Raffles Rich History Lives on...
Words by Dorian Mode and photography by Lydia Thorpe
Deputy Editor Dorian Mode explores the literary history and rich colonial past of Singapore's famous Raffles Hotel
As we emerge from the air-conditioned carapace of the taxi and into the wet heat of Singapore, Raffles, this grand old lady of the Far East, stands like a giant wedding cake. We enter the hotel and a doorman in a turban greets us like long lost relatives. We make our way to reception and the smell of tropical orchids tickles our nostrils. Exotic. But after checking-in, all I want to do is order a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar or – like my wife – flop in the pool with one. Singapore is increeedibly hot. But the bedrooms are cool at Raffles, with their grand ceilings, stately verandas and bare floors. They feel nothing like the basic functionality of a Toyota, more like a vintage Rolls Royce.
I’m now sitting in the celebrated Long Bar at Raffles in a white-linen suit, drinking a Singapore Sling (invented at Raffles) and exhausting my repertoire of faraway looks. I periodically dab sweat from my brow with a handkerchief in the manner of Peter Lorre in Casablanca. In my mind, I see topee hats, steamer trunks and pahit parties. But in reality, I see T-Shirts, baggy shorts and thongs. And my leather-cornered steamer trunks, festooned with P&O labels from exotic locales, have been superseded by soulless wheeled vertical nylon suitcases.
My wife couldn't wait to get poolside with a Singapore Sling
Before the war, Raffles was the haunt of Hemingway, Hesse, Conrad, Coward and Kipling. But Raffles is most associated with (the man who inspired me to become a writer) William Somerset Maugham. I became obsessed with Maugham thirty years ago, after reading a collection of his short stories titled The Trembling of a Leaf (Little Stories of the South Seas Islands). These he wrote while traveling through the Far East in the 1920s, documenting the mores and manners of the British colonial ruling class. So, for me, Raffles is a spiritual place.
Raffles was the haunt of Hemingway, Hesse, Conrad, Coward and Kipling
Maugham’s era of Raffles began with the grand opening of the largest ballroom in South East Asia in 1921 and closed with the formal surrender of the Japanese at City Hall in 1945. (During renovations Raffles archivists unearthed numerous artefacts from the Japanese occupation of the hotel.) But it’s this juniper-soaked epoch I see in my mind’s eye, as tourists puncture my colonial reverie with chatter about everything from Donald Trump’s White House prospects to that paragon of aspirational modernity, the Kardashians.
In my imagination, I hear the strains of the Raffles Dance Orchestra echoing around the ballroom’s high opened walls, as soldiers in white mess-coats glide ladies elegantly across the polished dance floor. The ladies’ flowing gowns are made from Chinese silk, purchased in Chinatown after some throaty haggling by a Singapore-born ladies maid. (Indeed, my wife ordered a skirt in Chinatown from a tailor while we were there.)
Raffles Hotel in all its former glory before the war
Raffles luminaries were not restricted to scribes. Douglas Fairbanks hurdled every dining table in the ballroom between courses to win a bet, while silent screen legend, Charlie Chaplin, was often seen smoking between the twitching palms in the famous Palm Court.
While boasting the “coolest ballroom in the East” dancing in the tropics was a sweaty affair. So, guests flopped in rattan chairs to cool down with a Whiskey Stengah* or a Million Dollar Cocktail** or the aforementioned Singapore Sling, all served by Chinese waiters in crisp white uniforms. At midnight, guests sang “God Save The King” with a tear at the corner of the eye.
Pre-war, Raffles was a cashless society. Of the famous chit system one Raffles guest wrote, “many a man would have pulled out of town ages ago had it not been for his chits. At the end of the month, he finds he has an enormous bill. By the time he collects enough money to pay it, he has also had time to sign more chits, and so it goes on year after year.”
Singapore's Chinatown is famous for its world-class tailoring
Raffles was founded in 1887 by the Sarkies: four expatriate Armenians brothers. They named Raffles after British colonial administrator, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, who founded Singapore sixty years previously. Built for the East India Company, on a swampy harbour on the tip of the Malay Peninsular, it’s now arguably the busiest port in the world.
The Sarkies added two wings to their original hotel and in 1899 opened the famous Palm Court wing. In 1905, electric lights and a generator were installed and Raffles boasted ‘800 16-candle-power incandescent lights, in addition to five arc lights of 2,000 candles each and electric fans. Moreover, a London newspaper referred to Raffles as ‘The Savoy of Singapore’, although the Savoy of London never offered guests a darkroom, a government post office, a slaughter-house and its own rubber-tyred jinrickshaws.
While things have changed in 100 years, staying at Raffles is still special. But do read Maugham while staying there. It’s as compulsory as a Singapore Sling.
The classic Singapore Sling which originated at Raffles
30 to 35 ml gin, such as Tanqueray
15 ml Cherry Heering
7.5 ml Dom Benedictine
7.5 ml Cointreau or triple sec
120 ml unsweetened pineapple juice, such as Trader Joe’s
15 to 18 ml fresh lime juice
5 to 10 ml grenadine (use less if you don’t like sweet)
A forceful dash of Angostura Bitters
Pineapple and maraschino cherry (optional, for garnish)
Pour ingredients, from the gin down to the grenadine, into a cocktail shaker. Add the bitters. Drop in enough ice cubes to fill about 2/3 of the shaker. Cover and shake hard and fast, until the container feels cold, about 30 seconds.
Fill a tall glass with ice, then strain the cocktail over the ice. If you want, garnish with the pineapple and cherry. Drink up!
* A Whisky Stengah is simply a drink made from an equal measure of whisky and soda water, served over ice. It was a popular drink with British subjects in the early 20th century, in areas of the British Empire in Asia.
** The Million Dollar Cocktail is believed to be created around 1910 by Ngiam Tong Boon at the Long Bar at Raffles. He also created the Singapore Sling.