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The spa, by excellent local barber Gentleman’s Tonic, was a nice touch but the gentlement’s club decor felt outdated.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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17 Comments

  1. pbags

    Your review, like any on design is purely subjective and off-piste. Ilse Crawford’s vision for this space is not only on point, it is single handedly the most beautifully considered lounge I’ve ever have the pleasure of visiting. The onyx walls are sublime and the visitor enjoys effortless transitions from area to area within the lounge. I would argue the overall design has flavours of the many destinations the CX network reaches. Modern HK itself is a pastiche of many influences (like so many global destinations) so I would question what truly is a representation of HK? Any attempt to draw on the visual history of a country often ends up a cliché’d, tacky mess (SO many lounges I’ve had the displeasure of visiting fall into this category). This is not a ‘decent’ lounge, it is a beacon of good taste and the most enjoyable amuse bouche before the onward journey.

    • John Walton

      Thanks for your thoughts, pbags, though I’m pretty sure if something is subjective then it somewhat by definition can’t be off-piste, since the piste is what the person being subjective says it is. Nevertheless, I agree with you — and indeed stated in this opinion piece — that any opinion on design is subjective.

      You may like Crawford’s vision, and indeed I like a lot of her work, not least her outstation lounges for Cathay. I’ve been through the first class LHR and combo first-business HND lounges recently, and I think her concept works significantly better there where the focus is outwards rather than inwards, where there is a wider mix of furniture including some that are functional to an extent not seen in the Pier. I wonder whether Crawford was given too wide a rein with the form-over-function in the Pier, and that is of course Cathay’s responsibility as the company commissioning the designer.

      In the LHR and HND lounges, there is also a lot of natural light, which helps with the palette. Crawford’s portfolio images of the lounge — see http://www.studioilse.com/first-class-airline-lounge-hong-kong — are flooded with a level of light that wasn’t present on any of my three visits to the Pier, which I suspect is because HK’s level of light on smoggy days is relatively low and because the lounge is on the level below the main terminal floor while the other two are on the top floor.

      While I think (and said) there’s much to like in the Pier, I still think it’s the wrong concept for Cathay, for the reasons I stated.

    • Anthony Jones

      Well said pbags. I echo your comments and I’m not sure what John is going on about with his rant. Perhaps, he needs to resort to another lounge to keep him intact with happiness! Seems he is unhappy with what CX is offering with its high quality lounge product.

  2. Sebastian

    Wrong in so many ways. You’ve totally missed the point of The Pier and the concept of Life Well Travelled.

    • John Walton

      Hi Sebastian — would you care to elaborate? I am, as ever, keen to understand others’ perspective in the passenger experience.

  3. Anthony Jones

    John, then what concept do you suggest for Cathay’s lounge and why are you so against the design of The Pier. Why so anti-CX with your comments?

  4. John Walton

    That’s a really good question, Anthony. Obviously, I’m a journalist and not a multi-person design house being paid serious bank by a large airline to analyse and create world-class design, but it strikes me that there is a balance between the futuristic utilitarianism of The Wing and what feels to me like the anachronistic antiutilitarianism of The Pier. I think some good examples on the first class side of things would include the classic Marc Newson Qantas first lounge in Sydney, the Singapore Airlines first lounge in Changi and at outstations, and even the first class side of Cathay’s Heathrow lounge, where the jade-wall-and-dim-lighting is turned way back.

    The thing is, I think that Ilse Crawford could have brought me along with her design if The Pier was truly a functional space for the first class passengers and oneworld Emerald level flyers it should be serving. As it is, it’s a great space if you want to sit in a low mid-century replica chair a twentysomething might have in their living room and hold your tablet while sipping on a glass of business class Champagne. The problem for me is that first class passengers aren’t twentysomethings, they want to put their tablet/laptop on a table in front of them and either type or stream some entertainment between flights, and they really ought to be able to expect decent bubbly. The question I keep asking myself is: is the problem with this lounge fixed by replacing half of the low chairs with something higher with a laptop-friendly table with obvious power ports and maybe some 2A USB sockets? The answer — on the lounge side only — is yes. But I think the lounge’s design flaws highlight a wider problem for the airline.

    For Cathay, I think the problems highlighted by a lounge that doesn’t work for its most valuable customers are around their past market disappearing and not being able to appeal to enough of the current and future market to be a success. I think we’ve seen those problems exemplified recently, not least with the airline having a massive redundancy exercise where I’ve seen almost all of the people I know to be some of the best and brightest at Cathay leaving for pastures new. I think that one of the symptoms of the airline’s issues is that it doesn’t know what parts of its incredible and almost unparalleled history it needs or wants to leverage to create a future brand. And I think that a highly designed yet non-functional space is symptomatic of the PaxEx thinking that got Cathay into the pickle in which it now finds itself.

    I hope that underlines the fact that I have a lot of time for Cathay Pacific, and that — as with any airline — I have no axe of being “against” or “anti-” to grind. As I said in the piece, I have a lot of love for Cathay, as an airline and as a truly iconic part of aviation history. But part of what I do here with Up Front as an opinion and analysis column is say where, on balance, I think the premium PaxEx emperor has no clothes, even when that’s unpopular or against the grain. And that’s the case here.

  5. Anthony Jones

    John, whenever I visit The Pier First Class lounge, I see happy passengers that are enjoying their visit. You are the only disgruntled traveller that is complaining about their lounge.

    Perhaps it’s best that you visit The Wing and enjoy your time there whilst allowing the rest of us to enjoy the wondersful facility that CX has created for us at The Pier.

    I don’t think the Singapore Airlinrs First Class lounge at Singapore Changi Airport is anything to highly praise. It’s nothing innovative but an old school boring lounge.

    As for Qantas, the only section tang woes passengers is the dining area (that’s where most passengers hang around). The rest of the lounge is pretty boring.

    • John Walton

      The thing, Anthony, is that (as I said in the review) I wasn’t the only traveller I observed trying to reconcile a need to plug in and get connected (over execrable 2.5 meg Internet, no less) with a desire to enjoy what the lounge had to offer, but also not being convinced that the design was showing Cathay in its best light for now and the future. I wouldn’t say that I was disgruntled: more disappointed, really.

      Indeed, on a recent visit with first class lounge options I chose to swing by The Wing and then hit the Qantas lounge eat rather than trekking out to The Pier. I guess my question is: what do those of you (and there are clearly a number of people like you who are very cross with me for criticising your beloved lounge, down to the ad hominems) who love the lounge find so appealing? Do you want to lean back in a chair without charging your phone? Do you want to sit at a table in the dining area with a laptop and no power sockets? What’s the use case you want from this lounge?

  6. John Lewis

    John, interesting take and I must admit I completely disagree with your opinion. It is way too extreme.

    When eating in restaurant, do you take your laptop out and work, the same applies here in first class lounge.

    When eating, one must eat, work in designated area and so forth.

    If you don’t like the practicality of The Pier lounge, you can surely use the Qantas lounge.

    It’s not about how people are reacting to their beloved favourite lounge as it has its own fans and rightly so. There will be minority of people such as yourself that will critic it to the bones to find fault (reads as get a life).

    I suggest you go and tell the designer about your feelings and she could enlighten you on her throughs. That’s a good challenge isn’t it? Please do report your findings as this will be very entertaining. Waiter, popcorn please!

  7. not-John-Walton

    Considering this is an opinion piece, YOUR opinion, you air it with a voice of rule and seem to think everyone shares your view. Trust me, you’re definitely in the minority here as exemplified by all the reviews which praise The Pier as one of the best lounges, and all the people who appear to love the lounge while there. Just because you might not like it and have some weird objection of the image and feel it’s projecting, doesn’t mean it has problems “which won’t help the airline to dig itself out of the hole in which it finds itself.” What hole exactly? Their bad performance in earnings? The “bad lounge design” according to you?

    All the over-complicated descriptions you throw around about what it’s trying to achieve, just makes you sound like you’re trying too hard to pick a bone with it. Sure, it might not appeal to everyone, and it clearly doesn’t appeal to you, but your over-interpretation of what it’s trying to represent, and your constant whining about how there’s no surface to put a laptop or table to stream movies make you sound exactly like the whining 20-somethings you’re complaining about. It feels like a living room to me, a personal living room, and I love it, as do most people. Instead of an opinion piece, you sound like you’re trying to convince everyone else to feel the same you do. Get over yourself.

  8. StudiodeKadent

    “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”

    You’re aware that Western-style design is actually very popular in Asia, right? In addition, Hong Kong is a global and cosmopolitan city where “East Meets West” is embraced. Hong Kong Chinese have their own identity separate from that of Mainland Chinese, too.

    I’ve had a great time in The Pier. I can fully accept if you found some aspects of it not particularly functional, but your criticism of the aesthetic style strikes me as attempting to read some kind of oppressive neocolonialist agenda into Cathay and Crawford’s design choices. I mean I personally prefer the hypermodern/super-slick/Foster and Partners style they previously had, but green is Cathay’s brand color and jade is a very common material in Asian art (and Chinese art in particular). It only makes sense for Cathay to use it.

    The idea that the lounge harkens back to an “orientalist Hong Kong that never existed” (it may have existed during British colonial times actually) is simply irrelevant; does a flag carrier airline have to be an accurate representation of national symbols? And who decides what the “correct” way to represent the nation is? How does one retain regionality without stereotyping? Does the Qantas First Class lounge in Sydney have even the slightest feel of Australiana to it? I don’t think so. Alternatively, would you want Air France’s lounge in CDG to be draped in the French flag and staffed entirely by depressed existentialists dressed up like mimes and wearing berets?

    Maybe I seem unreasonably cynical but frankly when you bring up the spectre of colonialism, orientalism and stereotypes I think it won’t be long before you describe Air India’s Maharajah mascot as problematic, racist, and indicative of internalized self-hatred amongst Indians which can ultimately blamed on the British Raj.

  9. george smith

    The problem with your review is that it is too “woke.” You seem to be channeling Edward Said and his concept of orientalism. How did a runway girl lounge review suddenly get so PC about things, tut-tutting what you deem to be politically incorrect lounge decor?

    And if you want to honest and away from PC constructs, you would have to discuss China’s takeover of Hong Kong, and whether China honored its commitments in terms of democracy. But these are largely taboo topics — why don’t you try it and find for yourself and see what real power looks like and how long it is before your luxury reviews are blocked in China.

  10. Mike Gibbs-Harris

    The QF First Lounge in Sydney is well regarded, but seems to have got rid of virtually all of its desks for working on. Still good food and drink, but not a working lounge anymore. Perhaps the glitz of the restaurant trade is influencing lounge design -noone will ever win an award for best lounge by having lots of functional desks instead of flashy food and wine.

  11. Wei Khang

    I’m surprised to read this sort of article from you John; surprised too that this made it past RGN’s editorial controls. Mary, can you hear us?

    I’m seated in the Pier as I type this. Here’s a caveat: I’m here at least once a week and this is my favourite lounge anywhere. I’m Asian, I live in Asia, I work for an Asian company. I’m also a weekly CX flyer and I’ll tell you that they’ve nailed my preferences and requirements nicely with this lounge. I love the design, choice and tactility of materials, comfort of the seats and the variety of spaces. Where’s the colonial throwback? It seems thoroughly modern, warm and inviting to me. I prefer lounges that feel homely and that absorb noise well as I want a tranquil place to relax before my flight. The Wing doesn’t meet my requirements nearly as well as this.

    I’m one of around 40 people in the lounge right now. For your reference I’m the only one using a laptop, and my laptop is plugged into the powerpoint contained within the side table. And here’s my guess: I think that fewer than 5 percent of guests use their laptops while in lounges, based on my experience.

    I like your articles for the most part John, but please leave the bigotry offline. It seems like you formed a rather perturbed viewpoint before you even set foot in the lounge and then wanted to find every possible means to base your article around it. You’ve done very little to support the agenda you’ve brought here.