Hong Kong Memories: Once Upon a Time in Wan Chai
THURSDAY, MARCH 7, 2019 -- On my first trip to Hong Kong, I walked into the Crown Colony's finest hotel and wound up sleeping in its worst hotel.

It was in the mid-1970s. I don't remember the precise year, the exact month or the specific date. But I will never forget that day.

I landed in Hong Kong from Singapore on an early Friday afternoon and raced to interview the chief executive of Cathay Pacific Airways, which was the reason for my visit. It was only after the interview that I realized I hadn't reserved a hotel room for the night.

I took a cab to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, then and now one of Hong Kong's power addresses. I strolled into the elegant lobby and made my way to the impressive front desk.

May I have a harbor view room please, I asked with a smile, drumming my Diners Club card on the polished countertop.

Your name please? asked the clerk.

Chris Barnett, I said. But you won't find it in there. I don't have a reservation.

You don't have a reservation? she parroted back to me, her eyebrow arching.

No. It's Friday night and I imagine all the business travelers have checked out and gone home. I'm staying for the weekend, maybe longer. I didn't figure I'd need a reservation.

We are fully booked tonight and booked all weekend. I am sorry, she said, not looking the least bit remorseful.

Excuse me? No rooms at all?

No rooms at all, she said and smiled, until maybe next Thursday. What about other hotels nearby, I asked, feeling stupid and annoyed.

Afraid not, sir. It's our understanding the city's better hotels are sold out.

Realizing that I was a stranger in a strange land, she very hospitably handed me a telephone book and a white telephone on a long chord.

The inference was clear: Dial it yourself. I was too green as a business traveler to seek out a concierge for help and she didn't point me to one.

For the next two hours, I dialed my way down the list of about three dozen hotels. I even called the Foreign Correspondents Club, which usually had some small, single-bedded rooms reserved for visiting journalists.

By the time I reached the S listings, I was convinced that I would be spending the night on a Hong Kong park bench. But when I reached the Whitehall Hotel, second from the bottom of the list, I hit lodging pay dirt.

Eighteen Hong Kong dollars? I'll take it. Be right there. What's the street address?

The Mandarin Oriental's front desk clerk kindly wrote the Whitehall's address in Chinese, I ran out with my bag and the doorman hailed a cab. For the next 40 minutes, it seemed, we were streaking through rush hour traffic, in and out of side streets, moving at very serious speeds.

We stopped in front of an apartment building in the Wan Chai District. (The photo above is a street in Wan Chai in the mid-1970s.) There was no hotel sign on the door, but the driver, waving me out of his cab, insisted the Whitehall was inside. Leery, I exited and looked up. I remember counting 14 stories. Laundry was hanging from windows to dry.

The elevator was claustrophobically small and shared with moms and kids. I got off on the sixth floor because a tiny sign said "hotel." I saw a linoleum-floored "lobby," bare except for a little stand-up bamboo bar that doubled as the front desk. An older man welcomed me, handed me a glass of water and asked for the 18 Hong Kong dollars up front.

My room was behind one of around 10 doors on that floor, but there was not much to see. It had a single bed with a lumpy mattress, a lamp on a rickety nightstand, a naked light bulb overhead and a ceiling fan. A 12-inch black-and-white TV with one working channel played only one Bruce Lee Kung Fu movie. The bathroom was down the hall.

Then came the real shock, when I asked the clerk for my key.

No, he said. I lock you in at night. Bang on the door and I'll unlock you. That's our policy.

I protested. He would not budge. It was his way or the highway. Not wanting to lose my room, I stepped inside and was locked in.

The Wan Chai district of the 1960s and 1970s was wide open and wild. It was one of the favored R&R hot spots for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War and the Red Zone in Hong Kong for anyone wanting to "play." And it happened outside my window. All night long. I heard catcalls, music, screams, sirens. It was stiflingly hot and I barely slept.

Around 8 a.m. the next morning, I knocked on my door. Hard. It took a few minutes for the gentleman to respond and I was absolutely certain his shift was over and he had left us all locked in. But I eventually heard footsteps, a key in the door and I was liberated.

The Whitehall Hotel, I later learned, was four floors of sleeping rooms, presumably similar to mine, sandwiched between 10 or 11 flats of apartments. The bathroom and shower on each floor was the sole guest "amenity." There was no place to grab breakfast, of course.

When I go to Hong Kong now, I'm smart enough to book in advance and I still favor power places like the Upper House or the Ritz-Carlton. Over the years, I made some pilgrimages back to Wan Chai to try and find the Whitehall. I never did.

In fact, there's no trace of the building that housed the Whitehall and very little left of Wan Chai's wicked past. The opulent, five-star Grand Hyatt is more Wan Chai's speed these days. It boasts nine restaurants and the Grand Club, a private lounge for guests who book suites and the hotel's club floors. Wan Chai is also the location of the massive Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

On my last Wan Chai foray, I walked by a Rolls-Royce dealership and a fancy shop that sold baby clothes.