RE­FLEC­TIONS

Sin­ga­pore’s 130-year-old Raf­fles is about as iconic as a ho­tel can get. Ahead of its clos­ing later this year for the fi­nal stage of an ex­ten­sive restora­tion project, a long­time fan looks at its inim­itable his­tory and en­dur­ing legacy.

DestinAsian - - DEPARTMENTS - BY DAVEN WU

As Raf­fles un­der­goes its lat­est restora­tion, a long­time fan delves into the ho­tel’s en­dur­ing legacy.

I think I was aware

of Raf­fles long be­fore I fully un­der­stood what it re­ally rep­re­sented. Grow­ing up in Sin­ga­pore in the 1970s, the ho­tel was such a nat­u­ral, even nor­mal, part of my life. For Sin­ga­pore­ans of a cer­tain gen­er­a­tion and fi­nan­cial means, it was the de­fault lo­ca­tion for so­cial and pro­fes­sional events. We cel­e­brated birth­days with steak and fancy ta­ble ser­vice at the Grill Room, held meet­ings in the Palm Court, and danced at an­niver­sary par­ties in the ball­room. Out-of-town­ers were, in­vari­ably, in­vited to the Long Bar for a Sin­ga­pore Sling be­fore high­tail­ing it to nearby Bugis for din­ner and a drag show.

Gen­er­a­tions of politi­cians, roy­alty, block­buster nov­el­ists, and movie stars—they all came to stay. At a time when no one re­ally talked about such so­phis­ti­cated things, “Raf­fles” was a gold­plated brand name.

Look­ing back on it now, the ho­tel had prob­a­bly seen bet­ter days. We just never re­ally no­ticed. When I look through sepia-toned fam­ily pho­tos from that pe­riod, I mar­vel at how dated the rooms and pub­lic spa­ces look, though at the time, I thought it was pos­i­tively the last word in glam­our and chic.

When an episode of one of my fa­vorite Amer­i­can TV shows, Hawaii Five-O, was filmed in Sin­ga­pore in 1978, I was thrilled to read in the pa­pers that Jack Lord, the tall, dash­ing ac­tor who played po­lice chief Steve McGar­rett, was stay­ing at Raf­fles. By the time my mother re­lented to take me to the ho­tel for lunch, on the off chance that he would be sit­ting at the next ta­ble, the shoot was over and he’d gone home.

Round about the same time, Peter Bog­danovich filmed one of the piv­otal scenes of Saint

Jack— his no­to­ri­ous exposé of Sin­ga­pore’s seamy un­der­belly, based on the book of the same name by Paul Th­er­oux—in room 10. For his ef­forts, and prob­a­bly to the re­lief of the ho­tel’s man­age­ment, the film, with its cen­tral themes of crime, rack­e­teer­ing, pros­ti­tu­tion, and nu­dity, was banned in the city-state un­til 2006.

One year, when I was back in Sin­ga­pore for Chinese New Year dur­ing my univer­sity hol­i­days, my First Un­cle sum­moned me to the ho­tel. “I’ve checked in here for a week,” he told me when he met me in the lobby. “I’m es­cap­ing the rest of the fam­ily and all those aw­ful house vis­its. Don’t tell any­one. Come, let’s have lunch at the Tif­fin Room.” I never did tat­tle about his Chinese New Year es­capes, but now that he’s gone, I don’t think he would mind much.

One by one, the mem­o­ries un­furl—silent, black-and-white im­pres­sions of the past that form the palimpsest of my life. While my con­tem­po­raries have ap­plauded the new wave of Sin­ga­porean ho­tels with their hi-tech, fancy

Above: In his cur­rent role as res­i­dent his­to­rian, Leslie Danker, Raf­fles’ longest­serv­ing staff mem­ber, is a wealth of in­for­ma­tion about the ho­tel’s long and event­ful his­tory. Dur­ing his 45-year ten­ure, he has met such fa­mous guests as John Wayne, Michael Jack­son, and Queen El­iz­a­beth II. fan­gled mod cons and sleek Euro­pean fur­ni­ture, I’ve al­ways loved Raf­fles’ fin-de-siè­cle charm, es­pe­cially the stately old suites, each fur­nished with Asian tex­tiles, creaky floor­boards, and brass-fit­ted ar­moires.

Leslie Danker joined the ho­tel in 1972 as a main­te­nance su­per­vi­sor and is now its res­i­dent his­to­rian and long­est-serving staff mem­ber. He tells me that Jack Lord had been “a bit proud.” I feel a lit­tle de­flated at this his­tor­i­cal as­sess­ment. Go on, I urge. “Well, I asked him for his au­to­graph and gave him my pen, but he in­sisted that his driver go to the car to get his spe­cial au­to­graph pen.”

Even af­ter all these years, Danker looks de­cid­edly unim­pressed by such per­nick­ety Hol­ly­wood be­hav­ior. He is a lit­tle more en­thu­si­as­tic when he re­counts how Bog­danovich and his lead­ing men Ben Gaz­zara and Den­holm El­liott

dis­ap­peared into their room to shoot their scene. “No one else was al­lowed in. No one knew what they were do­ing. Ev­ery­one thought they were shoot­ing a doc­u­men­tary, you know. They sub­mit­ted a fake script to the au­thor­i­ties.”

This past Fe­bru­ary, Raf­fles Ho­tel Sin­ga­pore— to give the prop­erty its of­fi­cial name—be­gan an am­bi­tious three-phase restora­tion project. As this ar­ti­cle goes to print, scaf­fold­ing has gone up around the white columned stretch of its re­tail ar­cade and a few wings have been shut­tered. By the end of the year, the ho­tel will have closed com­pletely, giv­ing it­self over to ar­chi­tec­tural firm Aedas Sin­ga­pore and in­te­rior de­signer Alexan­dra Cham­pal­i­maud, the woman be­hind the restora­tion of New York’s The Plaza and Wal­dorf As­to­ria, Ho­tel Bel-Air in Los An­ge­les, and The Dorch­ester in Lon­don. The 103-suite ho­tel is slated to re­open in the sec­ond quar­ter of 2018 with fresh up­hol­stery, decor, and wired tech­nol­ogy.

The last time Raf­fles closed for this length of time was lit­er­ally a gen­er­a­tion ago, when, be­tween 1989 and 1991, a cen­tury’s worth of un­sym­pa­thetic in­tru­sions was peeled off and stripped down to the restora­tion bench­mark year of 1915. The en­trance, which had been moved by the Ja­panese dur­ing the war to the eastern por­tico, was re­stored to its orig­i­nal Beach Road frontage, and the ball­room that had also been on Beach Road for as long as any­one could re­mem­ber was de­mol­ished. The swimming pool in the Palm Court was, once again, cov­ered up with lawn, and the lobby sparkled once more like the bright airy bird­cage that had so en­chanted Joseph Con­rad a cen­tury ear­lier.

“When we did the 1991 restora­tion,” re­calls Jen­nie Chua, the general man­ager at the time, “we were con­scious to en­sure that this would be a place that Sin­ga­pore­ans would want to come to and say, ‘This is our ho­tel.’ We wanted it to be a place where Sin­ga­pore­ans would come to cel­e­brate mile­stones in their lives—wed­dings, birth­days, an­niver­saries. Other­wise, it would have been a very ar­ti­fi­cial en­tity that ap­pealed only to tran­sient guests.”

That the restora­tion achieved its goals is beyond doubt. Over the past quar­ter-cen­tury, Raf­fles has been as much of a lo­cal land­mark as it was when I was grow­ing up. But things wear out. With out­moded tech ameni­ties, dated up­hol­stery, and no ball­room, Raf­fles was ready for a ma­jor re­fit.

If there are any con­cerns about just what Cham­pal­i­maud and her team will un­veil, no one’s let­ting on. Danker isn’t wor­ried. “Raf­fles was des­ig­nated a Na­tional Mon­u­ment in 1987, so they can’t re­ally change any­thing struc­turally,” he says.

No, they can’t, I think to my­self. And yet,

would my mem­o­ries sur­vive be­ing ex­ca­vated and re­fur­bished and dressed up in new col­ors?

One af­ter­noon in early April, I checked in to Raf­fles for the night. It was meant to be a kind of long good­bye. They put me in suite 102 on the other side of the Palm Court where First Un­cle once staked his an­nual hide­away. It turns out this was W. Som­er­set Maugham’s room when­ever he was in Sin­ga­pore. A bi­jou sit­ting room fur­nished with vo­lu­mi­nous sofas and hand­wo­ven rugs led into a high-ceilinged bed­room and a vast bath­room. Framed orig­i­nal hand­writ­ten notes of thanks from Maugham to the ho­tel hung next to a hand­some writ­ing desk.

It was dif­fi­cult not to sense the hov­er­ing past. The wing I was in—a long, white-mar­bled cor­ri­dor with high ceil­ings framed by tow­er­ing trav­eler’s palms and frangi­pani blossoms—was built in 1894 and, judg­ing by the black-and-white pho­tos that dot the prop­erty, it hadn’t changed much in the in­ter­ven­ing 123 years.

I wan­dered the ho­tel. I touched the walls of the orig­i­nal an­nex that the Sarkies broth­ers, the ho­tel’s first pro­pri­etors, had added in 1890 to the 10-room guest­house they’d leased three years ear­lier from the wealthy Arab mer­chant Syed Mo­hamed Al­sagoff. Danker told me that dur­ing the first restora­tion, they’d dug be­neath the lobby and dis­cov­ered the foun­da­tions of the guest­house. Else­where on the prop­erty, they un­earthed the com­plete skele­ton of a horse.

As a trop­i­cal night, heavy with hu­mid­ity, set­tled over the French-tiled roofs and the ho­tel’s lights came on like can­dles on a birth­day cake, we made our way across the Palm Court to din­ner in the Raf­fles Grill—the very path Maugham would have taken, I imag­ined. Our crunch­ing steps on the gravel echoed in the court­yard.

En route, I bumped into Roslee Sukar, the ho­tel’s as­sis­tant chief concierge. “I’m a lit­tle sad,” he said. He was 25 when he started at Raf­fles in 1992 at the front desk. He op­er­ated the el­e­va­tor when Michael Jack­son came to stay. “I’m so at­tached to this ho­tel.” On cue, the grand­fa­ther clock in the lobby chimed. In­cred­i­bly, it dates back to the days of the Sarkies broth­ers.

That night, as I set­tled into bed in the Som­er­set Maugham suite (how do I write these words with­out be­ing swept away into the past?), I thought of all the guests who had stayed here over the past 130 years. All those whis­per­ing lives, each now a part of the Raf­fles leg­end. I don’t re­mem­ber fall­ing asleep. But I guess I must have, be­cause even­tu­ally, morn­ing came.

Op­po­site, from top: A de­tail of the Raf­fles’ door­man’s Sav­ile Row–de­signed mil­i­tary uni­form; dat­ing to 1899 and de­signed in the neoRe­nais­sance style, the main wing of the ho­tel cen­ters on a three-story atrium.

Pho­to­graphs by Lau­ryn Ishak

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