Raffles Hotel, Singapore
|by Andreas Augustin
In 1986, Raffles Hotel in Singapore was certainly one of the most famous hotels in the world. It had an old-fashioned air, a colonial style, with an Elizabethan Grill, named after the Queen of England, a romantic courtyard, 124 rooms and a ballroom offering live music and ballroom dancing three times a week.
It was single-handedly operated by an Italian, Roberto Pregarz. In 1967 his predecessor had handed him the keys with the words: 'Raffles will close in six months.' With an owner unwilling to invest, his only chance of success lay in his own creativity.
In the tradition of the house, he invited journalists and other writers to stay at Raffles, launching ‘authors in residence’ style schemes and taking very well care of travelling journalists, the most cost-effective distributors of information. Singapore writer Ilsa Sharp researched the history of the hotel, laying a solid foundation for many books to follow. Raymond Flower (the author of Raffles - The History of Singapore or The History of The Palace in St Moritz) spent a good part of the European winter at the hotel, producing many of his books there. I would later publish his book Mutiara, Penang (with Sjovald Cunyngham-Brown). Russell Foreman resided at Raffles writing his novel 221 Raffles. And - in all modesty - I moved in for three years, writing a few books there, too.
Pregarz changed the location and the name of the bar to Long Bar. The hotel sold about 20 Singapore Slings per day. Over the new bar he put up a sign board 'Where the Singapore Sling originated'. Over 2,000 (yes, two thousand) of the drinks would soon be habitually sold per day. A tiger, shot under the hotel's billiard room, became 'a tiger shot under our billiard table.' Nearby Pregarz created the highly profitable Tiger Tavern Bar and Raffles Museum.
Pregarz introduced Raffles Tiffin Curry luncheons in the Palm Court, which became a sell-out. People queued for Sunday brunch. He decided to celebrate Raffles’ centenary in 1986, one year early (the hotel was in fact inaugurated in December 1887). ‘Business wasn't good and I needed this promotion vehicle one year earlier,’ he later confessed. Suites were named after important visitors, from Somerset Maugham (right) to Charlie Chaplin.
Travellers were asking for souvenirs. Roberto Pregarz started putting the name Raffles on T-shirts, mugs, coasters, playing cards, pens, towels and baseball caps. They wanted more information about the history of the hotel as well. And they wanted this information in different languages. Hence, in 1986, our first detailed book about the history of a single hotel was published in German: Raffles, Singapore, the first ever book in the series The Most Famous Hotels in the World.
Two souvenir shops, one called the Raffles Museum, at the two major entrances of the hotels welcomed around one thousand visitors per day. The books about the hotel sold like hot cakes. With demand soaring, we produced a Japanese edition followed by an English version.
Although Raffles - as everybody agreed on - should be saved as a hotel, voices were heard urging for the hotel, this undisputed most famous relic of colonialism, to be replaced by a modern hotel structure. Or, even better, a shopping mall.
The building had become a patchwork structure of various practical attachments: a garage in the back yard, an extra room for the kitchen here, a bay there, a plywood wall in between, and so on. There were no original drawings that would ever enable anybody to restore it to its former grandeur. The plans had been missing for over a century. Not listed as an architectural monument of Singapore, the hotel was basically unprotected. Pregarz used to complain bitterly about the missing original drawings.
In 1987, for the real centenary, I decided to produce a smaller volume of the book, a little paperback which every tourist could carry around. It would be called The Raffles Treasury, based on all the important questions journalists and travellers used to ask. During the research for The Raffles Treasury I had seen something strange – a dusty file which looked like it hadn't been touched for decades. With a special permit I entered the secret chamber at the archives. There, in a dusty cabinet near the Singapore River, the original drawings of the main building of the hotel, its Palm Court and the Bras Bassah Road annex had been hiding for almost one hundred years. It had certainly been an adventure finding the plans. But it took a healthy portion of Austrian charm to take them from the lady who protected them.
The drawings included the detailed plans of the original bungalow that stood in place of today's hotel, never seen by anyone alive before. Several main sections, roof details, floor plans, porticoes, light installations, the new additions of 1893 (the so called Palm Court Wings), service rooms, stables, cook house, boys quarters and finally all the drawings of the new central block (Raffles as we know it today).
Now they all are part of the famoushotels.org collection. At the time this discovery caused an understandable sensation. It made headlines on the front page of The Straits Times, Singapore's most important newspaper. Ilsa Sharp, the first researcher of the hotel's history, honoured our achievements in this article. Roberto Pregarz almost kissed me. Within no time the building – as it had been promised by politicians for
The Raffles Treasury was launched with a big party. Large copies of the original drawings were displayed on huge boards. I think everybody that night took more notice of these plans than of my little book. However, from that moment on The Raffles Treasury became the best selling book ever sold in a hotel.
Until 15 March 1989, the day Raffles closed for its long overdue renovations, I had made the hotel my base in Asia, researching other hotels in the region. I lived with my wife Carola in Suite 254.
That's – in short – how the Italian Roberto Pregarz saved Raffles Hotel.
In 1986, on the day of the launch of the first book (28 November), I founded The Most Famous Hotels in the World®, an organization that would list historical grand hotels around the world. This year we celebrate 20 years of our own history - with close to 400 hotels listed.
Later, in 1988, one evening, while I was sitting at Raffles' Writers
Bar, the doors swung open. In walked - a copy of the Raffles book in his
hands - Gert Prantner, general manager of the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in
Hamburg. He smiled at me and said: ‘I want a book like this!' This was
to become our entry into the European market. But first Hong Kong was beckoning.
There Urs Aeby at The Peninsula had expressed his desire to produce a book
with me, too.
The Most Famous Hotels in the World