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Hotel Nostalgia


     I went to a "western hotel" for a buffet breakfast the other day. I don't know why. It cost 60 Yuan (≈$9.60), and I could have got as good a breakfast in a local restaurant for 10 or 12 Yuan, or something from street vender for even less. I don't think it was the mini hot dogs passed off as "breakfast sausages" that drew me to the hotel – maybe I was just taking a walk down memory lane.
     The term "western hotel" was used by tourists in the late 1970s and early 1980s when China first opened up to foreigners. The name fit, because almost all the guests were from North America or Western Europe. Except for the hotel staff and the occasional Chinese-American, you would seldom see an oriental face in those places. Most tourists of Chinese ancestry stayed in "Overseas Chinese" hotels, and travelers from the mainland used the regular hotels.
     I’ve been told that, except for lower room rates, the Overseas Chinese hotels were pretty much the same as the western hotels, but I never stayed in one. I did stay in the regular Chinese hotels a few times, even though it was technically illegal for foreigners to do so. Most of them were dirt cheap, for good reason, but there were a few nice ones. In Shanghai in 1981, when there weren’t enough western hotels to handle all the tourists, I got to spend two nights in a Chinese army officers' hotel. Except for the ultra-drab decor, it was a pretty high class place for a supposedly classless society.
     The western hotels always had doormen/guards to keep the tourists safe from the locals – or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, the locals usually stayed away. (See
story.) The only person I ever saw get stopped at the door was a young Chinese-American tourist in Beijing. I also remember sitting in the lobby of a brand new hotel in Nanjing in 1985, watching the locals milling around outside gawking at the place, but they stayed a ways back from the hotel grounds.
     Times have changed. Some hotels still have the words "Overseas Chinese" in their names, but they’re no longer restricted to people of Chinese ancestry. The places we used to call "western" are now just "tourist" hotels and, more importantly, the clientele is no longer lily white. At my western buffet breakfast the other day, the patrons were one FFG (me), one apparently South Asian woman, and 20 or so Chinese men. Some of the Chinese were probably businessmen from outside China, but judging from appearances and snippets of overheard conversation, most of them seemed to be mainlanders.
     Nowadays the Chinese use a five-star system to rank tourist hotels. While the rating standards are unclear, room quality is definitely not the over-riding factor – some three-star places have better rooms than some five-stars. Aside from the prices, the main differences seem to be the glitziness of the lobbies and the fanciness of the restaurants, plus maybe a swimming pool or bowling alley.
     The latest thing is "business class" hotels that are sort of like two- or three-star tourist hotels, except they aren't included in the star rating system and therefore don’t need to have an English speaker on staff. The ones I've stayed in only charged $20 to $30 per night. The flophouses are still around, almost but not quite as dirt cheap as before. They no longer seem to have qualms about renting to foreigners, at least in the towns I’ve been to.
     Liuzhou has two five-star hotels: The Radisson Blu, which opened last year, and the older Liuzhou Hotel. In-season a standard room in either one will set you back around $100 a night (negotiable). I’ve never stayed at the Radisson, but in 2004 I spent my first night in Liuzhou at the older place. I had reserved the room through a booking agent in Shanghai who apologized profusely for not being able to find me a better hotel. It wasn’t that bad, though. In fact, it was just as nice as the three-star where I’d stayed the night before.
     Two theories have been proposed for how the Liuzhou Hotel got its five stars: (1) it’s owned by a general who has five stars on his shoulder; or (2) someone paid off the rating agency. Take your pick.


Update: I've found out that the reason the Liuzhou Hotel seemed like a three-star when I stayed there is because it was a three-star at the time. It received its fourth star a couple of years later and its fifth after a few more years. As far as I know, all they did to get the upgrades was to start serving western breakfasts in an attached restaurant. They must have done some other things behind the scenes, though.


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