In Which On The Inside We Are Ascending Glass

Hotel City


The Hyatt Regency, Manila

When I return to Manila, fleeing winter at the age of twenty-three, we drive the main drag looking for the hotel that I grew up in. Josh is ill from something contracted in a previous paradise. He sweats and shivers in the vehicle’s air-conditioned micro-biome, but I’m selfish, and we continue our hunt. We see: the National Theatre, a few casinos, pink high-rises streaked with soot. The ocean is not the blue it ought to be in this weather, but instead a dirty slurry. Trash blows down the grand boulevard. We do not find the Hyatt. Turns out, it had been torn down years ago. I feel this loss as one would a childhood home, despite its existence  as only abstraction.

My memories of the Hyatt are constructed entirely of other places altogether, conflated with murky recollections of the restaurants, casinos, and other hotels our lives circuited around. All these spaces linked in my child-mind to comprise a city-sprawling Grand Hotel. Seeking images of it now, almost none exist. I find four on a blog and see that they’re incongruous with the Viewmaster slides squinted into by my mind’s eye. The cool marble of the nearby Peninsula Manila, where girls in pearl earrings still slurp glasses of rainbow halo-halo, had been subbed for the Hyatt’s capiz shell screens; the Shangri-la’s emerald carpets for the Hyatt’s polished sandstone floors.

Designed by Leandro Locsin, whose modernist leanings gave linear heft to colonial nostalgia, the Hyatt was nine white stripes punched, parkade-like, into the relentlessly blue sky. Its imposing concrete quietude was percussed by the leafy rustle of the coconut palms that flanked each of its blank sides. The lobby was huge in the way that they don’t make them anymore, its treble-height ceilings gridded widely with tropical hardwoods. Floor-to-ceiling windows let in a richness of equatorial light. Guests would leave their sunglasses on to check in.

Hotels in Manila are the locus of both celebrity and political life. You could say that the health of a city’s hotel culture signifies the health of its wealth. Fran Lebowitz would say, What culture? I would say, What wealth? If anything, the revolving door of politicians, celebrities, and the simpering rich that followed them was indicative of our country’s thriving industry of corruption. It was at the Hyatt where my father would be approached by a certain agency. Not such a big ask, they said, regarding a particularly sensitive task. He closed his eyes and heard the shuffle of millions of pesos being siphoned into dollar bank accounts, typhoon wind through the slat blinds. It was a big ask, he said — and, as far as I know it, refused.

Exiting the elevator, away from the lobby’s sheen, we end up treading the hotel’s neutrality. The ascending warren of closed doors and corridors is an architectural predilection within which anonymity lies latent. Save for the numbers, there’s no telling one room from another. It is privacy by design: secrecy that becomes cliché catalyst to illicit desires. To have been raised in such an environment was to learn, firsthand, the world’s duplicitous nature. How else could one approach it, reared in a place where public lives would slide suddenly into private view?

That brutal home was mine and I nearly destroyed it. I can’t remember the fire, though I’ve certainly imagined it into high relief: two stripped wires crossed in an air-conditioner spontaneously combust, thick black smoke a sudden intruder in my room. Mum, in silk nightie, was nearly too modest to descend the fireman’s ladder. Dad mourned the Stones and Beatles records that had surely melted into an unplayable puddle. It was 1991, and the Hyatt Regency was still the centre of the world. Crowds of beautiful mestizas carried on barely eating the famous tempura niblets, dancing until the club closed at 6am — dawn in the tropics, so regular you could set your watch by it, marked by a periwinkling and then a gilding of the sky. And so it came to be that the fire was barely a hiccup in the prelude to the Hyatt’s eventual demolition. But like any defecting Catholics, both parents took this all-consuming conflagration as a sign. If not the end of times, it was the end of a time. And I, with smoke-clogged lungs that I’d never quite recover from, was plucked from the night-dark danger by a vigilant caretaker and delivered, penultimately, to suburbia. Our new house, in its dark woods and shell-tones, reflected Locsin’s Hyatt design.

Hotel de Nevers, Paris

In my memory, architecturally nonsensical, spiralling up around a staircase from the street. A turret into which would be inserted two unlikely princesses, squinting out the arrowslit. The only bathroom was located halfway down the irregular, wall-hugging stairs. It had a dim light and no mirror. There we’d wash up and get ready, seventeen in Paris, not even the slightest bit trepidatious. We ate mostly bread, drank mostly wine, and went dancing at an ex-pat bar where the second boy I’d ever kissed would slice his hand open trying to feel my ass up. I washed his blood out in that lonely bathroom sink and hung the dress to dry there. I expected it to be gone the next morning. When it wasn’t, I was genuinely surprised.

Last I was in Paris, I stayed in an apartment. I texted a man whose mouth was late enough in my makeout lineage that I’d already lost count. “Last I was in Paris, I hardly left my hotel,” he said, and I thought suddenly of the moldy room where Michelle and I shared our sleepover bed. Drowsily, I looked up the Hotel de Nevers on google images. Renovations had made it unrecognizable — the only familiar thing being its block-lettered sign.

If a hotel is already transportative, why name it after another place? In my Anglo-ignorance I read ‘nevers’ as a multiplicity of refusal; a dream of a hundred neverlands; a fantasy of escape. In truth, Nevers was a separate city that made history around 55 B.C.E., when it was, primarily, Julius Caesar’s war-loot depository. Archaeologists were still pulling medals out of the ground well into our own century. I wondered if the hotel’s proprietors hailed from there, and if in naming their business they had committed themselves to longing for a home they no longer lived in.

When the weather turned on us, we took a train down to Marseilles. Michelle and I skirted the city to get our bearings from a higher point. Squinting through our cheap sunglasses in the dry, flat heat, we watched as sun-bleached ferries to Algeria came and went in the bay. I never found love in the city of lovers, only Jӓger-sticky kisses and a kind of longing I’d come to know so intimately I had no choice but to call it my own. Many years later, watching Hiroshima Mon Amour, I saw one lover mouth to the other: “You are Nevers.” By then, I knew for certain that if I loved someone from somewhere else enough, they’d become the place I lived in.

The Park Lane, Hong Kong

At this point I felt so content in the city that being lost in it felt just like navigating it. Old friends, Ted and Pat, hosted us sweetly in their sky-high hotel. The Park Lane, deep in Causeway Bay, was surrounded by shops so absorbed in vibratory neon it never quite felt like night. My room overlooked a second, lesser building swarmed by air-conditioners; I could get a glimpse of the harbour if I stood at the window’s edge and craned my neck. Kept up by jet-lag, my brother and I would wander this not-night, covet mink coats on mannequins and sliced watermelons under blacklight. There it was: Hong Kong, a chandelier density, infinite credit and a sun-pure playground in the sky. Bodies were conspicuously absent on billboards but French models populated the SoHo streets. The sky fell in ribbons between residences. In certain compositions, one believed their own arrival at a wealthy and limitless future. In others, it all seemed distant; impossibly so.

The Park Lane served noodle soup well past midnight and the steam rising off it warmed cheeks chilled by a winter we never quite expected. Like any dumb tourists we went to see the giant buddha and lucked out because it was sundown, and we were alone. The trams were threatening to close. We have only one picture from this trip, and it’s of my hair whipped over my face in the wind, the dusk just a gradient behind me. Upon returning, we thought ourselves hopelessly lost until we recognized our hotel, spying the driveway crowded with black Bentleys, their surfaces smooth and new enough to suggest a small stoppage in time.

Ted died the next winter in the hotel room that he lived in. I thought about how we were raised in a paradise so absolutely occupied that finding solitude was a wonder alone. His voice was already shorn raw by the time we had met — a lifetime of shouting over the city’s din — and his laugh, a British cackle, was a garrulous encapsulation of his entire personality. Through him, I learned how a city could become the only measure of itself.

 The Vancouver House, Vancouver

Speculative new futures for Vancouver have been hologrammed up for as long as I can remember, for whoever will look. 126 years young, the city is still startlingly new, with mostly-untapped potential beyond its persevering reputation as a haven for extreme-sportsmen and well-heeled retirees. In Massive Change, the 2003 exhibition curated by industrial designer Bruce Mau, models for hyper-density were drafted up in Hong Kong’s shadow, a transmogrified counter to the anti-Chinese xenophobia that stretches from British Columbia’s racist nascence to present-day rallies against too much “foreign investment.” The logic was that Hong Kong, also bounded by the Pacific on one side and a ridge of mountains on another, shared enough with Vancouver to be its premonitory mirror across a gulf of culture and time.

A full decade has passed since that initial optimism. Vancouver has not densified so much as it has diamondized, all ascending glass with nothing in it. One could swear that that, from the right angle, you could see clean through the whole city. A sharp contrast to Hong Kong, which brims with human life at all hours of day or night. (“Forget nature,” said a friend. “Being able to bike down a street with no one on it is what’s bliss.”)

Vancouver’s Vancouver House is the newest development for the super-rich. An exercise in excess, a publicity campaign that excuses the extravagance of its luxury by linking up with the art world: it’s a “living sculpture,” a “gesamtkunstwerk,” a condo development ludicrous enough to stick a Rodney Graham under an overpass. Having lived here for so long, I know the city well enough to guiltlessly witness a common gripe. A new city faithfully entraps itself in wanting to become the kind of place around which culture is realized. It exerts itself in trying to make landmarks where before there were only lowlands, concocting new visions as soon as old ones — in which history has already been latent — are destroyed.

The Vancouver House isn’t a hotel, but it follows in the dream of one. Who, with the means, wouldn’t want luxury twinned with convenience? A fleet of black vehicles, a troop of concierges, a room that defaults to spotless each time you return to it, a lobby where you can see and be seen fetching your mail from a mailbox shaped like a giant, cancelling X… The development is advertised as “as a giant curtain at the moment of being pulled back to reveal the world to Vancouver and Vancouver to the world,” but riding past its showroom, headed eastward on my bicycle, I think it looks just like a tornado twisting back into thin air.

Alex M.F. Quicho is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is the editor of Highway Magazine, and a writer living in Vancouver. You can find her twitter here.

Photographs by the author.

“Wasserfall” – Juli (mp3)

“Hallo Hallo” – Juli (mp3)


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