The Rise of Boutique Hotels

Boutique hotels are popping up in Asia's more cosmopolitan cities faster than construction cranes. Over the last couple of years, Hong Kong and Singapore have led the trend in the region. Now Shanghai is getting the boutique treatment, meeting the fast-growing demand among design-conscious travelers for a more intimate, personal environment. Within the space of a few months, at least three boutique hotels—generally defined as having fewer than 100 rooms and a hip décor concept—have opened their doors. The 30-room Mansion Hotel is a renovated French-style manor with private-club décor, evoking the swinging Shanghai of the 1920s. M Suites has a sleeker, more contemporary feel, and JIA Shanghai provides home-style luxury incorporating signature furniture pieces. "It's a very niche market, but it's growing tremendously," says Yenn Wong, the owner of JIA Boutique Hotels, which opened Hong Kong's first boutique hotel in 2004 and is now planning its third in Beijing. "For these travelers, it's no longer about just having a comfortable hotel room. They're more in tune with the beautiful things in life."

The trend for boutique hotels started in New York and London in the mid-'80s, but was slow to catch on in Asia. Former lawyer Loh Lik Peng says he was called "crazy" when he started Singapore's first boutique hotel, Hotel 1929, back in 2003. "No one thought small hotels could make money," says Loh, who also opened Singapore's ultrahip New Majestic Hotel last year. "Now people are realizing that if you're doing the right thing it will work. A lot of new players are entering the market."

Boutique hotels typically attract an Internet-savvy, younger crowd of working professionals. They have little need or desire for the posh features a five-star hotel typically offers, like a large business center or sumptuous dining. What matters most to them is location—being in the coolest neighborhood—and the little touches, from gourmet chocolate on the side table to organic juice in the fridge. Travelers to Asia could do a lot worse than rest their weary heads at NEWSWEEK's top picks:

New Majestic, Singapore
Concept: Each room in this converted Chinatown shop house was decorated by a different local artist, creating a quirky but ultrachic atmosphere. Bonus: the restaurant serves some of the best modern Cantonese cuisine in town.;
30 rooms, $205-$395

Reflections, Bangkok
Concept: Individualistic and funky, whether one's taste runs to pink princess, Rhapsody Bohemian or the tranquil romance of the Taj Mahal.
Bonus: visitors can view and choose their own rooms on the hotel's web site.;
32 rooms; $90-$110

Jia Hong, Kong
Concept: designed by Philippe Starck, the rooms have a stylish, minimalist feel with a dash of modern baroque.
Bonus: The popular restaurant Opia, with its modern European cuisine, has won numerous awards for best eatery in town.;
54 rooms; $255-$770