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March 21, 2010

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Hotel dynasty reclaims its rich heritage

AS the red carpet was rolled out from the roadside, past a gleaming 1934 vintage Rolls Royce and up to the entrance of The Peninsula Shanghai, guests inside the spacious lobby were chatting away over late breakfast or early morning tea.

Smartly dressed staff fielded inquiries and directed patrons to the concierge or elevators as the number of camera crews swelled and company managers and minders navigated their way through the morning's schedule in preparation for the big official opening function that night for 4,000 guests.

Upstairs on the ninth floor in The Peninsula Suite, the chairman, Sir Michael Kadoorie, scion of a family whose hotel heritage in Shanghai stretches back to the golden age of the 1920s and even earlier, was talking about reclaiming a legacy that had been dormant in the city since the 1940s.

The hotel at No. 32 The Bund is the first new building on Shanghai's iconic waterfront strip in 60 years and is on a site that was originally part of the grounds of the British Consulate, established in 1849.

It is the ninth hotel in the super elite Peninsula group renown for quality and elan and signifies the return of the Kadoories to a city that is inarguably part of the family's and the company's DNA.

"This is reclaiming funnily enough two legacies," said the gentlemanly charming, urbane and quietly chuffed Sir Michael. "It's very fair to say the family got its start in Shanghai.

"The hotel company is the oldest in Asia and it has stood on two legs, one of them being Shanghai. So it's the return of the company to Shanghai and the return of the family in bricks and mortar as well."

The genesis for Thursday's celebration is rooted in the arrival in 1880 in Shanghai of Sir Michael's grandfather Sir Elly and great uncle Sir Ellis, the former going to work for the trading and hotelier family the Sassoons, to which they were related.

A merger in the 1920s of two entities, The Hongkong Hotel Company and Shanghai Hotels Limited, formed the current Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Limited (HSH) which today manages the cluster of Peninsulas.

The Shanghai company at the time ran the Astor House, Majestic, Palace and Kalee hotels at a time in the city's history when it was known as the "Paris of the East" and "New York of the West" and when many of the grand structures on The Bund were for traders and banks.

The terms "family" and "company" seem to have almost the same meaning for Sir Michael, now in his late 60s, as he reels off anecdotes about his grandfather's "little altercation" with the Sassoons during the bubonic plague in Weihai in Shandong Province, of fluctuating family fortunes in various industries including rubber, and their role in establishing power supplies to Hong Kong and other parts in southern China. One of the wealthiest people in Hong Kong, billionaire Sir Michael's wealth stems from an electricity supply company as well as HSH and other companies.

Yet as he sits in the plush, multi-roomed five-star suite with his son Phillip, it is incongruous to fit the description "tycoon" to this helicopter flying, vintage car buff whose quest for the best in his hotels extends to pushing the Rolls Royce company to make bespoke adjustments to its vehicles to suit his guests needs.

Despite the global reach of the hotel company °?- whose only brand is The Peninsula and is due to open a 10th in Paris in 2012 - his links with Shanghai are also personal.

"I was brought to Shanghai at age six months shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked and interned in a camp with my father Lawrence, mother and sister," he said. "My grandfather Sir Elly was imprisoned in the stables of his home Marble Hall with one person to look after him."

Sir Elly died in 1944 and the rest of the family was liberated by the Americans. The magnificent Marble Hall, one of Shanghai's stateliest homes that is now the city's Children's Palace on Nanjing Road W., became allied headquarters, hosting consuls, military leaders and bomber crews, among others.

"Our fortunes changed after the war," Sir Michael said. "We sold out our hotels on the Chinese mainland, including one in Beijing, and we were left with three properties in Hong Kong, one of which we sold quickly to finance rebuilding the Peninsula."

In the intervening decades after China's opening-up, the company had many opportunities to start again in Shanghai with a Peninsula.

"We had been offered locations all over the place but none of them °?- and location is what makes a hotel - were worthy of a Peninsula and the trouble it takes to build one," he said.

"Three or four sites over the other side were offered and we worked very hard on the Hong Kong bank site as the Pudong bank was asked to move.

"I even thought of the old family home Marble Hall as an entry point and adding a high-rise in the garden. But that wasn't what we wanted, it wasn't the ideal place. These were thoughts over the last 20 years."

Despite any emotional personal, and successful business, links to Shanghai, commercial savvy always prevailed.

"The hotel company is relatively small, limited in its funds and very limited in terms of people resources so you can only do things step by step," he said.

"Something as prominent as returning to Shanghai required all those resources and, most importantly, we needed a partner to provide the land in the right location, and who shared the same values as us."

That person emerged in the form of David Wang, a young Guangzhou entrepreneur with 12 years experience in Shanghai who also had the right connections as well as drive and a shared vision.

The combined result of their efforts is a top-to-toe, head-to-tail, and then some, classic Peninsula that holds its pride of place with the rest of the stately edifices of The Bund beside which you could be forgiven for thinking it's been nestling for 100 years.

And inside, there's no evidence that the Kadoories ever left Shanghai such is the meticulous recreation of the city's halcyon 1920s and 1930s Art Deco style which they gave life to in their hotels of the day and, by extension, helped create the enduring Shanghai style.

"The period we're evoking is clear," Sir Michael said. "It's the Paris of the East which we talk about and which Shanghai is rapidly returning to now.

"For example, three months ago we had the Chanel opening for which Karl Largerfield took all of this hotel and the one next door and paraded 30 models on a huge barge out the front on the river," he said.

"The Coco Chanel period is basically the 1920s to the 1930s and that represents Art Deco in China with Chinese influence.

"We've been able through books and other means - buying antiques and other items - to know what was required. Then we asked the French interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon to study it and reproduce it."

There's a timeless elegance through the hotel, inspired by Shanghai Deco, French Deco, Qing style and Western style with other Neo-Classical influences.

Witness Salon de Ning, a bar and nightclub with deft touches of the imaginative and surreal in its 1930s' aura. The Yi Long Court restaurant has a residential dining room style with views across the gardens of the adjacent British Embassy and The Bund and a waiting area with chandeliers and crystal glass screens. The nautically themed Compass Bar harks back to the grand days of ocean-based trade.

But this is an ultra-modern, 235-room, 44-suite hotel, despite its timeless artifices, with all the mod-cons of technology designed to make guests comfortable, a point Sir Michael is keen to make as he mentions the helipad on the roof from which it takes nine minutes to get to the airport.

"I think the Peninsula is going to show China what the Chinese people deserve," he said. "What they've reached in the last 60 years is extraordinary, what no other society has done in 5,000 years.

"We have brought back a style that Shanghai is going to represent, and is already representing, in the role China will play on the world stage," he said.

"If we can play our very small part in this °?- and all the people in Shanghai can enjoy what the fruits of their labor of the past 60 years have been about - this place will be a landmark."

Asked what Sir Elly, the driver of so much of the family's business, would have thought of its return so gloriously to Shanghai, Sir Michael said: "If my grandfather's looking down here, he must be very pleased."


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