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Mar 14, 2018

Grand Old Dame of Beach Road in Singapore

Pioneer generation Singaporeans would remember an old place in Singapore to remember vividly. Over the decades, many heritage buildings at Beach Road have changed, including this landmark posted in my previous blog here .

Raffles Hotel at Beach Road

The Raffles is one of the must-see places for every Western tourist, but especially for the British when Singapore was once upon a time a colony under the Great Britain.  To the rest of the world unfamiliar with Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, who wrote "Feed at the Raffles when in Singapore", the Raffles is the home of the ubiquitous Singapore Sling.

The internationally famous gin sling was created by Chinese barman Ngiam Tong Boon in 1915, and served to British planters and merchants lounging in the marble-paved Cad's Alley, then the old entrance to the hotel.

Today, the same concoction of gin, cherry brandy, Benedictine, Cointreau and bitters topped with orange, pineapple and lime juice is still served in the cool dim Long Bar - by Ngiam's grand-nephew!

The Raffles dates back to the early 19th century when it was just a small tiffin room with a private bungalow.  It wasn't until 1886 that the restaurant and house were brought over by the Sarkies brothers, three Armenian hoteliers who came to Signapore in the mid-1880s.

In those days, the hotel business was concentrated at the Esplanade, High Street and Coleman Street (remember the old Adelphi?)

But the Sarkies obviously had foresight, and their site on Beach Road did have a terrific view of the harbour and the sea.

The brothers hired the architectural firm of Swan and Maclaren (the same architects who rebuilt the Sultan Mosque) to renovate the hotel, and it wasn't long before the Raffles became known as the "Savoy of the Orient".

Today, you can still enjoy a curry tiffin lunch every Sunday in the Tiffin Room, complete with soft-footed waiters in their crisply starched whites, ceiling fans whirling gently overhead, and dappled sunshine filtering through from high above.

You can explore the Raffles Hotel by yourself, or ask at the front desk for a free tour.  And, if you want old-fashioned high tea with cucumber sandwiches and scones, go to the Tiffin Room at 4 p.m. where they screen an audio-visual presentation of the history of the grand hotel daily.

While you're wandering along the cool corridors of the Raffles, don't forget to look in on the spacious suites facing the pool on the ground floor.

There is a whole row numbered 112 to 123 named after personalities such as Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Herman Hesse, Somerset Maugham, and, more recently, Raymond Flower and Ilsa Sharp.  All of them have either written about the Raffles, or stayed and were entertained at this Singapore hotel which will be 100 years old in 1986.

Another reason, which reinforces our faith in human nature, might be described as literary although we see it as an appeal to the imagination.

For instance, Joseph Conrad was sitting in one of its varendahs when he read a report in The Straits Times of a crew which abandoned a sinking ship with hundreds of native passenters aboard, and the result was Lord Jim.

Not all the literati were complimentary.  Rudyard Kipling said:  "Feed at Raffles Hotel and sleep at the Hotel de L'Europe (formerly the City Hall building)."

Noel Coward, who was found naked in a corridor after a wild party, said that Singapore and Raffles by inference, was a first-class place for second-class people.  He was, of course, snipping at the colonials, but it must have hurt at the time.

On the other hand, Somerset Maugham, who spent much more time in South-east Asia, said Raffles stood for all the fables of the exotic East.

His short stories, such as The Letter, described a Singapore no longer recognisable, but its departed mystery lives on in the imagination of millions of people around the world.

In other words, man does not live by bread alone - or by satay or Peking Duck for that matter.

Modern Singapore looks like an Asian Manhattan, only cleaner, more efficient and orderly, but Raffles still conjures up the colour and excitement of the Orient which Conrad and Maugham helped to generate.

Raffles is a living reminder of the days when men lived dangerously and colonial wives were not as good as they might have been.

The architecture helps - white stucco of vaguely classical proportions softly corrupted by tropical vegetation and humidity.

We sat contentedly for hours in the Palm Court, with its traveller's palms and white balustrades, drinking and talking with old friends.

The Palm Court at Raffles Hotel in 1906, when the sea could still be viewed across Beach Road.

The curry served in the Tiffin Room has been modulated for the tourists, but with the many slow-turning ceiling fans.

It is a handsome and evocative room.  One can believer the story that a tiger was once found in the nearby billiard room.

One can also believe the story of how the staff buried the huge silver beef cart when the Japanese invaded Singapore.

A fifth-columnist, who turned out to be a senior Kempetai officer, questioned the waiters about its disappearance, but it remained buried until the British returned in 1945.

You can still order roast beef and Yorkshire pudding from that cart.  And many friends advised not to be deterred by the temperature and humidity outside; the beef and pud are always excellent.

They are as much a part of Maugham's exotic East as the trishaws in the forecourt, and the pirates who still haunt the waters of the archipelago.

Ilsa Sharp has captured this and more, but has not surrendered to nostalgia.  She knows there are more modern and better-equipped hotels.

But its atmosphere is incomparable.  Tourists who stay at the hotel do not say:  "It's Tuesday.  I must be in Singapore."  There is only one Raffles.

This is not to say that the management should not continue to improve its food and services.  The pursuit of excellence is now part of Singapore's way of life, and cannot be ignored.

That said, the romance of the past cannot be recreated, and tourists do not come to Singapore only to sample the air-conditioning.  The island would be a poorer place without Raffles Hotel.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 11 November 1984 with courtesy of NewspaperSG, NLB]

Raffles: Remaking An Icon

This is the behind-the-scenes story of a grand hotel undergoing the most extensive restoration of its 130-year-history.  The staff struggle daily to maintain the "Raffles standard" while the hotel is pulled down around them.  This is an extraordinary chronicle of a national monument and its makeover.

Please watch the video here , courtesy of MediaCorp Singapore.

About the show:

In the heart of one of the world's most modern cities stands an iconic structure synonymous with refinement, elegance, and service - unchanged for more than a century.

Raffles: Remaking an Icon is an exclusive invitation to this grand hotel in Singapore as it undergoes the most extensive restoration and renovation in its 130 years history.

Over the course of an extraordinary hour, we'll meet devoted staff - Bernd the poster boy - handsome front-of-house manager who manages guests disgruntled by the construction work, and an exacting general manager; Roslee, the gentle and quirky duty manager; Kaeley, the bubbly assistant had of housekeeping; and Chef Pierre, a volatile French man.  The staff struggle daily to maintain the "Raffles standared" while the hotel is pulled down around them.

This is a never-before-seen chronicle of a beloved institution that is both a luxury hotel, as well as a treasured national monument.



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