Land of the Rising Sum
At 30,000 feet between Moscow and Manila, peripatetic property panjandrum John Hitchcox reflects on why — however scrambled his personal compass — these days all signs point East
I’M A GYPSY. I wander the world selling my wares, the pony and trap of days gone by replaced by a BlackBerry, taxi and seat 1A in whatever airline is going my way. I preach the gospel of designing the perfect home when mine is in a traffic jam, an airport, a plane and a hotel room. It was in the BA lounge at Terminal 5 that I first came across Spear’s. One day, the editor asked if I would pen a few dispatches about my nomadic life. Welcome to the View from 1A.
Planes. At last, the TV screens in BA are bigger than a mobile phone screen and BMI flies to Moscow with seats that recline. Better late than never, I suppose. The best flight I’ve taken recently wasn’t on one of the big carriers — it was to the beautiful Philippine island of Boracay. They do things differently there: the airline changed not only the time of the service but also the airport it was leaving from. Twice!
I was in the Philippines to look at our first project in Manila, a 35-storey regeneration oasis in the city centre, before heading to Boracay, where I stayed at the Boracay Shangri-La. With its great service, beautiful garden and villas (each with their own pool) and world-class food, it’s as good as any Aman. Boracay is a perfect escape from Manila and its location is perfect — close to Hong Kong, mainland China, Korea and Japan. My friend Bong is moving a mountain to extend the runway in the airport, yet we can’t even manage a third runway at Heathrow.
From the Philippines, I went on to China to look at some new projects and launch a book that we like to think shows off YOO’s work, and stayed in Shanghai at the Peninsula, which is a truly world-class hotel brand. No hotels are more thoughtfully designed and more tastefully and usefully modern.
I cocktailed on the terrace of the Peninsula and ate at the M and Three on the Bund. From the terrace and the windows, I looked out over the skyline, which changes so fast it looks like the streets are on crack. The energy, the mix of the new and old, the louche, ‘Paris of the East’ sex appeal all make Shanghai the most exciting city on the planet. People often say that China has all the hardware that emerging markets need — roads, airports, bullet trains — but none of the software, such as art and culture. No matter: the Chinese are now going to create creativity.
From Shanghai I travelled to Beijing and art district 758, where an old arms factory has morphed into artists’ studios and galleries. The Chinese don’t have to create history — they have plenty of that, and it’s back in fashion. Some 300 museums have been built around the country to celebrate Confucius.
WE’RE ALSO PRETTY busy in India, with big projects under way in Mumbai, Bangalore and Pune and more to come. Visiting India makes me smile at how the world changes: when I was a kid the Indians came over to us for work, and now we’re over there selling our goods and products, trying to make a living. They come holidaying to us and buy our companies and teach us about economics, efficiencies and now brands. ‘Our’ icons, including Land Rover, Range Rover and Jaguar, are flourishing in their capable hands.
There’s great cultural confidence, too, in India — no more colonial cringe. A few years ago the Indian elite were a little embarrassed by the world of Bollywood, but now they’re deservedly proud of it all. I only wish India could fix the corruption and build some decent roads and bridges. A good dose of Chinese management might not go amiss, but that’s easier said than done.
Back on the plane home from the East, I cried at the movie Fair Game, telling the chilling story of how there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It left me questioning the evolution of intelligence. How far have we come? Are we in the twilight of the great Western imperial period?
My morbidity and depression were lifted by watching the hilarious remake of Arthur on another connecting flight to New York. I also found myself smiling in the taxi in anticipation of checking back in to my favourite hotel, the Mercer in Manhattan, after a two-year break. From New York it was 45 minutes to Toronto, which is on fire — 100,000 immigrants arrive there every year and local developers expect to have built 25,000 new homes by the end of 2011. That’s about half of what Britain completed and four times what we managed in London. I visited a few sales offices and couldn’t help but notice how many of the buyers are from the East.
I returned via London to Moscow with Kelly Hoppen, one of the designers at YOO. After a few tough years — Russia is still an enigma wrapped in a riddle — we’ve launched an innovative residential project. The food, wine and lifestyle in the Russian capital are as good as you’ll get, so I ate at Nobu and Kalina — I hope the service will soon catch up with the F&B. Then perhaps they might be able to justify the prices.
The pilot announces we’ve begun our descent, so I start filling in the immigration form. I get to the box marked ‘profession’ and a question hits me: would I be an arrogant git if I put ‘journalist’?