by Roderick Eime
The story begins aboard the 1929 round-the-world flight of the German airship, LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin.
A truly international contingent of media and privileged guests are enjoying the lavish facilities of Germany’s luxury airship as they complete their ground-breaking three week journey around the planet.
Among the media contingent is the recently knighted Australian celebrity explorer and cinematographer, Sir George Hubert Wilkins, who is reporting for the vast Hearst newspaper network.
In the spirit of international co-operation, the guests enjoy polite conversation and genuine camaraderie. German, Soviet, Japanese, American, British, Spanish, Swiss and French guests all gather politely for dinner and relaxation in the lounge during the long voyage.
The two Japanese military observers, Lt. Cdr. Ryunosuke Kusaka and Lt. Cdr. Fujiyoshi warm to the amicable Australian and all become good friends. The group are feted like royalty when the airship arrives in Tokyo.
Fast forward ten years and Wilkins is on a thinly disguised espionage mission and meeting with senior Japanese diplomats in the Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Wilkins had already been in China, Japan and Asia gathering information and it was clear to him that war in the Pacific was inevitable. His Japanese contacts had been very forthcoming with aircraft production data and information in 1929, but now in 1940, they were convivial, but tight-lipped on such matters.
Between times, Wilkins had attempted to take a modified WWI submarine beneath the polar ice cap. The 1931 so-called ‘Nautilus’ mission ended in failure and embarrassment for Wilkins.
In the famous bar in the Raffles Hotel Singapore, Wilkins is enjoying drinks with the Japanese Consul General, who he had met ten years prior in Tokyo, when the conversation becomes ‘fluid’. His drinking pal suddenly drops a most intriguing piece of information.
“I know what you’re doing here. You’re not on any economic survey, you’re working for the US Government,” said the inebriated diplomat, “Now I’ll tell you something you don’t know. Eighteen months from now we will attack the American fleet in Pearl Harbor.”
Wilkins reeled at the disclosure. “Where did you get such an idea and why are you telling me this?”
The well-lubricated consul burst out laughing and challenged Wilkins to go ahead and make his report, winding up the explorer by saying “they’ll never believe a man who was crazy enough to try to take a submarine to the North Pole!”
Given Wilkins’ excellent personal connections, the idea was not as preposterous as it sounded, and he did go ahead and make his report. Sure enough, his warning was ignored or discounted as implausible. Either way, Wilkins warned the US of an impending attack on Pearl Harbor at least 12 months in advance.
Ironically, his Japanese friends would go on to play important parts in the attack. Ryunosuke Kusaka was named the chief of staff of the Japanese Navy Combined Fleet and was critical in the planning of both the Pearl Harbor and Midway attacks, while Vice-Admiral Akira Fujiyoshi rose to Head of Aviation for the Japanese Imperial Navy. Both survived the war.
Numerous theories exist about ignored intelligence and advance warnings that were discounted by the White House for any number of reasons, with most pointing to the US secretly wanting a reason to enter into full-scale war with Japan as was being urged by Churchill. The fact that the all-important US aircraft carriers were absent on the morning of December 7 is most noteworthy. Yet few of these apparently ignored warnings were delivered as early as mid-1940, when Wilkins delivered his. *
* Some sources say Wilkins was in Singapore in 1941
words and pictures by Roderick Eime [more images]
I dare not move. My head rests reassuringly against the leather restraint while, out of the corner of my eye, I can see the blade being sharpened to a samurai keenness. Then, with a deftness reserved for practiced executioners, the lethal instrument is applied to my throat and drawn upward in a slick motion that removes only the offending follicles.
But Aras, my expert swordsman, is no Sweeney Todd. There’s no blood, no serenades to homicide. This is an entirely urbane experience and I’m revelling in it.
“I learned my craft in Iran,” confides Aras with textbook-perfect English, “then I worked in London before coming out to Asia - and here I am.”
The Truefitt & Hill salon under the spa in the newly restored and re-opened Majestic Hotel is just a part of the total renaissance experience offered at this delightfully retro hotel. Butlers, barbers, barmen and chauffeurs make up the complement of staff at your beck-and-call when staying in one of the 47 classic colonial-style suites in the ‘Majestic Wing’.
But the reborn hotel is not just about nostalgia and pre-war throwbacks to empire. It’s a clever mix of old and new, with 300 modern rooms in a totally new-build section, The Tower Wing, which looms above the august whitewashed walls of the original structure that first opened its doors on the 15th of August 1932.
Supervising the renovation of the old building was a labour of love for architect Zaidan Tahir, a graduate of Texas Tech University, who was tasked by YTL Hotels to bring it back to its former glory. Tahir has worked with YTL on other restoration projects in the Cameron Highlands and Malacca. Coincidently, Tahir had fond memories of this iconic landmark from his college days when it housed the National Art Gallery.
“I enjoyed walking around appreciating the small details of the building, its style and architecture,” he said, “we wanted to maintain the look and feel of the place, at the same time, give it a new life.”
The hybrid neo-classical/art deco Majestic has been through several incarnations in its 80 years, not all of them happy.
In its heyday during the 1930s, the hotel catered to European guests and local well-to-do with traditions like the ‘Tea Dance’ and ‘Dinner Dance’. Even the rooftop garden had a dance floor with seating for 350 guests. Modern inclusions such as hot and cold water, showers and full sanitation were firsts for the fledgling Malayan hospitality industry.
But like so much of SE Asia, World War II changed everything. The grand hotels like Hong Kong’s Peninsula and Singapore’s Raffles were all commandeered by the Japanese conquerors as military headquarters. So too The Majestic and it housed the Imperial Army until war’s end. Room 48 is said to be haunted by the ghost of Japanese officer who committed ritual suicide upon learning of Japan’s surrender.
In 1945, The Majestic resumed duties as a lavish hotel, but struggled to reclaim its place as KL’s pinnacle of style and grandeur. But perhaps it was the fact that the rooftop bar was used by the founders of UMNO to plan their independence from Great Britain that assisted its preservation. By 1957, when the newly independent Malaysia came into being, The Majestic was past its prime and falling into disrepair. In 1977, it was almost lost for all time when a 22-storey high rise was planned for the site but, to their eternal credit, the government stepped in and acquired the building in 1983, fixing it with a preservation order.
But by New Year 1983, the last melancholy guests were checking out and The Majestic became the National Art Gallery until 1998. For the next ten years, YTL Hotels negotiated with the government and eventually received approval to redevelop the hotel under strict observance to heritage conditions. A new art gallery was built and The Majestic began its return to glory, reopening in December 2012.
A justifiably proud Tan Sri Dato’ (Dr) Francis Yeoh Sock Ping, md of the YTL corporation, said at the reopening “It is a great honour to have been given the responsibility of restoring this national heritage to its former glory. We have painstakingly revived the exquisite neoclassical features in the Majestic Wing, the pièce de résistance of the hotel. Our efforts have since earned the new Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur a coveted listing in The Leading Hotels of the World, the only hotel in Malaysia to have such an illustrious distinction and putting it in the company of hotels such as The Ritz in London and Le Bristol in Paris.”
Today the Majestic Wing is a marvellous tribute to the decadent ‘30s lifestyle and the jazz era. A talented jazz band entertains in the lobby, their swinging tunes entertaining guests all the way from the Tea Lounge, past the bar and into the Colonial Café, where sumptuous high teas are served.
Near the original, hilltop entrance is the Majestic Spa, beneath which Aras and his gentleman’s sanctuary reside. In The Bar, you’ll find Johnny, a true barman’s barman. He knows every cocktail ever devised and can match you to one of his titillating concoctions in a blink. Mine is a whiskey sour, “classic and reliable”, Johnny tells me and I’m not about to correct him. Gentlemen may partake in cigars while playing billiards and sipping fine single malts. The only concession to contemporary values being they may now do so in the company of ladies.
Before I turn in for the night, I put my shoes out for a polish, hang a shirt to be pressed and send my breakfast order down to Lynn, the impeccably stylish assistant manager, who supervises all aspects of the Majestic Wing. I could have my butler run a bath or turn my quilt should I desire it, but I’m content with a wake-up call and English breakfast in my adjoining parlour before tackling the rigours of KL’s retail domain. And that reminds me, I’ll need a chauffer for that.
Reservations for The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur can be made on the site at www.majestickl.com or by phoning direct on (603) 2785 8000.
The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. See www.lhw.com
The former royal city of Chiang Mai in Thailand’s mountainous north, rises above the noise from the rowdy south. Roderick Eime escapes the rabble.
“Everything in Siam has its own time”
So said the bold Anna Leonowens to King Mongkut in that famous piece of semi-fiction, “Anna and the King”
And if that time was now, the former Kingdom of Siam has indeed come into its own.
While the southern territories abound in hedonistic pleasures, attracting record tourist numbers, the north retains the charm and beauty that so enthralled the 19th century royal governess. With her precocious son, Louis, the two lived in the King of Siam’s court for six years from 1862. Anna left, never to return, while Louis returned 15 years later to begin an enterprise in the burgeoning teak trade.
He returned to the former seat of the royal family, Chiang Mai, and built a magnificent manor in the traditional Thai style. That residence has now been restored and forms the centrepiece of the superb new boutique resort, 137 Pillars House.
So called because of the number of teak pillars on which the house was built, the immaculately renovated structure now hosts the restaurant, bar and lounge of the property and transports guests back to a time of colonial opulence, when the ways of England were the ways of the world.
Like so many grand old houses around the world, it nearly fell into total disrepair and locals were already calling it Baan Dam, or “black house”. In 2002, Bangkok-born Panida Wongphanlert was looking for a property in which to retire from the frenetic pace of Bangkok. She was shown many sites, but the black house kept haunting her.
“We were charmed at first sight by 137 Pillar House. As we learned the true, fascinating story of this house and the East Borneo Company, we knew our family could share this slice of Thai history with the world,” said Panida at the time.
The restoration involved removing the house from its pillar foundation and building new, concrete ones. During this process odd relics kept appearing; an Edison light bulb, crockery fragments, ornate wood carvings, bottles and even a bath tub. All of these curiosities are now displayed under the main house next to the gym in a kind of ad hoc museum.
The 30 suites stand a respectful distance from the house and were all scratch-built. They range from the 20 entry-level Rajah Brooke Suites at 70 sqm through the six East Borneo Suites (75sqm) to the premium two William Bain Terrace Suites (100sqm) and two Louis Leonowens Pool Suites (135sqm). All display exquisite décor including 400-thread count linen enveloping the four-poster beds and reams of Jim Thompson silk embellishing the walls and windows. Each suite has a private library, espresso machine and party-sized day bed on the balcony or veranda.
The original house hosts The Dining Room, Drawing Room and Jack Bain’s Bar, named in deference to the last owner, whose prominent family preserved the house since the demise of The Company and all foreign traders in 1960, when Thai natural resources were nationalised. Swing by The Spa then take high tea in a wicker chair on the verandah before adjourning for dinner and exquisite contemporary Thai cuisine. Finish the day with a cognac and cigar.
When you’re not immersing yourself in the delights of the resort, there’s the charm of Chiang Mai to absorb, a city that has beguiled westerners since the mid-19th century when the real royal student, King Chulalongkorn, invited the first Europeans to settle in. There’s Jack Bain’s personal project, the Wat Gate Museum with its eclectic assortment of colonial memorabilia and photographs, or the Khar Rham Temple, the spiritual centrepiece of the former ‘foreigners-only’ district.
Across the river, in the former Siamese sector, is the sprawling night markets and shopping precinct. Or further out of town adrenalin junkies can get their fix on the Eagle Track Zipline, venture into a tiger cage or ride one of the majestic elephants at Patara Elephant Farm.
Chiang Mai is also home to the Baan Tong Luang Hill Tribes Village, an eco-agricultural project that attempts to preserve the traditional agrarian culture of the Lahu, Hmong, White Karen and the Long necked Karen people. For many visitors this is the only exposure they will get to these vanishing cultures and while not a perfect example, it is an enlightening recreation all the same.
Life for the bold and adventurous expatriates of 150 years ago was harsh and luxurious in equal measure. While the men would disappear into the jungle for months at a time in search of the valuable timber, the women would occupy themselves with tea, embroidery and gossip. A lot has changed in that time, but Chiang Mai has so far resisted the brash, bawdiness sweeping the south, retaining the regal aura on which it was built.
Although Anna lamented to her royal pupil “You cannot shut the world out forever”, at 137 Pillars in Chiang Mai, a few days may be all you need.
Three comparable resorts
• The Chedi (now Anantara)
• The Four Seasons
• Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi
Thai Airways flies 11 times a week from Sydney to Bangkok with daily connections to Chiang Mai. 1300 651 960, thaiairways.com.au.
137 Pillars House is a gated urban resort located in the Wat Gate district of Chiang Mai, close to the centre of town, but quiet enough to imagine you are elsewhere.
There are 30 suites ranging from AUD$350.00 (per single or couple) for a 70sqm standard suite up to $1100 for a 135 sqm pool suite.
With the arrival of new executive chef, Andrew Kee, Park Hyatt Sydney's sommelier, Nick Caraturo, has been busy updating the wine list to match Andrew's adventurous new flavours.
"The menu is like a wild horse galloping off into the distance," remarks Nick with a casual nod toward the kitchen, "but my wine list moves at a much slower pace."
Since my last visit, Nick has added some interesting reds for summer including an Oliver's Taranga Vineyard '07 Cadenza Grenache.
"I love the jammy, cooked fruit flavours and it's beatufully soft with light tannins and acid."
And if you're looking to challenge your palette, Nick has added a rich '06 Kangarilla Road Primitivo (aka Zinfandel).
"This is a really full-bodied wine that is almost at 'fortified' strength (16%). It's from the McLaren Vale region, where winemakers are re-inventing this unusual grape."
Perfect for sitting back and enjoying with the Friday and Saturday night jazz in the harbourkitchen&bar.
Nick's Tips for Summer Drinking:
"Pinot Noir is getting boring, so try a locally grown Temporillo. There are more and more goods ones available now with fresh, crisp raspberry and cranberry flavours - and don't be afraid to chill it first."
Nick also recommends storing your half-finished bottles of red (if you have any) in the fridge.
"Refrigeration slows down the oxidisation so you can keep it longer after opening. Not a problem I have at my place!"
- Roderick Eime reports on hotels and resorts for HM Magazine