In May 1887 Hans Niels Andersen - Peter Andersen and Frederick Kinch - the new owners of the Oriental Hotel posed proudly in front of the new building. The Oriental was the first luxury hotel in Siam.
Never had such opulence been seen in Bangkok outside the palace: carpets covered the hallways, there was artistic wallpaper with the latest designs from Paris and the bedrooms on the second floor were furnished with mahogany rattan. A second floor! What a sensation for a country of floating houses and one-storey bungalows. The Oriental in 1890Fighting White Ants
Being invited to research the history of a great hotel is always an honour – and a challenge, especially when the hotel in question is in Asia, where public archives are rare.
A Herculean task awaited us at the Oriental in Bangkok.
Kurt Wachtveitl, a general manager almost as famous as the hotel he runs, invited me to Bangkok, where I had the privilege of meeting a few fantastic 'assistants': Chancham Bunnag, who had helped compiling an early biography of The Oriental (An Oriental Album); Ankana Kalantananda, the longest serving employee (she had joined the hotel in 1947!), and Pornsri Luphaiboon, one of the first PR managers in the hospitality industry. Liz Taylor's dog was one of her favourite topics of conversation.
Wachtveitl's sense of tradition had established various history related settings. The suites were named after famous visitors such as Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham or Noel Coward. A restaurant was called Lord Jim's after Joseph
Conrad's novel. Now it was up to us to find out more. We would go a long, long way, digging across the globe for ten years, to collect some 1,300 pages of material on the history.
I invited the British historian Andrew Williamson to join the team. In Thailand there are almost no public archives. The usual excuse is: 'they were eaten by white ants' or 'lost in a fire'. We started our research at the hotel (all archives lost in a fire) and visited the building authorities, who in return had been visited by white ants long before we arrived. We triggered a global research effort by alerting newspapers around the world. A drip feed of material started to reach us from different corners of the planet. We travelled to Paris, London, Vienna and New York, visiting our regular antique dealers on the hunt for material.
Gradually a picture began to emerge: a label here; a postcard there. We realised that, before World War II, PR and advertising were not strong-points of the hotel. Printed material from those years only began to surface after ten years of research.
These historic bar-stock lists survived in Danish archives. They date from 1892 reflecting a simple maxim: ‘only the best'. We find great Bordeaux like Margeaux, Mouton Rothschild and wines from Medoc, Champagnes like Krug or the famous German Johannisberger RieslingHow old is this establishment?
The opening year of the hotel remained a truly burning question. ‘How old is this establishment?' is always one of the first questions asked about any famous historic hotel. Modesty is not a consideration when answering: the older the better.
These grand old ladies look upon longevity as a blessing and go out of their way to stretch the truth. An architect's first hesitant blueprint is all that is needed to start counting, even if the plan was not translated into bricks and mortar until years later.
The Oriental, however, was more reticent about her age. The exact inauguration date of the hotel had been lost in the mists of history. A newspaper entry dated as early as 1863 provided a first possible clue. In 1865 an official report in the annual Bangkok Calendar mentioned an Oriental Hotel being destroyed in a fire. But further historical facts were hard to come by. The question of when the hotel opened remained unsolved.
The official answer was provided over a century after the above events. In the 1970s the hotel board decided to end the uncertainty, agreeing that it would be questionable, not to say inauspicious, to use the burning of the Oriental in 1865 as its founding date. 1976 heralded the opening of the new River Wing and so, putting history to work, the hotel was declared 100 years old. Giorgio Berlingieri, director of the hotel and co-founder of Italthai, the major shareholder in the Oriental, explained his decision: ‘It is poetic licence. And we are not exaggerating. We say we are 100 years old, when we could give an even more impressive figure.'
So everyone was happy with the hotel's official date of birth, 1876. And historians could rest assured that they could find proof of the hotel's existence even earlier.
In search of material and people connected to the hotel, we found Louis T. Leonowens in Guatemala, grandson of a former Oriental owner and son of the King of Siam's legendary teacher, Anna Leonowens, immortalised in The King and I. We discovered the files of a traveller called Professor Maxwell Sommerville, who had stayed at the Oriental in 1897. In London, newspaper archives held copies of The Bangkok Times and The Bangkok Calendar from the 1850s onwards.
We unearthed royal records from the year 1890. On 17 December of that year Mr Allen, the Oriental's manager, welcomed the most prominent guest the hotel had ever seen. His Majesty King Chulalongkorn arrived with his entourage to assess the ability of the hotel to host royal guests. His Majesty was so impressed that he decided to host Crown Prince Nicholas of Russia, who became Tsar in 1894, at the Oriental in April 1891.
Peeping behind the scenes of the hotel in more modern times proved a real eye opener. The secret of how the Oriental achieved its world-leading status became increasingly obvious. Painstaking, meticulous work with the staff was a key element in our quest. Slowly the book grew into a manual of perfect hotel-keeping. I once asked Kurt Wachtveitl how the Oriental became the best hotel in the world. 'It's very simple,' he explained. ‘We tell our staff exactly, what to do.' Smiling, he paused before adding: 'And we tell them what again week in, week out'.
In his early career at the hotel, Wachtveitl could be seen every morning near the cashier's desk, overseeing the departures. He knew that this was where all and everything surfaced: an unsatisfied customer, a complaint, and of course praise. His continued presence in the lobby every afternoon remains one of the cornerstones of his success.
The launch party of our book on 22 January 1996 marked the 125th anniversary of the hotel. It was one of the greatest functions the Oriental has ever thrown. Jonas Schuermann, Director of F&B, organised a social gathering for over 1,200 invited guests. Our book was presented to each and every one of them. Guests of honour were all given the leather bound edition.
Kurt Wachtveitl (with his wife Penny at The Oriental's 125th anniversary party. In the background Lord Lichfield) is a man with a vision. He graduated from the hotel school at Lausanne, Switzerland in 1961, read history of art and literature in Rome and philosophy in Spain.
His professional career includes stops at Trois Couronnes, Vevey; Beau-Rivage Palace, Lausanne (where he met his wife Penny); Suvretta Haus, St Moritz; and the Park Lane Hilton, London.
Soon after we were informed that the Royal Palace wished to order ten copies of the book, specially bound in leather with gold stamping. Five would be designated for the library of His Majesty the King, and the other five for the library of Her Majesty the Queen. We supplied the Royal household with the requested books, considering ourselves 'Purveyor of the Royal Court'.
Further editions received yearly updates and each new book is indeed a new collection of material, recently unearthed and added to the work. Today we maintain over 1,300 pages of text material in our archives, together with a collection of rare historic photographs and documents. It seems that we have beaten the white ants.www.famoushotels.org