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After 47 years, Victoria’s landmark Bengal Lounge nearing its end

Iconic cocktail bar, nostalgic rite of passage for legions of 19-year-old British Columbians who therein imbibed their first legal drink, disgraced relic of British colonialism. Born 1969 in the Empress Hotel, Victoria, B.C., is scheduled to come off life support on April 30, 2016, a victim of modern-day political correctness and bottom-line bean counting, aged 47.

To the dismay of many monarchists and recovering government bureaucrats, the sun will finally set on a beloved last bastion of the British Raj. The Bengal Lounge in Victoria’s Fairmont Empress Hotel is closing at the end of April. The landmark Colonial India-themed bar is being turned into a function room for special events.

News of the lounge’s imminent demise has been met with both jeers and cheers.

Heritage activist Suzanne Johnston immediately launched an online petition to save the dark, clubby wood-panelled lounge, which boasted an entranceway guarded by two teak elephants and a balding tiger hide splayed above the back wall’s jade-veneered fireplace. According to local legend, both artifacts were gifts from the King of Siam (now known as Thailand) when he visited the hotel in 1930 – long before the Bengal Lounge was born in 1969.

More than 6,000 supporters have signed the petition, urging the hotel’s owners to preserve the lounge for “tourists who come from all over so they can step back in time.”

For weeks, misty-eyed nostalgics have been weeping all over the letters-to-the-editor page in the Victoria Times Colonist. “I enjoyed my first cocktail there in 1979 with my future husband, nestled comfortably in a large, plush leather chair,” one former patron reminisced. “I’ll never forget the drink ordered – a fuzzy navel, a drink that tasted like a dessert. I remember the exact spot that we sat, starry-eyed at 19 in a place like no other I had been, feeling very grown up.”

Vancouver developer Nat Bosa, who bought the 108-year-old hotel for a reported $100-million in 2014, wasn’t swayed by the supporters’ pleas.

“Let’s face the realities,” he said in a phone interview. “For a few months in the summer, that hotel is really buzzing. But in the slow months, when the hotel is only 45 per cent occupied, it feels really dead because the food and beverage facilities are spread all over the place.”

One long-time lounge employee dismissed the suggestion that the room, located across from a quiet cashmere sweater shop by the hotel’s rear entrance, is too remote or hard to find. “Anyone who knows anything knows where the Bengal Room is,” he said.

The Bengal’s closing is part of a $30-million renovation that will consolidate the various venues in the centre of the hotel with a refurbished Empress Dining Room, a modern white-marble-clad bar in the old harbourside dining room and a cocktail lounge in the new tea lobby.

Mr. Bosa says he plans to retain the salvageable heritage elements of the room (the hardwood floors are apparently worn down) and the room will be made available for private rentals.

“You know, a lot of people don’t think it’s good to have that sort of place,” he said, referring to the colonial theme and its racist whiffs. “They’re just going to have to trust that we’re doing the right thing.”

Indeed. Many have applauded the Bengal’s long-overdue euthanasia. “The regressive symbolism of the lounge is a disquieting throwback to an era when South Asians were subjected to the harsh imperial rule of the British Raj even as they were paradoxically promised the benefits of ‘enlightened’ liberal democracy,” two University of Victoria professors tsked in the local newspaper. “The Bengal Lounge nostalgically commemorates this era with kitsch frescoes of decorated elephants ferrying their Mughal mahouts, Indian sepoys bearing colonial uniforms and insignia, colonial-era punkah fans and a tattered tiger skin – stereotypical icons and images far removed from the rugged shores of the Pacific Northwest.”

Even in its early days, the Bengal Lounge had its fair share of detractors. Launched in 1969 as part of a renovation projection called Operation Teacup, the Bengal Room replaced the Coronet Lounge, Victoria’s first cocktail bar, circa 1954. (It was originally built in 1912 as a reading and writing room.)

“No one will make me believe that it was necessary to take this delightful corner of the hotel (already elegant in its own way), tear it to pieces and put it together again in its present image,” Elizabeth Forbes, social editor of the Victoria Daily Times wrote at the time, sounding uncannily similar to today’s Bengal loyalists.

In its dying days, the Bengal Lounge looks sadly worn out and dilapidated. The charms of the outrageously overpriced all-day curry buffet are grossly exaggerated. There are only four seats at the bar, which was long ago relegated to a tight, tiny corner.

Chair armrests are scratched and darkly stained with sweat. There are no springs left in the leather sofas; when you sit on the cushions, your bottom sinks to the floor.

To the unsentimental visitor in the bright light of day, the room feels like a grand parlour belonging to an elderly relative who may have once been a fastidious neat freak, but can no longer see the dust bunnies due to fading eyesight.

What’s left to save?

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