Raffles Hotel still charms

Soup tureen and egg cups with the Raffles Hotel logo
BROWSING around the Raffles Shop, I pick up a hardcover book by R.W. Holder titled "Eleven Months in Malaya" with sub-head "Sept 1945 to Aug 1946".  

I flip it over to read the synopsis of an intriguing account of the role the British Military Administration gave its soldiers during the post-war period before Malaya achieved nationhood.

This brings to mind my Uncle William in the UK who was in Malaya as an 18-year-old soldier with A Company 1st Somerset Light Infantry of the British army.  

He told me that he probably passed through Johor Baru while travelling by night train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, while expecting to be ambushed at any moment.  

When Japan sank the Royal Navy’s Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Malaya in December 1941, British families in Malaya made their way down the Malay Peninsula with the Japanese in pursuit and sought refuge in Raffles Hotel, Singapore.

I walk the corridors of this landmark hotel, finding my way to the Hotel Museum, its walls full of history and a special charm when Malaya and Singapore were still one country. 

Tucked on the first floor, the Museum Shop has a fascinating collection of Raffles Hotel memorabilia and that of the region, carefully preserved for visitors to reminisce about the time when the hotel was the venue for numerous social events, from dances to billiard competitions, and host to travellers the world over.

Historic Bits

In Sept 1887, the Sarkies brothers, then owners of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang, identified an old bungalow at the corner of Beach and Bras Basah Road that belonged to Arab trader Mohamed Alsagoff and announced their intention to open a hotel.

Raffles Hotel opened as a 10-room hotel on December 1. Over the years, it expanded as more wings were added. The Bras Basah wing opened in 1902 and, according to newspaper reports, it was “the most magnificent establishment of its kind east of the Suez”.

According to legend, an escaped circus tiger was pursued and killed in Raffles Hotel in 1902, where it was cowering under the Bar & Billiard Room.  

And because the tiger had special significance to the hotel, a live tiger was photographed on the first day of the year, standing on top of the hotel’s billiard table when the hotel celebrated its centenary in 1986, a year ahead to coincide with the lunar year of the tiger.  

In the Golden Age of Travel between 1880 and 1939, the Raffles Hotel label was on the steamer trunk of every seasoned traveller because this was the era when Singapore was known as the “Crossroads of the East”.

Steamer trunks used by travellers

Malaya Prime Minister designate Tunku Abdul Rahman [Left]
with Singapore Prime Minister David Marshall [Right]
in Raffles Hotel

After the return of Singapore to British rule, the hotel was a shadow of its former self but when restored to its former glory in the early 1950s, she continued to attract famous visitors such as Hollywood actresses Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor.  

The hotel is the perfect host for distinguished personalities, from royalty to the rich and famous such as Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip and the King of Pop, the late Michael Jackson.

Famous Names

Author Joseph Conrad was said to be among the hotel’s earliest guests before Rudyard Kipling arrived and Somerset Maugham was a guest in 1921, 1926 and 1959 (it was believed that he weaved juicy bits of gossip and scandal overheard at dinner parties into his classic stories while sitting under the frangipani tree in the Palm Court).  

British playwright, novelist and actor Noel Coward stayed at the hotel in 1930 when he was part of a visiting troupe which presented the play Journey’s End, in Victoria Theatre.  

Stars of the movie Pretty Polly, Hayley Mills and Trevor Howard, were also guests when they used the hotel as their set to film the movie in 1967.

Old photographs of personalities from Singapore and Southeast Asia are an important facet of the museum collection because they represent historical records of the lifestyle in the 19th Century.  

I look closely at the interesting sepia-toned photos and am rewarded with the recognition of several familiar personalities like author Han Su Yin, who used to have a medical practice in Johor Baru, and Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman with Singapore Prime Minister David Marshall.

Straits Times article on wedding gown worn
by Lady Marcella and her designer outfit
on display in the Museum
But it was particularly exciting to spot a collection of photos of Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim in sports and horticultural events held both in Johor Baru and at the hotel. 

Sultan Ibrahim, an Anglophile who spent much of his time away from Johor, had four official wives who became the Sultanah. 

He spent the last two years of his life in his Grosvenor House apartment in London with his sixth wife, Marcella Mendl and their daughter Tunku Miriam.  

When they were married in 1940, she took the name Fawzia Abdullah and was known as Her Highness Lady Marcella Ibrahim, Sultanah of Johor.

So it was a thrill to see a yellowed Straits Times newspaper cutting headlined, “Sultanah crowned in day of splendour,” with an illustration of her glamorous gown designed by Doris Geddes along with accessories beautifully displayed in the Museum.

Distinctive Charms

The Hotel Museum has enchanting artifacts that tell the story of Raffles Hotel and the people who made it the legend it is today.  

While captivated by the legendary literary collection of classic books, I also enjoy examining the hotel crockery and silver with the hotel insignia, postcards and letters from satisfied guests, and even old menus and ancient invitation cards to dinner dances.  

There was an interesting salary record for one Mr S.O. Seng who joined the hotel on March 1, 1912 at S$35 per month and when he stopped work in 1935, his salary was a princely S$275!

No one knows the exact year but before 1910, bartender Ngiam Tong Boon created the famous Singapore Sling and Million Dollar cocktail. 

The well-kept Singapore Sling cocktail recipe remains locked in a safe in the hotel today.  

The Singapore Sling was first served to British women who could not be seen drinking in public but its popularity made this cocktail synonymous with the Long Bar.

As I pop in for a peek at the décor in the two-storey bar that was inspired by Malayan plantations in the 1920s, my feet crunch on peanut shells that patrons throw on the floor. On my exit, I cannot resist pausing to look at the feet of sarong-clad employees who are shod comfortably in Indian leather sandals!

A postcard from Raffles Hotel

The Raffles Hotel Post Office was opened in 1910 to provide services to guests and those in the nearby area until the late 1920s. It still has a postbox in its souvenir shop.  

It was pure nostalgia to buy a few postcards that come with Raffles Hotel postage stamps and write to Uncle William and my sister in the UK.

I also posted one self-addressed postcard home for a memento. And yes, I bought that book for Uncle William because I know he will get such a kick out of reading about another soldier’s experiences in Malaya.

Fast Facts

For your own nostalgic experience, visit Raffles Hotel at the corner of Beach and Bras Basah Roads, at No. 1 Beach Road, Singapore 189673. 

The Raffles Museum is open daily from 10am to 7pm.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 28 April 2010

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