Jade-tinted Cathay Pier lounge sums up colonial perspective problem

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I always want to like Cathay Pacific. The airline created the signature business class product of this decade, the second-generation Zodiac Aerospace Cirrus product updated and customised by James Park and Cathay’s strong internal product team. I always enjoy visiting Hong Kong. The airport (apart from the lack of priority processing, although that will start to change soon) is one of the world’s best large hubs. But it’s clear that the airline has lost its way. And the 2015 renovation of Cathay’s first class lounge in the Pier strikes me as symptomatic of the problems that Cathay Pacific faces: it’s a jade-tinted window into an Orientalist Hong Kong that never really existed and which won’t help the airline to dig itself out of the hole in which it finds itself.

But first, the good bits: in layout, the lounge (which I’ll just call the Pier, but which is not to be confused with the business class side of the Pier complex) is decent. The main seating area is in a large but L-shaped general room at one end, with various buffet-style food nooks and a staffed bar. As you proceed through the long and relatively narrow lounge complex, you pass a business area, bathrooms, showers, a small facility for neck or foot massages, and end up in the dining area. It’s perhaps a little small and out of the way for a signature lounge, but given space constraints at HKG Cathay has done a good job.

The spa, by excellent local barber Gentleman’s Tonic, was a nice touch but the gentlement’s club decor felt outdated. Image: John Walton

I liked a lot about the lounge: the food and beverage range and the shower facilities are great, although Cathay cheaped out on the Champagne, offering only business class level bubbly.

The thing is, I know I’m not the only person who has a relatively simple set of desires from my airport lounge: a comfortable armchair or sofa in natural light, a flat surface to put my laptop or tablet together with a drink or small plate, and an easily accessible faff-free power socket. These needs are neither revolutionary nor foreign to Cathay Pacific: half a decade ago, the airline created the Solus chair that meets all these needs (except perhaps for the slightly fiddly power socket).

Even Cathay’s business class lounge recognises the need for laptop-friendly workspaces. Image: John Walton

Those needs aren’t fulfilled at any seat in any location in the Pier.

In the large general room that holds the bar, the seating is low and what the airline’s designer probably called “residential”. This is not a problem for me, but it strikes me that as a relatively youthful frequent traveller I have knees that work without complaint. I saw several older travellers have to make visible efforts to clamber out of several of the chairs.

I like the variety of seating, but I wish more of it weren’t so low and work-unfriendly. Image: John Walton

Moreover, there are no side tables or other surfaces that work for laptops. I was not the only traveller precariously balancing several thousand dollars (US, not HK!) of electronics on an unsuitable surface to try to type. This isn’t a laptops-only problem either: larger tablets increasingly come with keyboards. Stuffing anyone using a computer into a windowless business area isn’t really a good option.

Stuffing anyone who wants to type into a dark, windowless office zone is not the solution. Image: John Walton

And then there’s the style, which epitomises the situation in which Cathay Pacific finds itself. I recognise that personal and corporate styles are subjective, but I’m open to good design even when it’s more form over function. While I love a good bit of mid-century modern, something about its implementation across the Pier gave me pause — particularly since so many needless form-over-function tradeoffs make the lounge less useful for passengers.

I like the green accents, but the main corridor is rather too much of a good thing — and the thick pile carpets are a pain for anyone with rollaboards. Image: John Walton

As I thought about why the lounge wasn’t ticking my boxes, I realised that the problem with Cathay’s design is that it feels quite 1920s colonial Hong Kong old boys’ club, in a way that rings a little self-important and not a little pastiched.

The massive walls of pale jade in the principal room and across the entire corridor feel gauche. In the dining area, the space is all green leather and dark wood, like a faux smoke-filled room from a  bad spy film. Some terrible anachronistic spy flick stereotype saying “welcome to Hong Kong, Mr Bond” wouldn’t have felt out of place, except for the fact that this space is in an airport in the year 2017, and it’s neither the 1960s nor any of the historical periods that that era idolised.

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Nor, importantly, does it feel like modern Hong Kong or modern east Asia. This feels less out of place — or, rather, perhaps a little more out of place and therefore okay — in Cathay’s outstation lounges, where its offerings at London Heathrow and Tokyo Haneda are clearly created in the same design language. But in Hong Kong, it feels…fake, Disneylandish, and clichéd.

Part of the #PaxEx problem Cathay faces is that it is being undercut on price by newcomers like the Chinese big four and the two HNA Group airlines in Hong Kong: Hong Kong Airlines and Hong Kong Express. Part of the problem is that the traditional global business market to whom this old boys’ club might appeal is no longer entirely western and has a multitude of other options. Part of the problem is that the Cathay Pacific brand has never managed to appeal to mainland China, hence Dragonair and the rebranding to Cathay Dragon. The crux for Cathay Pacific is that the Pier fixes none of these three problems.

Rather, it feels like the lounge is harkening back to a time that never really existed to appeal to a market that doesn’t dominate the world any more — something that feels like a real metaphor for the airline itself.

Despite being almost brand new, something felt anachronistic about the Pier’s design. Image: John Walton

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