so intense that a body would be completely incinerated.”
There was major speculation concerning both how the fire started and the rapidity with which the fire spread. Many articles speculated some form of foul play. The fire appears to have started at the bottom of the staircase in the hotel's main hall, where a mixed collection of luggage was lying. There was no way of knowing how the luggage became ignited, nor was there any evidence to suggest arson was at play.
Fires were not uncommon for hotels in Hong Kong during this period. The north wing of the HongKong Hotel burnt down on New Years Day in 1926, and the Peak Hotel was burnt beyond repair in 1936. There are many reasons for this, none but least were the lack of regulations surrounding fire prevention. After all, guests were allowed to smoke wherever and whenever they wanted. In fact, a settee in a room on the 4th floor occupied by Mr. Henderson, a traveler of Messars, Yardley’s, was - although contained - set on fire by a cigarette on a previous occasion. There were a number of close calls, one newspaper reported over the past years, concerning the start of a fire. One or two wires fused at the bottom of the staircase about 18 months previous. The fire appliances were not used on that occasion as sparks occurred, and the wore was cut immediately.
With regard to the rapidity with which the fire spread, it was later revealed that it was likely caused by the cleaning products used to clean the floors. The floors were cleaned with, perhaps quite astoundingly to our modern ears, a mixture of Kerosene, Turpentine, and Wax (so more or less petrol).
Unfortunately, 11 people were unable to escape the flames and died. The fire was a revelation in Hong Kong. It spearheaded a drive from the government to improve standards in hotels. Although the jury was not satisfied that the fire originated due to defective wiring, they considered it vital that the government should investigate that the electrical installations in old buildings used as hotels, large office blocks, etc., are maintained efficiently and safely state.