What would happen if Wong Kar-wai designed a hotel?
That was one of the questions that Katherine Lo hoped to answer as she began the process of opening Eaton Workshop, a combination hotel, co-working space, music venue, radio station, art gallery and more in her native Hong Kong.
A longtime fan of the “In the Mood for Love” and “Chungking Express” director, who is also from Kowloon, Lo had his visual style in mind when she undertook the task of opening Eaton.
Lo, whose father is the CEO of the Langham Hotels group, came into her assignment with a mandate – to open the property of her dreams, while still coming in under budget and honoring her family’s wishes.
The result is a new model for how hotels can look, with an emphasis not just on quirky design but on social activism.
While some hotels bake corporate responsibility into their practices – such as greening hotels by saving bars of soap to donate to homeless shelters or by providing benefits to their hourly workers – Lo wanted to shout her values out loud rather than have them blend into the wallpaper.
The process began in 2016 when Lo, on a visit from her home in Washington, D.C. – home to the first Eaton – to Hong Kong, gathered a group of 20 or so taste-makers at a bar and began to ask questions about what they wanted to see in their city.
“I sincerely asked, how did they see Hong Kong had changed in the last five to 10 to 20 years, and for their passions and aspirations what did they feel it was lacking and what it needed? And literally the main answer was physical space,” Lo tells CNN Travel.
But it wasn’t just about physical space, although that is a necessity in a crowded city like Hong Kong.
It was also about providing metaphorical space for marginalized people and creatives. The hotel’s opening weekend played host to a human rights festival, with a keynote presentation entitled “Queering Public Space.”
Beyond the one-off events, that ethos permeates the hotel, located in the city’s Yau Ma Tei district.
The first thing guests see when walking up to the hotel is an art exhibit of queer couples. At the front desk, there are copies of the 10 LGBT-themed books that were recently blocked from being sold in the city.
Outside, the building is decorated with large-scale photographs of queer couples, including a particularly striking one where one member is unable to emigrate to Hong Kong and is forced to mostly communicate with her partner via FaceTime.
“Having grown up in Hong Kong, it’s a super finance-heavy city, and the only place where you could hang out as a young person was actually shopping malls,” Lo adds. “I really wanted to create this space for local kids, local change makers and creatives to have a space where it’s not all about commerce.
“Young bands, they don’t have any rehearsal space, there’s no venues to play. Everything is very limited, so I think they’re really excited. And also the contemporary art galleries. A lot of the best ones have been shut down, and so here we really wanted to use part of the space to build a contemporary art dialogue at the level of like an art institution.”
One other important component?
A neon escalator that makes you feel just like Faye Wong in “Chungking Express.” If you can manage to find it amid the art, music and food, though.