Weekly Travel Feature

Raffles Hotel, The Grand Old Lady of Singapore, Has Its Own Museum

Prepared by Harold Stephens

Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International

Historians doing research on an area turn to libraries for their studies.  Another source that is often neglected can be found in the archives of old, well-established hotels.  Many of these older hotels keep records and files where one can find some solid documentation in the form of old letters, hand-written picture post-cards, photographs, advertisements, hotel brochures and many other such items.

To give an example, in 1976, when the old Manila Hotel in Manila reopened its doors, after having a complete face-lift and a new wing added, General Manager Franz Shutzman was besieged by requests from reporters and writers to give out information on the history of the hotel. Shutzman came up with a novel idea of turning one of the spare rooms on the ground floor into a mini museum of sorts, for the general public as well as the media.  He called it the Archives Room.  It was a success, and perhaps, the first hotel museum of this sort.  It contained mostly old photographs and letters from previous guests.

Now the famous Raffles Museum in Singapore, of which Franz Shutzman was once general manager, has opened it's own "Raffles Hotel Museum." Unlike the Archives Room at the Manila Hotel, it has gone a step further. It has on display not only photographs and letters but an interesting array of the hotel's china and silver, hand-written picture postcards, advertisements and hotel brochures and other travel memorabilia that includes old travel and guide books, luggage labels and travel posters. Even a rickshaw.

The Raffles Hotel museum is well worth a visit for those who like a glimpse of what travel was like during the Golden Age of Travel, the period roughly between 1890 and 1939.

Singapore had become known as the "crossroads of the East" and the hotel label was seen on the steamer trunks of every seasoned traveller who sailed the Seven Seas. The museum's remarkable collection tells not only the story of Raffles Hotel but of the people who made it a legend and the times in which they lived.

Raffles was founded in 1887 and designated a national monument in1987, and was closed down in 1989 for a major restoration programme.  Under the restoration process many changes were made. The Bar & Billiard Room which was converted in 1917 into a two-storey building to house rooms and offices was restored to its 1910 appearance.

In addition, the hotel acquired a collection of 700 pieces of Oriental carpets which are used to their best advantage in suites and public places.

Then in September 1991, the grand old lady with a shinny new dress and smart make-up was reopened, this time as an all suites hotel with 104 rooms, each with 14-feet high ceilings, central air-conditioning and over-head fans to give the guests the feeling of living in another era.

As soon as restoration began, an international heritage search was launched by the hotel's owners to build up a collection of memorabilia for a Raffles Hotel museum to be opened on the completion of the project.  Letters were sent to newspapers around the world asking people to donate their souvenir keepsakes of the hotel.

Gretchen Liu, an author of several historical books on Singapore, was given the task of carrying out the search and was later offered the job as curator of the hotel's museum.

The search provided Liu with some unexpected and interesting finds: old postcards, stationery, travel and guidebooks, photographs, letters, hotel brochures and luggage labels.

One fascinating letter given to the museum was written at Raffles Hotel on March 23,1921. The writer, F. J. Dongharty, was a young war widow, and she wrote to her father that Raffles "is a gay place and the fun does not usually begin until late at night". The letter was donated by Jeanette Thomas, the writer's daughter, of Queensland, Australia.

Two other letters donated to the museum came from Franz Shutzman, general manager of Raffles during the early 1950's.  These were from Somerset Maugham.

Maugham was but one of many writers who immortalised the historic hotel.  Among those who sojourned there included Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Han Suyin, James Michener and so many more.  Many of them lend their immortal words and even their names to the hotel.  A few had suites named after them.

Somerset Maugham first visited Raffles Hotel in 1921, and was inspired to write the short stories contained in The Casuarina Tree.  Shutzman wanted to use Maugham's name in promoting the hotel and wrote to the author to ask his permission, and invited him to stay at Raffles.  Maugham answered, declining the invitation but granting the hotel both the use of his name and his quote that Raffles Hotel "stands for all the fables of the exotic East" in advertisements. .

In later years Maugham decided to make a last and sentimental journey to the East, and Shutzman invited him once again to stay.  This time Maugham accepted. The two of Maugham's letters to Franz Shutzman can be found in the museum.  One letter thanks Shutzman for his hospitality during his final visit in 1959. The second letter, written from Luxor, Egypt, is the one that gave permission for the hotel to use the famous quotation.  Mr. Shutzman now resides in Florida, USA.  Other photographs donated by Shutzman included one of the glamorous Ava Gardner arriving at Raffles Hotel.

Ernest Smith, the hotel's former assistant manager, had the opportunity to meet Maugham on several occasions. "Maugham always travelled with his aide-decamp, who kept fans and the inquisitive at bay. The author favoured peace and quiet, and found this in the Palm Court," he said.

Silent movie actor Charlie Chaplin and his brother Sid made their appearance at the hotel in the 1930s. Their photograph is now exhibited in the museum - it was taken by a Japanese photographer named Toyosuburo Ishizu who worked at the famous S. Nakajima studio in the hotel. A photograph of bartender Ngiam Tong Boon and the iron safe in which he allegedly kept the secret recipe for his now famous drink, the Singapore Sling, is displayed in the museum.

The safe is on loan from Ngiam's grandson, Arthur Ngiam, who is managing director of Globe Precision Products in Singapore.  A handwritten recipe of the Singapore Sling is attached to the Ngiam exhibition.  It was donated by an American, Paul Dunn, who was a guest at the hotel in 1936. Dunn and his wife liked the drink so much that he was curious about its contents. A waiter willingly wrote the recipe down for him.

The Singapore Sling is still one of the most popular drinks in Asia today.  According to Roberto Peragas, the last general manager of Raffles before the restoration, the Long Bar sold on the average of two thousand Singapore Slings a day. Unfortunately those days have passed.  The hotel proper is closed off to the public.  Only registered guest can pass beyond a iron grill gate where a liveried guard stands.

The museum also features a wide collection of old postcards, all collector's items.  It appears that picture postcards made an appearance in Singapore in 1898, just in time to record the trans-formation of Raffles Hotel from a modest hostelry into an international establishment.  Some of these postcards bear the hotel's postmark, since a post office was opened in the hotel in 1910, serving guests and merchants until the late 1920s.

The Sarkies brothers--Arshak Aviet, Martin and Tigrin--opened Raffles Hotel after leasing a plot of land and a bungalow on Beach Road from an Arab merchant named Syed Mohammed Ahmed Alsagoff.  The Sarkies brothers ran their hotel business subject to a lease which spanned several decades. Alsagoff's will stipulated that his property could not be sold until the last of his direct descendants had died. Years later, this condition was satisfied, and the land and bungalow on Beach Road were sold to a bank through a third party, a woman related to Alsagoff.

In her search for material for the museum, Gretchen Liu made contact with one of the descendants of the Sarkies brothers. Emily Marcar is the granddaughter of Martin Sarkies, the oldest of the four brothers. She lived at the hotel for several years in the early 1920s when her father, Johnny Sarkies, was the hotel engineer. Now living in Sydney, she has donated a photograph of her grandfather and his brothers.

In time the famed Raffles Hotel attracted travellers from all over the world.  The Golden Age of Travel saw the rise of tourism, which led to the hotel's rapid expansion.  And now the hotel has reached an even further expansion, brought on by the jet age.  Maugham had mentioned to Franz Shutzman, when he arrived in 1959 on his sentimental journey, that little of Singapore remained as he remembered it in 1921. What would he say now of he hotel and Singapore were he to return?

The hotel now has the Raffles Hotel Shops and the Raffles Hotel Arcades that houses 70 regional and international specialty shops. And there's even an escalator to carry shoppers to the second floor. In fact, Raffles is so vast now, you can get lost wandering about.  Brass plaques like road signs are everywhere pointing out directions.

But what you might find more important than the shops on the second floor of the Raffles Arcade is the Raffles Hotel Museum. The opening hours are 9 am to 7 pm daily and there is no admission charge. You can spend half a day and not see it all. And for certain, what you do see in the museum is authentic.  If you sign up for a Royal Orchid Holidays package to Singapore (ROHS16 Singapore Minibreak for 3day 2night or ROR/SIN  Singapore Stopover  for 2day 1night) you will have option time to visit Raffles.

Next week I will take readers on a wine tasting tour of Napa Valley in central California


Q. Dear Mr. Stephens. Can you please tell me if there are elephants in the wild in Southeast Asia. I heard that there were no more. Hillary Kingsmith, Annapolis, Maryland

A. Dear Ms Kingsmith. In deed there are wild elephants in Southeast Asia, mainly Thailand and Malaysia. Thailand has a large reserve area along the west coast north of Phuket.

At the last report, Malaysia has approximately 500 wild elephants. And you may have heard the report that recently a wild elephant swam from the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula (Johor) to Ubin, a small island off Singapore.


Harold Stephens


E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (booking@inet.co.th)

Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.

Sign at Raffles Hotel in Singapore

Raffles Museum

Entrance to the museum

Model of the hotel

Poster of early Singapore

Poster of early Malaya

A rickshaw from days past

Author inspects Raffle cups

Looking down at the garden terrace

Long corridors in the hotel

Early advertisements

Singapore Slings were created at Raffles

Bartender at the Long Bar with two slings

Old photos on the wall

Stephens with the doorman at Raffles

For more about Raffles read chapter on Franz Schutzman

Next week we go wine tasting in California

Both Thailand and Malaysia have wild elephants in the forests