For sale: Raffles, a myth more than legend

By Paul Vallely

It's a tough business being a billionaire during a credit crunch. Apparently Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia is down to his last US$13bn ($22.4bn), which is something of a pittance when you consider he was worth US$21bn last year. But that was when his 3.9 per cent stake in Citigroup was fetching US$50 a share rather than the present measly US$4, and share prices continue to tumble.

All of which explains why he has decided to put that grandest of grand hotels - Raffles of Singapore - up for sale. So if you have a spare US$450 million...

There is something apt about the sale. Prince Alwaleed, who will take a good deal less for one of London's most famous hotels, The Savoy, which he also wants to sell, lives a life which is a byword for extravagance.

His 317-room-palace is said to be adorned with 1500 tonnes of Italian marble, silk carpets and gold taps. He has 300 cars, 250 television sets and reportedly has an Airbus A380 on order as his private jet. Who knows how much of that is true? But then you can ask pretty much the same of the legendary Raffles Hotel.

Its very name conjures the heyday of empire. But though that may be correct of the man after whom it was named - Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, one of the architects of the British imperial expansion as the founder of the city of Singapore - the hotel dates from half a century later.

The existing hotel dates only from 1887 and the fag-end of empire.

But then legends have a habit of becoming their own reality. Its rattan chairs and ceiling fans speak still of the age of the sola topi and the white linen suit in which the writer Somerset Maugham took up residence at Raffles. Every morning he sat at a table in the left hand corner of the Palm Court where he would write his clear and elegant prose in the heady fragrance of the frangipani tree, surrounded by orchids and bougainvillaea.

He visited the hotel repeatedly, turning the expat gossip there into the plots of his short stories. But that was in the 1920s, a decade before Noel Coward too arrived and was accounted by the locals, in his own words, as "a little rowdy, perhaps on the common side".

But then there was always something faintly seamy about a place which was, for all it was the apotheosis of raj-like Britishness, founded by four Armenian brothers. They were, however, masters of the art of spin. When the 23-year-old Rudyard Kipling recorded "a place called Raffles Hotel, where the food is excellent and the rooms are bad" one of the Armenians edited it into an advert, quoting the great man as saying: "Feed at Raffles where the food is excellent!"

The hotel gradually became more grandiose in a series of renovations, the first of which, in 1899, installed a 10,000-gallon tank to ensure a steady water supply and a steam engine to generate electricity sufficient to illuminate 800 bulbs and operate ceiling fans in all the public rooms. But it never lost its eye for a PR triumph.

In the 1850s Singapore had been plagued by tigers which ate at least 300 of the locals. So much so that the government offered rewards for every beastie bagged. Raffles claimed the last of these, though it turned out to be an animal which had escaped from a nearby "native show" rather than a wild creature. Fable soon had it that the last tiger was shot in the hotel's billiard room, though it was actually cornered beneath the room, which stood on stilts in the hotel garden.

Myth attached, too, to the hotel's celebrated cocktail, the Singapore Sling, a pink gin-based concoction for ladies which was invented in the hotel's Long Bar shortly before the First World War. The complex recipe, involving pineapple and cherries, was said to have been preserved in the hotel safe, even though the original formula had in fact been lost and it was inventively pieced together again from the fading memories of old barmen in the 1970s.

Then there were the 300 Japanese troops who committed suicide in the hotel using hand grenades following the liberation of Singapore in 1945. That tale seems to have been concocted from a single act of hara-kiri after a farewell sake party for 300 officers in the hotel.

Not all the myths of Empire were exaggerated. No Asians were allowed as hotel guests until the 1930. But the most celebrated guests turn out to be film stars - Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Ginger Rogers - as much as figures of imperial greatness (though Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia did stay there, his visit most distinguished by the fact that his Pekinese escaped the ban on dogs in the restaurant).

Raffles has been a place of conspicuous consumption as much as colonial grandeur. The house champagne is Bollinger and the house cigars are 10in Romeo y Julietas. One of its most cherished legends is of a 23st Dutch archaeologist, Professor Pieter van Stein Callenfels, who drank gin by the bottle - he sometimes had three for breakfast - and once ate every dish on the hotel's menu, and then proceeded to do it all over again, only backwards.

But the true story of Raffles is a lament for a past that never was. It is a caricature rather than a true remembrance, in which the modern moneyed classes, served by waiters in brass-buttoned white tunics, sip Singapore Slings in the Long Bar and throw the shells from their monkey nuts onto the floor in an emulation of colonial contempt for the locals which is about as authentic as smashing plates in a suburban Greek restaurant.

The reality was and is something different. Last week Raffles ordered the closure of two of the nine public toilets in its shopping arcade, whose tenants include Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, and Swarovski. The move would cut costs, the management said. Look on my water works, ye mighty, and despair.

- INDEPENDENT

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