January 29, 2015

A close shave at The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur

An historic Kuala Lumpur landmark is returned to former glory, reviving the romantic jazz era of the 1930s. Roderick Eime relives a little of this great hotel’s past.

I dare not move. My head rests reassuringly against the leather restraint while, out of the corner of my eye, I can see the blade being sharpened to a samurai keenness. Then, with a deft hand reserved for practiced executioners, the lethal instrument is applied to my throat and drawn upward in a slick motion that removes only the offending follicles.

But Aras, my expert swordsman, is no Sweeney Todd. There’s no blood, no serenades to homicide. The 30 minute Traditional Hot Towel Wet Shave is an entirely urbane experience and I’m revelling in it for just 75 ringgit (about US$25)

“I learned my craft in Iran,” confides Aras with textbook-perfect English, “then I worked in London before coming out to Asia - and here I am.”

The Truefitt & Hill salon under the spa in the newly restored and re-opened Majestic Hotel is just a part of the total renaissance experience offered at this delightfully retro hotel. Butlers, barbers, barmen and chauffeurs make up the complement of staff at your beck-and-call when staying in one of the 47 classic colonial-style suites in the ‘Majestic Wing’.

But the reborn hotel is not just about nostalgia and pre-war throwbacks to empire. It’s a clever mix of old and new, with 300 modern rooms in a totally new-build section, The Tower Wing, which looms above the august whitewashed walls of the original structure that first opened its doors on the 15th of August 1932.

Supervising the renovation of the old building was a labour of love for architect Zaidan Tahir, a graduate of Texas Tech University, who was tasked by YTL Hotels to bring it back to its former glory. Tahir has worked with YTL on other restoration projects in the Cameron Highlands and Malacca. Coincidently, Tahir had fond memories of this iconic landmark from his college days when it housed the National Art Gallery.

“I enjoyed walking around appreciating the small details of the building, its style and architecture,” he said, “we wanted to maintain the look and feel of the place, at the same time, give it a new life.”

The hybrid neo-classical/art deco Majestic has been through several incarnations in its 80 year history, not all of them happy.

In its heyday during the 1930s, the hotel catered to European guests and the local well-to-do with traditions like the ‘Tea Dance’ and ‘Dinner Dance’. Even the rooftop garden had a dance floor with seating for 350 guests. Modern inclusions such as hot and cold water, showers and full sanitation were firsts for the fledgling Malayan hospitality industry.

But like so much of SE Asia, World War II changed everything. The grand hotels like Hong Kong’s Peninsula and Singapore’s Raffles were all commandeered by the Japanese conquerors as military headquarters. So too The Majestic and it housed the Imperial Army until war’s end. Room 48 is said to be haunted by the ghost of Japanese officer who committed ritual suicide upon learning of Japan’s surrender.

In 1945, The Majestic resumed duties as a lavish hotel, but struggled to reclaim its place as KL’s pinnacle of style and grandeur. But perhaps it was the fact that the rooftop bar was used by the founders of UMNO to plan their independence from Great Britain that assisted in its preservation. By 1957, when the newly independent Malaysia came into being, The Majestic was past its prime and falling into disrepair. In 1977, it was almost lost for all time when a 22-storey high rise was planned for the site but, to their eternal credit, the UMNO government stepped in and acquired the building in 1983, fixing it with a heritage preservation order.

But by New Year 1983, the last melancholy guests were checking out and The Majestic became the National Art Gallery until 1998. For the next ten years, YTL Hotels negotiated with the government and eventually received approval to redevelop the hotel under strict observance to heritage conditions. A new art gallery was built and The Majestic began its resurrection, formally reopening in December 2012.

A justifiably proud Tan Sri Dato’ (Dr) Francis Yeoh Sock Ping, md of the YTL corporation, said at the reopening “It is a great honour to have been given the responsibility of restoring this national heritage to its former glory. We have painstakingly revived the exquisite neoclassical features in the Majestic Wing, the pièce de résistance of the hotel. Our efforts have since earned the new Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur a coveted listing in The Leading Hotels of the World, the only hotel in Malaysia to have such an illustrious distinction and putting it in the company of hotels such as The Ritz in London and Le Bristol in Paris.”

Today the Majestic Wing is a marvellous tribute to the decadent ‘30s lifestyle and the jazz era. A talented quartet entertains in The Bar, their swinging tunes entertaining guests all the way from the Tea Lounge, past the Orchid Conservatory and into the Colonial Café, where sumptuous high teas are served.

Adjacent the original, hilltop entrance is the Majestic Spa, beneath which Aras and his gentleman’s sanctuary reside. In The Smokehouse, you’ll find Johnny, a true barman’s barman. He knows every cocktail ever devised and can match you to one of his titillating concoctions in a blink. Mine is a whiskey sour, “classic and reliable”, Johnny tells me and I’m not about to correct him. Gentlemen may partake in cigars while playing billiards and sipping fine single malts. The only concession to contemporary values being they may now do so in the company of ladies.

Before I turn in for the night, I put my shoes out for a polish, hang a shirt to be pressed and send my breakfast order down to Lynn, the impeccably stylish assistant manager, who supervises all aspects of the Majestic Wing. I could have, Jay, my butler run a bath or turn my quilt should I desire it, but I’m content with a wake-up call and English breakfast in my adjoining parlour before tackling the rigours of KL’s retail domain. And that reminds me, I’ll need a chauffer for that.

Fact File:

Address: 5, Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, Kuala Lumpur, 50000 WP, Malaysia

Reservations for The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur can be made on the site at www.majestickl.com or by phoning direct on (603) 2785 8000.

The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. See www.lhw.com

January 02, 2015

New Las Vegas exhibition to bring Liberace back to life


David Ellis

Over-the-top costumes, jewel-studded cars, sparkling candelabras, flamboyant jewellery and other outrageous belongings that once drew hundreds of thousands a year to a museum dedicated to the world's most flamboyant entertainer ever – the pianist Liberace – are set to go on display again in Las Vegas by the end of this year.

After being held in storage since the original Vegas Liberace Museum closed at the end of 2010, when visitations had dwindled from 450,000 annually to a mere 35,000, plans are to show these items off as a more down-sized collection occupying about half the space of the old.

And importantly to locate it in thriving Downtown Las Vegas, rather than outside the Main Strip as was the original, with the Liberace Foundation negotiating for space in Las Vegas' all-flashing, all-glittering Neonopolis.

This flamboyant shopping and entertainment complex is lit by an amazing 5km of multi-coloured fluorescent-tubes, and includes amongst its tenants several gay-friendly bars and entertainment spots. And whilst these would seem a natural for the Liberace Museum to sit amongst with the pianist himself seen as one of the most-famous gay entertainers ever, Liberace in fact never once referred to himself publicly as such.

"It's actually one of the things we have to confront when we open the new museum," a spokesman for the Liberace Foundation said. "In the original, our guides tended not to discuss with visitors that he was gay, and if asked would even deny both that, and the fact he died of AIDS. So that's the big question with the new museum – do we 'out' the dead, because Liberace never outed himself…?"

The new museum will be named the Liberace Entertainment Experience, carefully chosen so it can be shortened to the acronym Lee – as the pianist was known to his friends.

And it will be just 3000 square metres in size, with the Foundation hoping for a modest 35,000 visitors a year. "As not everything from the original will be able to fit in," the spokesman said, "it will need to be a selection of the best of the best, with an emphasis on Lee's costumes, and allowing fashion students to come in and study these in an educational environment."

At the same time, however, the Foundation wants to ensure that all visitors will rightfully recognise that Liberace was in fact one of the most-influential entertainers ever, both in Las Vegas' and America's entertainment history.

Although for most fans, a visit to the new Museum will be to ogle not just his often outrageous outfits, but the many seemingly bizarre items he amassed as the highest-paid performer in the world over 20 years – and which included a US$1m fee in 1955 to play just one night at the opening of Las Vegas' Riviera Hotel & Casino (equivalent to around US$8.8m today,) and $138,000 for another single performance at Madison Square Garden…

Amongst items being considered by the Liberace Foundation are several of his 30 cars that include a replica 1931 Model A Ford, a 1957 London cab, a few Rollers (one a 1962 retractable-top Landau covered with tiny jewel-like mirrors and dubbed "The Disco Ball on Wheels,") the famous custom-built Rhinestone Roadster plated with thousands of faux rhinestones, and his favourite 1954 Cadillac Eldorado that he was given by an appreciative sponsor of his-then TV show.

Clothing items are certain to include his famous US$300,000 virgin fox coat with a near-5m train and $100,000 worth of sequins and crystals, and which weighed 45kg. And also an over-the-top pink gabardine and silk suit covered with everything from satin appliques to pastel seeds and crystals would seem another certainty, as well as his sequined jumpsuits… and crystal-studded pink cowboy boots.

Hopefully there'll also be space for such items from his enormous piano collection as an 1885 Pleyel art-case grand, and a 1945 mirrored self-playing nickelodeon adorned with peacock feather engravings.

Liberace, who died in 1987 aged 67, once famously said "I don't give concerts, I put on a show," and this new museum to his memory – small as it will be compared to the original that drew 10 million-plus visitors over 30 years – is sure to drag in the faithful and the just plain curious when it opens at year's end in Downtown Las Vegas.


[] A FLAMBOYANT Liberace on stage… diamonds, sequins, crystals and rhinestone-plated piano were all part of the show.

[] HIS famous 1885 Pleyel art-case grand was another favourite, up there in the priceless category

[] THE famous Rhinestone Roadster – but just how far would you take it on the open road?

[] SOME of Liberace's thirty other cars that ranged from a 1957 London cab to a replica 1931 Model A Ford and a few Rollers…

[] LIBERACE amongst the opulence of his totally over-the-top sitting-room.

[] ON stage in that $300,000 virgin fox coat: with its near-5m train, it weighed 45kg.

(All Images courtesy of Liberace Foundation)


Struth! World's biggest airport

This terminal, just one of four at Dubai's existing airport, will be swamped in size by
   three at the city's new airport capable of handling 100 Airbus  A380 double-decker
   aircraft at the one time. (Middle East Aviation News)

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says if you have trouble navigating your way around international airports now, you'll be forgiven for thinking you'll maybe need a personal GPS and a cut-lunch to find your way around a new airport being planned for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE.)

Because it will be the biggest airport in the world with no fewer than five parallel runways spaced 800m apart so all can be used at the same time, and with the existing Dubai International Airport next to it, it will mean a total airport complex roughly 25 times the size of Sydney's Kingsford Smith.

With three terminal buildings able to handle 120-million passengers a year by 2020, and 160-million a year by 2030, one terminal of the new Dubai complex will be reserved exclusively for the flights of the UAE's home-carrier Emirates, another for other major international carriers, and the third for low-cost carriers.

And while it will be able to handle passengers coming off or getting onto up to 100 Airbus A380 double-decker aircraft at the one time – that's over 50,000 travellers – the new airport's planners and local Immigration and Customs authorities are already working together on how to make arriving and departing the new complex as hassle-free and as speedy as possible.

Dublin's Kavanagh’s Pub - an Irish patriot's favourite watering hole

DANIEL O'Connell, Irish patriot extraordinaire,
by Sir George Hayter. (WikiMedia)


David Ellis

JOHN Kavanagh Pub, Dublin – still pulling the pints 180 years
after being "saved" by patriotic Daniel O'Connell
from almost certain demise. (John Kavanagh Pub)
WHILE Irish patriot Daniel O'Connell is most remembered for his fight for Catholic emancipation, Catholics' rights to sit in the Westminster Parliament, and repeal of the Parliamentary Act that combined Great Britain with Ireland, drinkers at a pub in Dublin raise their pints to him today for a far more bizarre reason.

Three times an MP, and for two years Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1841-42, the philosophies of Daniel O'Connell have also been quoted as inspiring Mahatma Gandhi in his fight for Indian independence, civil rights leader Martin Luther King in his against racism in the United States, and even English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in his writings – in particular his famously satirical portrayal of English society, Vanity Fair.

But it is drinkers at Kavanagh's Pub on Prospect Square in Dublin who today salute O'Connell for more down-to-earth reasons: ensuring that their watering-hole stands 180 years after it's almost certain demise.

INTERIOR of the John Kavanagh Pub today. (John Kavanagh Pub)
Kavanagh's is certainly worthy of a visit if ever you are heading to the Irish capital, both for that history and the fact it's been run by six generations of the one family since 1835 after having being saved by the patriotic Daniel O'Connell.

A John O'Neill opened the pub on the-then outskirts of Dublin in 1833, hopeful that he could cash-in on the year old Glasnevin Cemetery next door by hosting wakes for the bereaved, and even stepping-in as an impromptu undertaker.

But although the gates to the cemetery were so close to his pub, the road linking city and cemetery – a toll road as was often the case with cemeteries at the time – ran in the opposite direction to the pub, so mourners would go straight back into town for their wakes.

GLASNEVIN Cemetery (now re-named Prospect Cemetery) has
an amazing 1.5 million graves, often almost head to toe and
shoulder to shoulder. (Glasnevin Cemetery Museum)
Enter O'Neill's friend O'Connell, who offered to help the publican attract customers from the thousands of Dubliners who would ultimately have loved-ones buried in the Glasnevin Cemetery.

And O'Connell did so in a most bizarre way: he lobbied the government to have a new road built from Dublin to the cemetery, with the lofty virtue of it being toll-free – and thus not a financial imposition on mourners in their time of pain.

And because it could not follow the existing toll-road, it had to approach the cemetery from the opposite direction… which meant passing right by the front door of Mr O'Neill's next-door pub.

THE ELABORATE tomb of Daniel O'Connell.
(Glasnevin Cemetery Museum)
So appreciative was the grateful publican that when that road was finally opened, he declared that the only beer served would be O'Connell's Ale… which just happened to be brewed by the son of Daniel O'Connell.

Funeral corteges soon began stopping at the pub, the coffins being off-loaded there while undertakers and mourners tool a quick drink or three before the solemn procession to the grave-site…

And inevitably there would be a stop-off on the return as well. O'Neill prospered, but after just two years handed over the business to his son-in-law John Kavanagh when the latter married O'Neill's daughter Suzanne.

The pub then took the younger man's name – and has been John Kavanagh's ever since, John and Suzanne's having an amazing 25 children to ensure there would be plenty of descendants to keep the pub in family hands. Current publican, Eugene Kavanagh is the sixth generation of the lineage.

MASSIVE tower over the tomb of patriot
Daniel O'Connell dominates the cemetery. (WikiMedia)
And while its officially John Kavanagh's Pub, to most locals it's more-generally known as "The Grave Diggers" – in deference, they'll recall to visitors, to the early days' cemetery workers who would bang on the back wall of the pub with their shovels for barmaids to pass beers through a special hole cut there to avoid them coming into the pub in generally muddied boots and coats.

A third and newer "main road" now leads to the Cemetery (now re-named Prospect Cemetery, with an amazing 1.5m graves of the deceased crammed, in some places, virtually head to toe and shoulder to shoulder.) If you're visiting Dublin and taking a few at Kavanagh's, drop into the cemetery as well to see the graves of the likes of one-time Ireland President Eamon de Valera, poet Brendan Behan, Home Rule advocate Charles Stewart Parnell – and Luke Kelly of the iconic folk group, The Dubliners.

And the extraordinarily elaborate tomb of Daniel O'Connell… under a massive tower that dominates the cemetery.


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