Clean, green, well-behaved and law-abiding it may be, but Singapore is far from lifeless and Singaporeans are far from dull. The city has a plethora of bars, clubs, pubs and party places where its people love to let their hair down and live it up.
Most famous of Singapore’s watering holes is the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel. It is a slice of old Singapore; all polished teak tables, green lamps, wooden beams, heavy ceiling fans and worn brass, with narrow French doors opening onto wide verandahs and with the long curved bar which gives it its name, as its focal point. Steeped in a century and half of history, it whispers with stories of times past and of old colonial characters long gone.
The traditions of the Long Bar, however, are very much alive and dutifully observed by the steady stream of visitors who flock to it, like pilgrims to a shrine. The Singapore Sling, invented here almost a century ago by barman Ngiam Tong Boon and whipped up now by the fridge full, is almost a holy obligation. The potent pink pineapple-coconut-cream-tasting concoction is ritually sipped, accompanied by peanuts in their shells, which are, according to custom, dropped on the floor and crunched underfoot.
Still, is something lost in the loudly marveling voices, the ankle socks with sandals, the pantacourts and the tank tops of today’s Long Bar, we wondered? And we found ourselves thinking wistfully of white linen, panamas and voile, with the occasional crisp comment tossed from behind the Straits Times.
Raffles Hotel, named after the founding father of the city state, is one of Singapore’s most recognizable landmarks and arguably its most famous institution.
The original Raffles Hotel, opened in 1887 by the Armenian entrepreneurs Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak Sarkies, was a simple colonial bungalow with ten rooms. It stood on an auspicious site, however, beside the sea, at the corner of Beach and Bras Basah Roads, where, in 1842, Maria Dyer (wife of the Missionary Samual Dyer) had established Singapore’s first girls’ school.
In 1899 the Sarkies’ modest bungalow was replaced by architect Regent Alfred John Bidwell’s grand colonial palace, which forms the core of today’s hotel complex. In time, a verandah, a ballroom, a bar and a billiards room were added, along with new wings and out-buildings. In 1989, Raffles closed for a $160 million dollar refurbishment. It re-opened on September 16, 1991, restored to the standard and style of its 1915 heyday. An extension, true to the building’s original colonial design, houses the Raffles Museum, the Jubilee Hall and the exclusive Raffles boutique shopping arcade, which includes Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and the local Bespoke Tailors CYC. Over the years, as the expanding city has reclaimed more and more land, the distance has grown between Raffles and the sea. Today, it stands 500 metres from the shore, in the heart of downtown Singapore.
But grand and commanding as they are, Raffles is more than the sum of its buildings and position. Since its beginnings as a ten-room bungalow beside the beach, it has seen heydays and survived doldrums, it has been the backdrop to some of Singapore’s bravest and darkest history and to some of its best stories. It was in Raffles’s Long Bar, according to one of those stories, that the last surviving Singapore Tiger was shot. The first Singapore Sling was mixed in the Long Bar, by bartender, Ngiam Tong Boon, sometime between 1910 and 1915, in the glittering heyday of colonial society and of Raffles (when, incidentally, Asian patrons were excluded from the hotel)
During the Great Depression, Raffles dropped into the doldrums and went into receivership. It was rescued in 1933, by the newly formed Raffles Hotel Ltd. When the conquering Japanese stormed Singapore on February, 15, 1942, they found Raffles’ guests dancing a last brave waltz. During the occupation the hotel was home to the Japanese army and was renamed Syonan Ryokan, Inn of the Light of the South. Raffles saw its darkest moments, when, after the liberation of Singapore, 300 Japanese soldiers detonated hand-grenades and ended their lives in its rooms. After the war, the hotel was used a transit camp where allied prisoners of war recovered from their ordeals.
Raffles, too, recovered from the ravages of the war. On 16 September, 1991 it celebrated its 120th anniversary with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who celebrated his 84th birthday on the same day.
Today, Raffles is managed by Raffles International Limited and is one of the world’s great hotels. It is a national monument and a Singapore tourist icon. A Singapore Sling in Raffles Long Bar is de rigeur for any visitor to the island state.