Christina Ong looks away, waving her hand in disapproval. I've just mentioned that the myriad references to her in the press these days come without any parenthetical explanation, such as hotelier, fashion retailer, or wife of Singaporean property tycoon. All across Asia and Europe, if not yet in America, the name Christina Ong resonates in fashion circles like Ralph Lauren and Miuccia Prada; and now, in the world of luxury high-end travel, her name is spreading even farther. My flattery, however, is getting me nowhere. Ong turns back with a look that says she's seen straight through me. She hates interviews—hasn't, in fact, given one since 1993—which has prompted journalists over the years to describe the incredibly private Ong as "cold and aloof" and "about as talkative as a Trappist monk." But just as the silence starts to become awkward, I notice a smile spread across her face, to reassure me. There's a kindness to it—one tiny opening in her famous impenetrability.
Christina Ong, 54, known as "Mrs. Ong" to associates, employees, all but a small circle of friends, is a perfect five-foot-seven-inch size eight. She is soft-spoken, and says little. She has neat black bobbed hair, an almond-shaped face, and delicate half-moon brows. She wears a Bulgari watch and large diamond earrings. She is always immaculately groomed, uses little makeup, and is usually dressed in black, white, or black and white in combination (a simple Miyake silhouette, Prada flats, or a top and calf-length pants from Shambhala, her recently launched line of yogawear). Her figure is lithe, clearly tuned by rigorous daily yoga. We meet, in fact, for this interview over a weeklong retreat at Parrot Cay, Ong's four-year-old private island resort in the Turks and Caicos. She looks at least a decade younger than her age, and is unremittingly glamorous. She's also considered Singapore's preeminent style icon.
This reputation has been honed by an illustrious 30-year career in fashion. Under the Club 21 umbrella, Ong operates 33 franchise stores in Singapore, ranging from Issey Miyake to Jil Sander, with others in Malaysia and Thailand; five multibrand boutiques in Singapore; and the A/X Armani Exchange in the Unites States and the Giorgio and Emporio Armani franchises in Britain. That the "Queen of Bond Street" should be able to find the time to build a hotel company is remarkable. But Christina Ong may now be the most significant luxury hotelier since Adrian Zecha founded the six-star Amanresort chain in the 1980s.
Ong's properties to date include The Halkin, a sleek minimalist hotel that opened in London's Belgravia in 1991; the similarly chic Metropolitan in Mayfair, which upon its opening in 1997 immediately became one of the biggest sensations of "Cool Britannia"; and the paradisiacal Parrot Cay resort, on a 1,000-acre island in the British West Indies. By the end of next year four additional properties will have debuted under the new brand Como Hotels and Resorts, including a major resort in the Maldives, opening this December, a new Metropolitan hotel in Bangkok, and an ambitious Balinese spa retreat, a joint venture with her friend Donna Karan.
"B.S. bought the building on London's Park Lane which is now The Metropolitan," says Ong, referring to her husband Ong Beng Seng, a real estate entrepreneur cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the global tycoons likely to shape the economic climate of the 21st century. "He was going to call it The Roxy. He asked me to come and see a mock-up room. He wanted to know if I liked it. I didn't, so it was thrown into my lap. I had it completely redone with a new designer. The same happened with Kuda Huraa [in the Maldives, now the Four Seasons]. It was his, then I came in to rescue it."
This interplay between husband and wife is the behind-the-scenes genius to her story. They complement each other perfectly. She is restrained, he's outgoing. Her wit is quiet, his warm and lively. Among friends he is an electric raconteur who leaves his listeners little time to gather their reactions. She gets the measure of a person by letting them fill a silence.
"We've been married thirty years," says B.S. "She is my principal driving force. For the first ten years she inspired me. For the next ten years she drove me. Now she is challenging me." Christina articulates the partnership differently. "My husband's work is the bigger picture. I notice detail."
Parrot Cay, a tiny caribbean cliche of an island ringed by porcelain-white beaches and turquoise ocean, was discovered in 1997 on a diving holiday by Ong's daughter, Melissa (who at 23 launched London's Met Bar, one of the most exclusive nightspots in London). At the time, the island was home to a candy-pink monstrosity of a hotel, built by a Kuwaiti investment company but as yet unopened, which had "horrid Spanish furniture," says Christina. "Mosquito-ridden," adds current managing director Harry Apostolides. B.S. bought it.
"He wanted to do another Four Seasons," Christina says. "But they wanted to completely rebuild. B.S. was reluctant. He was stuck. Then I told him that anyone coming into one of these rooms would be drawn instantly to the view." On the spot, she suggested a simple white and teak interior aesthetic, with large French windows to frame the turquoise seascape. The project, of course, landed on her desk, and within three years she had got the better of the resident mosquito population, employing six staff members to treat the island's wetlands daily with an organic insecticide.
She had also turned a nondescript hotel into a resort so hot that New Year's Eve at the pool bar is like an Oscars party. Regulars don't just stay for a month at a time, they also build their own properties, with private beaches, right down the road. Ong has sold five plots on the island to homeowners in a manner reminiscent of what Colin Tenant did on Mustique in the 1970s. (Limited future sales are planned, but only by application.) The first of these homes, The Residence, opening at the end of November, is a complex of three villas with an enormous infinity pool, available to rent when its owner, a Hollywood actor, is not on the island.
But the most talked-about aspect of Parrot Cay is the Shambhala Retreat, which has quickly developed an enormous reputation and attracts, say devotees, the world's leading yoga teachers, from Australian Shandor Remete to Californian Erich Schiffmann. During the week I visit, the retreat is led by Oakland-based Rodney Yee (scheduled to return in December and March), who is the reason Ong is on the island right now.
Parrot Cay's success has brought about a change in the way Ong feels she has to work. "I've got to think more corporately," she says. "At the moment, I explain everything personally, to the designer, the architect." Everyone in this core creative team, which includes Keith Hobbs of United Designers (The Metropolitan, The Residence on Parrot Cay) and Malaysian architect Cheong Yew Kuan (the upcoming Bali spa), talks about Ong's unusual, exacting commitment to detail and how she expects anyone with whom she works, from P.A. to architect, "to look outside their box."
"I have to maintain that dynamism," says Ong. "I can't work according to manuals." She selects every ashtray, tries each masseuse, travels around the Indonesian archipelago with her architect looking at indigenous building styles. In the Caribbean, she relies heavily on the Balinese staff she has worked with before. "In the East, we are brought up to serve, to make people happy. I wanted to transfer that to the West," she says. It is an instinctual modus operandi ("My eyes are my advantage, but they are also my curse. Nothing is ever perfect") which she knows will be difficult to sustain as her interests grow. This is a woman who understands the power of global branding. "I am now defining the parameters of each product," she says. "It will create more awareness as we expand. Then there will come a day when people ask us to manage a property."
Cocoa Island resort, in the Maldives, opens this December. Like Parrot Cay, Cocoa is not part of a main tourist hub, but located off the beaten path, in the less-developed South Malé Atoll. The sand here is an uncanny shade of white, and it tapers away into a spit that disappears as the tide comes in. The reef diving is among the best in the world. The resort's design aesthetic, again like Parrot Cay, will be pared-down and airy, making use of such natural materials as red meranti wood and palm fronds. It will also have the five-star details guests familiar with Ong's hotels have come to expect, including a high staff-to-guest ratio, healthy gourmet cuisine, and a Shambhala Retreat. There will be 30 "dhoni" rooms (styled after the local fishing boats), built of bleached wood and raised on stilts above the water, in addition to a pair of two-bedroom water villas and the Owner's Beach House. Room rates will start at $420 a night.
Next July, Ong opens a Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok, which, like its London progenitor, will have a slick Asian-contemporary style, with 179 rooms and two restaurants, a Met Bar, and a Shambhala Retreat. Uma Ubud, a Bali hotel simpler and with less expensive rates than Ong's previous projects, opens the same month with 40 rooms decorated in the island's traditional style: outdoor rose-head showers and sunken baths, cool verandas, beds swathed in mosquito nets. Rooms will also have private gardens—tropical, quiet, not overmanicured.
But Shambhala Bali may be her most ambitious project to date: an attempt to reinvent the modern spa. "Maybe it was something I needed. I certainly had a very strong idea of what it should be," she says. "Mrs. Ong lives her life in a certain way," says project architect Cheong. "She is building a spa to suit herself. And because of that, there will be nothing else like it."
Shambhala Bali, a joint development with Donna Karan, is scheduled to open next November, a few miles north of Ubud. The location is spectacular: 12 acres in a bowl of rice paddies with a sweeping vista of lush Balinese hinterland. The place has a vast horizon line but feels enveloping as well. I saw it before building began and was overwhelmed by the serenity of the landscape. "We don't want it to stand out," says Cheong. "It's not about being experimental, but neutral, nondescript, serene and calming. The landscape won't allow for an unusual architectural statement."
Each of the 19 suites will have its own pool large enough to swim in, and the two biggest suites will have private spas including steam rooms. There will also be a separate spa building, a yoga pavilion, and an infinity pool. The interior will have a Japanese sensibility, but not too severe or minimalist, moderated by stone and timber. There will be rattan and tatami mats and neutral colors, "a move back to basics," says Cheong. "There will also be some warmth and whimsy, but Bali is about equilibrium and balance."
At Parrot Cay, Donna Karan, who is a regular at the resort, joins Christina for lunch. "That just says it all—Chris eats with a knife and fork, I eat with chopsticks," she says as the two of them giggle over the irony. Karan has developed a passion for Asia, much of it fueled, she says, by the Ongs. "Chris and B.S. got me into the East completely. They took me on so many trips. I was so excited I was like a little kid with goosebumps." The experience has given direction to Karan's design aesthetic, as well as to her personal life. "I'm a yoga fanatic," she admits.
Parrot Cay, says Karan, is the nearest she can get to the Far East within a three-hour flight of New York City. "The thing about Chris is she brings the East to the West, and the West to the East. That's pretty global," she says. "But there's nowhere else right now I want to go that promises yoga, nutrition, nature, and cleansing, somewhere completely unpretentious, away from what we know as the urban life, where you can submerge yourself in nature." Says Ong: "I've never been on a retreat outside Parrot Cay. I'd love to do one, but I don't think the comforts are there. And I need them—if my family had warned me about that hut in Alaska [where she went recently on a family vacation], I'd never have gone," she laughs.
Shambhala Bali is particularly interesting because it's being conceived for women only, "with the odd window for husbands and partners," says Ong. There will be ongoing retreats from leading yoga teachers, similar to Shambhala Retreat at Parrot Cay, and the spa will feature high-caliber resident nutritionists, which is particularly important to Ong; at Parrot Cay, resident chef Amanda Gale prepares a daily low-fat and organic menu in addition to sophisticated haute cuisine, which (like the spa) is greatly exceeding the somewhat lowered expectations often associated with Caribbean vacations.
Karan and Ong talk at length about creating an ideal sanctuary where they would like to spend time. "A protracted opportunity to enjoy a balanced state of mind," says Karan. "It's beyond a spa—a way of life, a deeper way. It's our vision to create this in other parts of the world." Then, with an energy that perfectly complements Ong's reserve, Karan starts talking about opening another Shambhala, this one in Sun Valley: "Ski, sun, and sun salutations. With your own private slope. This whole Shambhala concept is still very much an 'and,' not an 'either/or.' " To be successful, Ong insists, good ideas have to keep evolving: "We're always beginners, with things to learn." It is this humility, often erroneously interpreted as coldness, which is the very essence of Christina Ong, and the force that drives her relentless perfectionism. For her, there is always room for improvement.
The Ong properties can be contacted through Como Hotels and Resorts, 44-20-7447-1029; fax 44-20-7447-1022; www.comohotels.co.uk.
Sophy Roberts is Departures' contributing editor for Europe.