A Leather Industry Icon

Redwood Comment
Published:  12 March, 2019
Dr Michael Redwood

This feels like one of the most important Hong Kong Asia Pacific Leather Fairs we have ever had, which is a profound comment given the significance of APLF in guiding the leather industry towards China in the late 20th century. But, with some raw material being valued at less than US$0.30 per piece and others as “worthless” according to a recent webinar podcast, leather is challenged today like never before. It will be a hectic and worrisome week.

So, on my first day in Hong Kong I have taken some time out for private contemplation and made a pilgrimage to the Hotel Excelsior in Causeway Bay. The Excelsior has always been an interesting walk from the Convention Centre (HKCEC), and it was a well developed route when the show was held in the multi-storey car park of the China Resource Building, long before the opening of the current facilities and its two new hotels. It was a walk usually interrupted by a stop for a beer at the Prince of Wales pub on the way, an establishment that does not appear to have survived.

The significance of the Excelsior at this moment is that the hotel is moments off closing to be turned into a major commercial tower over the next five years. Apparently Hong Kong needs more office space and that will be more profitable for Mandarin Oriental than keeping it as a hotel. The hotel was opened in the early 1970s but the land it sits on is known in Hong Kong as Plot 1.  It was the first piece of land ever sold in the colonial days of the 1840s.

In its early decades as a trading warehouse, I have no doubt that it was important for the leather trade, as leather was one of the global top three businesses until the end of the 19th century. But the leather industry memories that I know of are those of the early days as a hotel, when the world was wondering if China could emerge as a production destination as South Korea and Taiwan grew more costly. Tanners and traders stopped a little longer to check for developments on their way to Korea.

For a long time, the Excelsior was a favourite of the British delegation and it evokes memories when the British industry still retained a little scale. I ventured down the long staircase to the Dickens Bar, which on a good night would be heavily weighted with the leather industry - UK and many others – especially hide and leather dealers and traders. It was quiet tonight, with few foreign faces and feeling sanitised compared to times past: the naughtiness that linked the bar and the macho leather industry of the 1970s and 1980s both very much things of the past.

The industry stayed at this hotel for most of the early APLF fairs and regularly during visits in between. As Hong Kong grew, it was short of hotel rooms so a reliable hotel where you were known was useful, never the mind the chance of catching dinner with a colleague while in the middle of a long Asian trip.

My last stay was in the early 1990s but the lobby remains familiar today, and still rings with the sounds of the likes of Bert Childs, “Mac” McTigue, R. Gaitonde and the other tanners and traders linked by friendship and Friday afternoons at the Artists Club in Liverpool. They always had a dinner in the Excelsior, famous for its extraordinary consumption of red wine.

So, while we spend our week in Hong Kong in serious discussions about our leather, grasping the fact that no one needs to buy it any more and that it is falling out of favour in more places than we can afford, we should be allowed a moment of nostalgia for a Hotel that was part of our story, but will close forever next month. Let this be the spur for us to make leather cool again through innovation and promotion with new generations.

Dr Mike Redwood

March 12, 2019

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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