As you approach The Emperor, a new independent boutique hotel overlooking the Forbidden City in the heart of the Chinese capital, it is clear that it is far from your run-of-the-mill Beijing hotel option.
While most of Beijing’s new hotel developments are giant, showy international-chain projects located on one of the five ring roads that encircle the city, The Emperor is situated on a narrow traditional, tree-lined street and housed in a renovated 80-year-old building – ancient by Beijing standards – which in former times was a dormitory for newly arrived students enrolling at Tsinghua University in the north of town.
This impression is heightened once you step through the hotel’s sliding doors. The lobby interior, designed by hip German design collective GRAFT Labs, is far removed from the garish marble and faux-gold favoured by most Chinese hotel developers.
It is a warm fusion of yellow suede and brilliant white, with its intelligent lighting and swooping lines and curves framing a central horseshoe-shaped yellow suede sofa.
The hotel’s claim to be Beijing’s first true boutique hotel is no idle boast – it recently became the first hotel in China to be accepted as a member of the influential Design Hotels network.
What is even more surprising than the interior, though, is the fact that the hotel’s president, Liu Shaojun, is not only also the general manager, but has no previous experience of working in, yet alone running, a hotel. In fact, when Liu, whose background is in property development and finance, first bought the building a little less than two years ago, he wasn’t intending to turn it into a hotel at all.
“To tell you the truth, when I first found this building, I had other plans to develop the property,” he tells me over drinks on the hotel’s stunning roof terrace overlooking the Forbidden City. “I saw it as an investment – either an apartment complex or an office development. But it was when I stepped out onto the roof and looked out over this view that everything suddenly clicked.”
Even so, he had no intention at the time of taking on the day-to-day running of the hotel. But because the concept behind The Emperor is so different from most other hotel offerings in China, he was unable to find a Chinese-speaking general manager who he trusted to oversee the project and maintain the integrity of his overall vision.
“I’ve tried out a number of qualified general managers to oversee the operations of the hotel, but most of them have only worked at more traditional, four- and five-star hotels and they tried to run The Emperor according to the style of management they were used to in other hotels in China,” he says. “They didn’t understand the overall concept of how to run a design hotel, so I felt I had no choice but to work hard and learn the responsibilities of a hotel GM myself. I’m still learning the job as I go along.”
EAST MEETS WEST
After a number of unsatisfactory meetings with designers, Liu was put in touch with GRAFT, who in turn enlisted the help of Walter Junger, the former general manager of the Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, as well as the hotel brand’s former Central/Northern Europe and South America vice-president. Throughout the design and renovation process, Liu kept close control over the project to ensure it was consistent with his overall vision for the hotel, which, he explained, aims to fuse cutting-edge modern design with Chinese traditional culture.
The contemporary take on traditional Chinese motifs is evident throughout the hotel’s interior. The colour scheme is inspired by the traditional colours that adorn the roofs and temple walls of the Forbidden City across the street.
Each floor has been assigned a different imperial colour – the ground floor’s suede-covered walls are decked out in imperial yellow; the second floor in a rich turquoise; and the third in traditional deep green. The hotel’s 55 guest rooms and suites are all named after a different Chinese Emperor, their doors featuring a GRAFT-designed, graffiti-inspired portrait of said Emperor, with the same design replicated on the room’s key card.
The room interiors, while featuring the design firm’s trademark sweeping lines and curves ― facilities including cupboard, wardrobe and mini-bar are all embedded into its smooth, colour-coded walls and surfaces so as not to ruin the aesthetic ― also reference the property’s distinctly Chinese identity.
A stylised rendering of the swooping eaves of the Forbidden City is etched onto the suede-lined walls
and the frosted glass separating bathroom and bedroom. The ultra-sleek interior design could easily feel cold and unwelcoming, but GRAFT’s intelligent use of floor and ceiling-level warm lighting, coupled with dark-wood floors conjure up a pleasingly domestic feel.
The hotel’s food, beverage, retail and leisure facilities are also faithful to Liu’s contemporary fusion concept. John Hao, head chef of the hotel’s basement restaurant, Shi (‘food’ in Mandarin), worked with Liu to devise a menu offering a modern take on imperial Chinese cuisine as well as modern reworkings of homestyle Chinese classics such as Kung Po Chicken, reborn here into a delicate seafood appetizer
A FOREIGN CONCEPT
Since the hotel’s official opening in mid-April, around 80% of its guests have been foreigners, mainly independent travellers aged between 30 and 40, according to Liu. While he hopes that Chinese travellers will one day appreciate The Emperor’s design ethos, in the short-term he is focused on the foreign market.
“Most Chinese people haven’t heard of the ‘Design Hotels’ brand, they won’t get it,” he says. “They will say ‘this is a small hotel – why is it so expensive?’ Because nowadays, even though a lot of Chinese people travel overseas, most of them still choose to stay in multinational star hotels.”
Given that The Emperor is very much ahead of the curve in terms of China’s hotel development, Liu admits that the task of getting it off the ground has been extremely difficult. One of the major problems he has encountered so far is finding sufficiently qualified staff, especially those with the language and interpersonal skills needed to cater to its mainly foreign clientele.
“Because these kinds of hotels are a new concept in China, there isn’t a readily available talent pool of staff here who have experience of working in this sort of environment,” he says. Consequently, The Emperor recruits hotel management graduates directly from China’s top universities in Beijing and Xi’an, and puts them through a rigorous training regime.
WORK IN PROGRESS
There is much to admire in The Emperor’s ambition and attention to detail. Every aspect of the interior ― from the suede sofa niches that line the corridors transforming what is often dead space in a hotel into an additional communal area, down to the stylish concentric-oval motif toilet fittings ― is faithful to the hotel’s design-focused ethos.
And the immaculate rooftop bar provides unparalleled views over the swooping eaves of the Forbidden City, pavilions perched on hilltops and distant white stupas. But in true Beijing style, during my visit, the beauty of this scene was shattered by a sudden sandstorm sweeping in from the Gobi Desert, as well as by the inevitable clank and drone of a construction site next door.
The Emperor is, therefore, very much a work-in-progress. Liu, though, insists that the boutique hotel concept can work in China, despite the difficulties he has encountered so far. “I think these kinds of small boutique-style hotels are starting to gain momentum in Beijing. I’ve seen plans for number of others and I really hope that more and more of these kinds of hotels open up in Beijing” he says. “If there are dozens of hotels all promoting the boutique hotels concept, it will be much easier to gain momentum.”
Many market analysts are warning that Beijing’s hotel market could face potential oversupply issues once the Olympic bandwagon rolls out of town. Liu believes the fact that The Emperor is so different from most of the competition will insulate it from any possible post-Olympics slump.
“I’ve seen a lot of hotels in Beijing ― five-star hotels, traditional hotels ― but there aren’t many places like ours,” he says. “So when I was thinking about what kind of hotel I wanted to open, I thought that in the long-term, once the Olympics has been and gone, I’d be better off opening a unique sort of hotel.”
If his reading of the market is right, then Liu will be rewarded handsomely for all his hard work. But for the moment, he has no time to worry about the future. He’s too busy learning how to be a hotel GM.
The Emperor, 33 Qihelou Street, Dongcheng District, 100006 Beijing, China
Room rates: €109 – €549
For reservations, call Design Hotels on 00800 37 46 83 57, or book online at www.designhotels.com