In Canton, I stayed at the Guangdong Victory Hotel, which, at first glance, doesn’t look in the least like it has any history at all – so thoroughly have the Chinese plastered over what used to stand here with the veneer of so-called modernity.
But this is, or rather, was, undeniably, the Grand Hotel of Canton – the only hotel in the British and French concessions of Shameen Island. If you peer close enough, you can still see this history in the grand arches of the Hotel’s Main Building (also known as the East Building), which echo those of the original building and could have possibly been retained from that venerable establishment.
The Victoria Hotel, Canton, was established in 1895, and was in operation all the way till 1946, the end of World War II and era of Foreign Concessions in China. The hotel building itself was erected in 1888 and formerly known as the Canton Hotel.
Historical information about the hotel is, unfortunately, sparse. And the few archival pictures that may be found depict the hotel as a two storey building in a Palladian architectural style, fronting the canal dividing Shameen Island from the mainland. A row of arches lined the front of the hotel building, on both the ground and the first floors. And visitors typically arrived by sampan across the narrow canal, to dock at the small jetty near the hotel’s front door.
When the Chinese took over the hotel in the ’50s, they conveniently renamed it the (Guangdong) Victory Hotel – the hotel’s Chinese name 威多厘酒店 worked fine as a transliteration both for “Victoria” and “Victory.” The Victory Hotel languished for a good half a century until the 2000s, when, in the course of the decade, the hotel management overhauled much that remained.
In a stroke of brilliance, the management also acquired the nearby former HSBC Headquarters in Shameen Island (built in 1905) and refurbishing the offices into guestrooms, transformed it into the “West Building” of the Victory Hotel. Clearly, someone in the management had understood the potential of history and heritage for tourism and hospitality development.
Ironically it is the West Building today that is considered the “historic” wing of the hotel, as it maintains many features of the original colonial-era HSBC building, including lovely balconies fronting each of the guestrooms. And so it was in the West Building that I was accommodated, to make the most of the historic ambience, where the same has been irretrievably lost in the original “East Building”.
There on my balcony that weekend, I would linger for hours on end, cracking open cans of ice-cold local beer – there was no palatable red wine to speak of on the island – to counter the sweltering summer heat. Down below, I would hear the voices of the dozens of Chinese residents going about their business amongst buildings that have not changed a bit in the last 100 years.
It was a delicious feeling of having been cast back in time… and the precise genre of feeling that my entire Grand Tour was all about.
NEXT MONTH ON THE GRAND TOUR: Amoy (Xiamen) and the Lujiang Hotel