Originally published in Condé Nast Traveler, 2019
THE PROBLEM WITH A VIEW LIKE THIS is you risk losing a whole morning to it.
Up at dawn with jet lag, I’ve spent an hour watching clouds and breaking sunlight shift over Victoria Peak, while the lights go down on Hong Kong’s impossible skyline. Black-plumed kites and commuter helicopters circle below my 29th-floor window. I should probably go outside, I think. But why? Even by this city’s lofty standards—where the best hotels keep guests cossetted in the clouds—the Rosewood Hong Kong may have the top vantage in town.
Then there’s my suite, equally hard to stop gawking at. Tony Chi, who created the hotel’s interiors, describes his style as “invisible design,” insisting details should “disappear from view,” but it’s impossible not to notice all the gorgeousness at play. The lacquer so glossy you could do your makeup in it. The Giorgetti armchair you’ll want to ship home. The Arabescotto marble bath, with its hand-hammered copper sinks and two-headed shower the size of a carport. Other details reveal themselves slowly: It took me two days to notice that my umbrella stand was wrapped in Loro Piana cashmere.
Such touches are consummate Rosewood—over-the-top lavishness balanced with tasteful restraint; classical luxury brought smartly up-to-date. Like Sonia Cheng herself, its 39-year-old CEO, Rosewood blends old-world refinement with millennial savvy. Since taking the reins in 2011, the Harvard-educated Hong Kong native has exponentially raised the brand’s profile and added properties at an impressive clip, including seven hotels in Asia alone. She’s given Rosewood new cachet among wealthy young tastemakers, especially in the Far East—i.e., Cheng’s peer group—who see it as a more stylish, soulful rendition of the five-stars their parents favored: a corporate hotel for people who don’t like corporate hotels (even if they run corporations themselves). A hotel so committed to a relaxed, residential vibe that they’ve eliminated desks from the guest rooms. Where the chief concierge is no stodgy Grand Budapest type but a gregarious young hipster (albeit still in a silk cravat) who will send guests to his CEO’s favorite local canteen to try her beloved frog’s leg claypot rice. Where the staff all refer to their boss as “Sonia,” and never “Ms. Cheng.””
When she decided to build Rosewood’s flagship hotel in her hometown, Cheng chose an unlikely location: not the luxe bastions of Central or Admiralty, on Hong Kong Island, but across the water, in less-fashionable Kowloon. (Kowloon today is roughly what Brooklyn was 20 years ago: the archetypal Place Across the Water, with vast potential, but a mostly blank slate for now.) In a poignant twist, the Rosewood rises from the former site of New World Centre, the 1970s-era harbourfront megacomplex developed by Sonia’s grandfather, Cheng Yu-Tung. The elder Cheng was one of China’s great rags-to-riches stories: born in rural Guangdong, landing in Hong Kong in 1946, he built the Chow Tai Fook jewelry business into a global empire.
With New World Centre, Cheng proved a skilled placemaker, transforming a workaday wharf in Tsim Sha Tsui into a trendy gathering spot, with high-end retail and luxury hotels like the Regent (now the InterContinental). The 80s and 90s were boom times for New World, and Kowloon’s waterfront was, for a spell, the place to be. But by the mid-2000s, when Sonia joined the family business, Kowloon had lost its lustre. “People jokingly called this ‘the dark side,’” she recalls. “I had friends in Hong Kong who almost never crossed the harbour.”
The Cheng family had a plan to change that. The Rosewood is part of their $2.6 billion redevelopment of the erstwhile New World site, now rebranded “Victoria Dockside” (a subtle pun on “dark side”?). Next door to the hotel, Sonia’s brother Adrien, a prominent art collector, is building K11 Musea, a massive art exhibition and retail space (don’t call it mall) opening this autumn. Meanwhile, major new venues are shifting the city’s cultural focus to Kowloon, like the long-awaited M+ Museum (launching next year) and the splendid Xiqu opera house, which opened in December 2018, a kilometer from the Rosewood. The Chengs’ timing proved canny. Sonia sees Victoria Dockside as “a mirror image of what our grandfather did here a generation ago”—and a chance to make Kowloon a destination again.
The Rosewood’s 65-story Kohn Pedersen Fox tower certainly dwarfs the nearby InterContinental and Peninsula. After the house Range Rover whisks you up the circular drive, you alight to a stunning view—tugboats and Chinese junks zigzagging across Victoria Harbour—and, on the lawn, a captivating bronze work by Henry Moore. With fluted limestone walls, oak marquetry, and coconut-wood columns, the lobby exudes a residential air. There are hints of the East—Taoist figure-8 bagua symbols are a recurring motif—but little on-the-nose Chinoiserie. Instead, contemporary art abounds: one entire room is given over to Bharti Kher’s life-size sculpture of an elephant in repose, while Damien Hirst’s butterflies are the centrepiece of the tea salon. Illustrator William Low painted Hong Kong cityscapes to hang in all 413 guest rooms.
Eighty percent of those rooms have harbour views. (Careful not to waste your day ogling.) And though Rosewood may espouse a more youthful, “unbuttoned” luxury, there’s no skimping on extravagances, be it the Dyson hairdryer in your vanity or the decanter of Japanese whisky on your bar cart. One wonders: does any hotel really need the bath products (by Maison Caulières) to rotate seasonally? Does anyone notice that the staff’s bespoke uniforms change from day to evening—including the shoes? Do guests even register the “HK” logo on the hand-chipped ice cubes? Not everyone does, but Rosewood is focused on the one percent who do.
The secret weapon—and my favorite thing at Rosewood Hong Kong—is the Manor Club, a sun-flooded aerie that other hotels would call an executive lounge, but that looks and operates like some elegant, ultra-private club. The multi-chambered space takes up half the 40th floor, including a spectacular terrace overlooking the harbour. (Outdoor space is rare in Hong Kong, let alone at this level.) The Manor Club is open to suite guests and others paying a premium, who’d be foolish not to take breakfast here, with made-to-order omelettes, wonton soup, and cappuccinos from an actual La Marzocco, not a push-button machine. The kitchen turns out complimentary treats all day and night—pork buns, Viennoiserie, fresh watermelon juice—while the bar serves proper drinks in proper glassware mixed by proper bartenders. Come after dinner for a game of pool, and ask the dapper Karlton to fix you a mezcal Negroni. (Did I mention everything here is free?) Or simply park yourself out on the terrace and drink in that priceless view. •