Mix a drink, get nostalgic, go wide-eyed and keep wondering how this has come to be. S. Muthiah
A hotel as a National Monument! Just imagine that! It can only happen in Singapore where its ancient and more recent past are as important as its present. We in Tamil Nadu keep talking of doing even better than Singapore in the next decade or so, but none of that vision centres on valuing our heritage as Singapore does. And Singapore's vision of heritage even encompasses a hotel, Raffles, one of the “Great Hotels in the East”.
In the 1930s, I used to wait for father to return from his annual two/three-month trips through South and Southeast Asia and talk about the “Great Hotels of the East” he had stayed in. And I'd always dream of the day I'd at least visit them and discover why they were legends. Well, in time, I did about half of them, but, by the 1990s, I'd decided I'd never get around to seeing the rest of them, the Strand in Burma, the Raffles in Singapore, the Continental in Saigon and a couple of others. Then, serendipitously, a post-birthday party celebration in Singapore landed the Raffles in my lap. And if you're a heritage buff like me, that's a place not to be forgotten in a hurry.
Gleaming white it stands, as colonial-looking as ever in restoration, but no longer with the beach edging it. Reclamation of the beach and high-rise development now separate it 500 m from the shore. But that doesn't diminish one bit the awe it inspires in one who sees it for the first time all flood-lit and with its beturbanned, achkaned, giant Sardar, sporting a magnificent beard, waiting to greet you with a flourishing bow even if you be as shabbily dressed as I usually am.
The signature sip
Having seen what certainly looked like a landmark, it's the legendary Long Bar that I wanted, where Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway had sipped whatever their potions were and where all I wanted was the signature Singapore Sling. But Sardarji would have none of it; “You're new; you must see the hotel.” And so he led us into the beautifully furnished lobby with plenty of seating (unlike what some of our new and refurbished hotels are offering) and its long reception counter. The famed Tiffin Room off it is where Afternoon Tea with clinking cups and dainty sandwiches is still a tradition, apart from Tiffin at lunch, and by it is the magnificent staircase to the first and second floors, gleamingly polished and sporting a forbidding sign: “Only for residents.”
Across the corridor that forms one end of the open-to-the-sky Courtyard, the Billiards Bar outshone the staircase in polish, one end of it with billiard tables, the rest with an oval bar counter and its surrounding barstools smack in the centre and tables around this centrepiece beautifully laid out for the morrow's buffet. It was down corridors and upstairs thereafter to the first floor and the end of the building where the Long Bar awaited us, no longer where it used to be, I'm told, but relocated and recreated faithfully during the 1989-91 restoration.
There it was, a long room, the bar half its length, and a stairway in its middle leading up to the second level. The heavy wooden chairs and heavier tables could hardly be moved to make space for the eight of us. Above, ancient looking fans slowly twirled around, but the punkahs did not move. And below your feet the peanut shells crackled; to this day, the hallowed tradition of unshelled peanuts in a bowl on a table that's constantly refilled continues and guests continue to drop the shells on the floor.
It didn't take long for the Singapore Slings to turn up in their tall patented glasses topped with foam, a pineapple wedge and a cherry, glowing in pinks and reds and a dash of orange. My American daughter had a Virgin Singapore Sling and after a sip of it I thought I had the answers: “It's the Cherry brandy that makes all the difference,” I proclaimed, only to be shushed by the waitress who handed me Ngiam Tong Boon's 1915 recipe: Gin, Benedictine, Cointreau, fresh Sarawak pineapple juice AND Cherry Heering, a liqueur, NOT a brandy. You live and learn.
And what else I learnt was that four Armenian brothers, the Sarkies from Julfa — from where our own Coja Petrus Uscan came — leased a 10-room Beach Road colonial bungalow that was lapped by the waves and on December 1, 1887, opened it as Raffles Hotel, naming it after the founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. The owner of the property was an Arab who later improved it and by 1891 it was a much more presentable property that continued to improve.
The Japanese occupation ran down the property and when it reopened as the Raffles in 1946 it was a shadow of itself. But little by little it was renovated till, in 1987, it was declared a National Monument. Then began major restoration and renovation and, in 1991, it reopened as the splendid hotel it is today, its French Renaissance architecture combined with the colonial a treat for the eye.
In Raffles class was the lounge and bar of the Singapore Cricket Club, its wood and leather polished to a shine that almost lights up a softly glowing interior. Its porticoed entrance and two verandahed wings are less impressive, but they all attest to the care taken in post-war Singapore to restore its heritage. The verandahs open out to the Padang, Singapore's famed lung that's home turf for the SCC and the Singapore Recreation (once Eurasian) Club at the other end as well as parades of all sorts. Here cricket was played long before the SCC was established in 1852.
The SCC's first clubhouse opened on the present site in 1859. A bigger clubhouse replaced it and welcomed members and their guests in 1877. And this was replaced in 1884 with a two-storey clubhouse that is the nucleus of today's home of the Club. Extensions were made to this building in 1906 and the two wings were added in 1922. The Japanese left it in rather a mess in 1946, but the restoration that's been done points to Singapore as being the place we should turn to to restore our heritage buildings.
Despite all the glitzy high-rises of a 21st Century city planning for the 22nd Century, despite a couple of glass and steel towers coming up every day, Singapore has not for a moment lost sight of its heritage — Malay, Indian, Chinese and Colonial European. You can see it meticulously preserved in street after old street, in public building after building, in art deco residences and homes of the past. All listed and protected. When are we going to follow this example?