Queste Spring 1993
On February 29 1992, Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the ‘Grand Old Lady of the East’, celebrated its re-opening after a two-year £60 million refurbishment.
Against the 21st century cityscape of modern Singapore, Raffles Hotel could easily be taken for an illusion if it wasn’t already so well-known. Some say it is actually more famous than Singapore itself, but ignorant midday pedestrians or lagged jet travellers driving in from the airport at night do blink in amazement when they first see the wedding-cake white, red-tiled, neo-renaissance building. They blink again when the 73-storey, 1300-room Westin Stamford hotel is pointed out immediately next door.
Consequently, Raffles Hotel in its present surroundings tests somewhat Somerset Maugham’s oft-quoted phrase that Raffles stands for ‘all the fables of the exotic east’. Such notions are pushed even further away by the environment inside the building: icy air-conditioning, Mozart and Vivaldi piped music, and currently, the smell of fresh paint. Raffles’s founders however, the almost mythological Sarkies brothers, would probably have approved of the recent refurbishment: the hotel is bigger, smarter, more international and more expensive than ever before.
The Sarkies, four expatriate Armenians, were no newcomers to the hotel business in the Far East when they founded Raffles in 1887. In 1881 they had established the famous Eastern & Orient hotel in Penang and they would go on to open the Strand hotel in Rangoon in 1892.
In 1886 however the four brothers leased a seaside bungalow on Singapore’s Beach Road. Initially they ran a Tiffin House, a restaurant serving rice with a selection of curries at lunchtime. The next year they developed the property into a ten-room hotel and displaying considerable imagination given the year – 1887 – the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, they decided to call their hotel ‘Raffles’ after the polymath British colonial administrator, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, who had founded Singapore only 60 years earlier.
Employed by the British East India Company, Stamford Raffles had been searching for a new base in south-east Asia since the British had withdrawn from Batavia (now Jakarta) and most of what is now Indonesia in 1816. By 1819, Raffles had recognised the potential of the marshy harbour on the very tip of the Malay peninsular and established the trading post that was soon to become Singapore.
In 1867 Singapore, along with Penang and Malacca, became a full British colony administered from London, collectively known as The Straits Settlements. Two years later, when the Suez canal was opened, Raffles’s vision and optimism were proved well-founded: the fine harbour with good local trade links, located a convenient third of the world away from London, prospered. By 1905 Singapore was the seventh busiest harbour in the world and now it is arguably the busiest.
Thus 1887 was a good year to open a hotel in Singapore. It was also remarkably early in the fledgling country’s history and one reason for the hotel’s current potency as a symbol and a historical monument is that it has not just mirrored local history, but also played various star roles.
The hotel’s celebrated reputation is also a result of good relations with various visiting writers and journalists from the earliest years. This aspect of the hotel’s history has perhaps been somewhat overblown. Joseph Conrad, for example, is unlikely ever to have been a guest. He was only in the Far East between 1883 and 1887, and the hotel only opened in the December of the last year.
Rudyard Kipling, stopping briefly in Singapore on a journey around the world, did not stay at Raffles either. He put up at the Hotel de l’Europe, then the grandest and most famous hotel in Singapore, but ate at Raffles. He later recommended this arrangement in print, but found that the only the second part of his advice was quoted in the advertisment the wiley Sarkies published: ‘Let the Traveller take note…”Feed at Raffles when visiting Singapore” – Rudyard Kipling’.
The Sarkies brothers were also busy building. They quickly added two wings to the original bungalow, doubling the number of rooms. In 1894 yet another wing, the Palm Court wing, was opened and in 1899 the three-storey main building which today is still the hub of the hotel complex was constructed, resulting in just over 100 rooms, all suites.
In 1905 a generator and electric lights were installed. The local advertisments boasted of ‘800 16 candle-power incandescent lights in addition to five arc lights of 2000 candles each and electric fans’. In the same year The Sphere, a London newspaper, referred to Raffles as ‘The Savoy of Singapore’ and the name stuck, although the Savoy of London could hardly have offered all the facilities that Raffles did at the time: a darkroom, a government post office, a slaughter-house and ‘our own rubber-tyred jinrickshaws’.
Perhaps it was the hum of all this activity that led Herman Hesse, one of the lesser quoted literary guests, to conclude after spending 12 nights in the hotel in 1911, that Raffles was ‘a large and noisy hotel’. If he had arrived four years later however, his memories might have been more rosy, even if the hotel had been no quieter: in 1915 Barman Ngiam Tong Boon invented the Singapore Gin Sling.
A modest man by all accounts, Ngiam Tong Boon would be unlikely to claim complete responsibility for the hotel’s boom in the 1920s and 30s, but his invention was a good indication of the spirit of the times: cocktails, tea-dances, the high-stepping Charleston and jazz bands. Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks (who hurdled every dining table in the ballroom between courses to win a bet) and Noel Coward were all guests in this period.
This was also the time that Somerset Maugham, Raffles’s most famous literary light, arrived to document the mores and manners of the British colonial ruling class. He is held to have worked outdoors in the Palm court in the mornings, and in the afternoons and evenings circulated in ‘society’, allegedly gleaning the gossip and scandal which he incorporated into his famous stories.
It was also at this high point of the hotel’s life that Arshak Sarkies, the youngest brother, now effectively in sole control of the hotel, would balance a glass of whisky on his bald head and waltz around the ballroom to applause. His older brothers were badly missed in the business though: Arshak was more a romantic than a hard-headed businessman and his philanthropic ‘chit’ system of payment caught up with him when the world rubber market collapsed in 1929 leaving many of his rubber- planter clients insolvent. Then, in the face of the world depression of the 1930s, Arshak decided to renovate the hotel. Shortly after the work was completed, he died and in 1931 Raffles Hotel went into receivership.
It was not to remain there long. In 1933 a new public company was formed, Raffles Hotel Ltd. and Teddy Troller, a Swiss hotelier who had worked at both the Majestic and the Astor House Hotel in Shanghai, was appointed general manager. The next year the hotel re-opened with 120 rooms and in a stoke of good fortune, the rival Grand Hotel de l’Europe closed the following year and Raffles became the undisputed Grand Hotel of Singapore.
Formal dances were held three times a week and incorrect dress provoked either the band to stop until the offender left the floor, or a ‘buttons’ to present the offender with a card asking him to leave. Bruce Lockhart, a rubber estate manager turned journalist and intelligence agent, reported in 1936 that ‘Raffles appeared more decorous and more middle class than any Bournmouth hotel on a Sunday’. The local people used to enjoy it too: they gathered outside the windows (no ‘natives’ were allowed in) to watch with amazed eyes the bizarre social antics of their colonial rulers.
If the depression of the 1930s did little to dampen the life of the hotel, the first Japanese bombs in 1941 quickly did. Singapore fell on February 15 the next year and the British contingent gathered at Raffles to dance, despite a black-out and a curfew, and sing ‘They’ll always be an England’. The silver was hurriedly buried in the Palm Court and then with Singapore under new rulers, Raffles became the ‘Syonan Ryokan’, a hotel for senior Japanese officers.
After the Japanese surrender in 1946, the hotel became a transit camp under the British Military Administration. The 1946 annual general meeting of the still functioning Raffles Hotel Company surprisingly recorded trading profits of $457,953 for the period of March 1941 to August 1946, but had to lament ‘the loss and deterioration of our kitchen equipment, and the failure of our hot water system, due to the carelessness of our enemy inhabitants’.
Back in business again the hotel was renovated once more and in 1948 a gala opening was held in the grand ballroom. In 1950, the ceilings of 40 rooms were lowered and the windows sealed to allow new air-conditioning units to function more efficiently. To celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, a new restaurant, the Elizabethan Grill was opened on June 1. Attempts to re-name it the Epicurean Grill in 1959, possibly as a result of anti-colonial sentiments, provoked letters of protest to The Times in London and the name was duly changed back. Interestingly, it seems to have slipped away again in the recent refurbishment and the hotel’s premier restaurant is now known as the Raffles Grill.
Both time and the tropical climate caught up with the physical structure of the hotel in the late-seventies and by the mid-eighties Raffles had become a bit – in a word – dingy. As Singapore effectively wooed the new long-haul tourist market, dozens of other smart and sophisticated new hotels were built which offered better accommodation at a better price.
The atmosphere was still thick though. A smoky fug hung in the Writer’s Bar (now an ‘intimate holding area for Raffles Grill’, and no smoking to boot) and four course dinners of unimaginative but well-cooked soup, fish, meat and dessert were announced by a waiter in parade-ground tones.
Fears of demolition were one reason for the hotel being declared a national monument in 1987, but when, in the same year, the hotel also featured in an official plan to restore many of Singapore’s old buildings, its future seemed more secure. The plan called for the redevelopment of Raffles Hotel to make it, ‘the national treasure that it should be – the Crown Jewel of the visitor industry in Singapore’.
In 1989, Raffles Hotel (1986) Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of DBS Land, the company which currently owns the property, heeded the government’s call and closed the hotel for total refurbishment.
Their aims were admirable: detailed research was instigated to ensure the historical accuracy of the restoration. The most obvious result of this has been the relocation of the main entrance to its original position directly facing the sea (or where the sea was before land reclamation). A fine reproduction of the original cast-iron portico which had been dismantled and lost 70 years ago has also been cast. The original had been made by Walter Macfarlane and Co. of Glasgow, now closed; so from records found in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, a reproduction was cast in Alabama, USA and shipped to Singapore. Similar attention to detail has also been lavished on the stained glass, the ornate plaster-work and the furniture in both the suites and the public areas.
A ‘heritage search’ was launched in 1989 and a full-time curator was appointed to catalogue both the responses to the world-wide appeal and the finds on the site. To date, over 400 pieces of furniture have been restored and over 8,000 pieces of silver and china have been counted and dated. A significant collection of over 700 oriental carpets has also been acquired.
There is no shortage of hard commercial sense in the venture though. Room rates start in the region of £280 per night, including tax and service, and an adjacent ‘parcel’ of land, confusingly also called ‘Raffles’ (cf. Raffles Hotel) has been developed, presumably to capitalise on the name. It contains a new Long Bar, a cafe, a delicatessen, the Raffles Hotel Museum and a theatre modelled on a late Victorian playhouse where plays, recitals, lectures and a multi-media audio-visual show on the history of Raffles Hotel and Singapore will be presented.
There are also 70 ‘retail outlets’. Local wits are already talking of the Raffles Hotel theme park.