Face Lift Leaves Clubby Old Raffles a Bit Tight : Renovation elevates Singapore's grand hotel to grandiose prices and personnel.


The Raffles Hotel once was a place where local legend mixed with idle gossip, where writers and journalists gathered to drink in the sweltering heat and sometimes even write, where the rooms were large and cheap and where the stench of a bygone colonial era intoxicated visitors to this island at the tip of the exotic Malay Peninsula.

Now there is a new Raffles, a bright white and shining place, reconstructed in the shell of the old. It is a perfect replica of a classic colonial hotel, but it may be open to argument whether it is still the Raffles.

After closing in 1989 and undergoing a two-year, $80-million renovation, the Raffles reopened its doors last autumn with high ambitions. Workmen had the original 1887 blueprints in hand, and had set out to re-create the hotel as it was in its prime, circa 1915.

Unfortunately, the result is a bit too cold and self-conscious to inspire the thrill of nostalgia that an old hotel should. Its glossy white plaster, polished hardwood and sparkling brass struck me as devoid of warmth and patina.

Its tragic flaw is that it pursues two missions: to provide the ultimate in luxury lodgings to well-heeled travelers and, at the same time, to entertain the masses as one of Singapore's major tourist attractions. The new management has yet to resolve those cross purposes, and that can spoil the fun for both classes of patron.

To begin with, don't even think about making a reservation at the Raffles without first acquiring a rudimentary knowledge of currency exchange rates. The front desk clerk will quote a price of $650 a night, but that's no reason to panic--those are only Singapore dollars.

The real rate, in American greenbacks, is a mere $398 for the standard suite. Add tax and service charge, and it's about $450 a night for the cheapest room, which, the management points out, is not a room but a suite.

Should one huge bedroom, two televisions, a gigantic bathroom with oversized brass and porcelain fixtures and a rather modest living-dining area sound like it might be claustrophobic, larger suites are available. The Sir Stamford Raffles Suite, for example, was named after the hotel's patron, the adventurous opium trader who founded Singapore as a British colony in 1819.

Coddling oneself in the Sir Raffles suite for one night costs somewhere around $4,000--in U.S. currency. But the discriminating traveler gets 18-foot ceilings, 2 1/2 baths, a dining table for 10 and an antique Persian rug. As with the hotel's other 103 suites, valet pressing is free. Complimentary coffee is served at any hour of the morning.

If money is a problem, not to worry. Even tourists on the cheap can enjoy a day at the Raffles for the more moderate price of a meal at one of the restaurants in the hotel or at the adjacent shopping arcade. The Raffles history room is fun--it tells the story of the hotel with exhibits of documents and old photos, then entices the visitor into purchasing such exotic souvenirs as antique Raffles luggage stickers. There's even a small "Victorian" theater in the back where they can provide a multimedia presentation to a busload from Des Moines.

Beyond the ornate, cast-iron portico on the facade of the hotel is a grand atrium lobby, which rises three stories to a vaulted ceiling with skylights. Rubbernecking is allowed. Go ahead, walk across the lush carpet and the dark tropical hardwood floorboards, polished to a gleam, and take a stool at the Writers Bar, where the management welcomes anyone who wants to buy a Singapore Sling--Raffles' own famous cocktail.

The Writers Bar was moved out of a dark nook off the Grill Room to the middle of the cavernous lobby during renovation, one suspects with the aim of selling more Singapore Slings, or possibly, in a crowd-control tactic to keep the non-guests concentrated in a strictly public space.

A youthful bartender named Royston Png says most of his customers are tourists who wander in to buy the pink cocktail concoctions for $9 a pop. Png seems surprised to see one patron take out a pencil and a notebook and start to write.

"This used to be a place where lots of writers came," he says, as if out of personal reminiscence. "But that was back in 1915. We don't see them around now."

No wonder. Purported Raffles patron Rudyard Kipling hung up his pith helmet, eternally, in 1936. W. Somerset Maugham, the wanderlusting storyteller whom the new Raffles has adopted as a kind of mascot (yes, there is a W.S. Maugham suite), would be 118 years old if he were alive today. And he would not be caught dead drinking a Singapore Sling, which, as the fruity taste testifies, is unquestionably a lady's drink.

Lest this last statement be taken as sexist, consider that Png's patriarch as bartender, Ngiam Tong Boon, invented it in 1915 for the ladies, not for the cricket-playing gentlemen or the gin-drinking homesteaders from the rubber plantations. It always was a lady's drink and it always will be, something that might best be kept from the male tourists.

As a souvenir for the first writer he has served a Singapore Sling, Png jots down the recipe on the back of a Raffles coaster: cherry liqueur, grenadine syrup, Triple Sec, benedictine, lime juice, pineapple juice, bitters and, finally, what every proper expatriate lady prefers, gin.

Png does not disclose measurements, just the ingredients. Nor would he hear of writing the recipe on a piece of paper--the Raffles coaster appears to be part of the program.

The Singapore Sling experience can be repeated at two other famous and authentic Raffles bars, the Bar & Billiard Room, a detached pavilion with all the intimacy of Chicago's Union Station, and the Long Bar, which is tucked away in the back of the new shopping mall. (Raffles' new masters say they are not breaking tradition by putting the famous Long Bar next to the boutiques--it had been moved around the hotel premises a few times before.)

On crowded nights, the management concedes, bartenders must use electric blenders to meet the tourist demand for the pink drinks.

The new Raffles is by no means a terrible place. Its shiny decor will eventually soften and fade, and in 20 years or so the place may get worn and creaky and attain, once again, the seasoned comfort befitting a grand old colonial hotel.

But no patron of a luxury hotel should ever have to tolerate the security regime in force at the Raffles today.

Officious bellhops demand to see the keys of hotel guests as they approach the elevators, even though the lifts don't function without the use of a room key. It doesn't matter whether you're wearing blue jeans or a business suit.

This insulting ritual was only slightly mitigated when it was carried out by a little boy in a ridiculously baggy bellhop uniform, a four-footer who insisted he was 14--but betrayed his apparent fiction with a cheesy grin.

At 10 p.m., tourists are barred from the lobby altogether, a "Residents Only" sign goes up at the front door and guests must produce a key to prove their right to enter the hotel.

The purported aim is to protect the privileged from "disturbances," which means noisy tourists. But even if a certain amount of security is warranted, the experience of being challenged was so unpleasant to me--especially at $450 a night--I would have preferred a few cheeky people bumping around in the hallways. For that amount of money, the anonymous guest should be welcomed, not badgered by the staff, and made to feel an unequivocal sense of belonging.

Similar snobbery shrouded the entry to the Grill Room, the hotel's main restaurant, where I had Thanksgiving dinner during my two-night stay at the Raffles last November.

An anorexic hostess sneered--this is not an exaggeration--and asked me whether I had a reservation. A negative response elicited a look of utter incredulity, even though the dining room was nearly empty. This chilly reception warmed only a few degrees when it was explained that the supplicant before her was a hotel guest. She demanded the spelling of my name, as though she were prepared to check it against the register.

Once seated, table d'hote was available for $90 and $110. Since the newspaper industry is in deep recesssion, an a la carte selection won the day: "Emimnces of Barbarie" Duck Breast with Poached Pear and Lemon Sauce, the closest thing to turkey available.

Chef Foran Sreng's bird was delicious, and the tacky variety of Christmas music was piped into the elegant dining room, making for a uniquely Singaporean holiday experience. The waiters were suitably cheerful and obsequious. With a glass of water and a salad, the meal cost $38.

Across the lobby, the curry buffet in the Tiffin Room is a better deal. About $20 buys a splendid array of curries--mutton, fish, squid, tofu-cocoanut and prawn curries, spicy ones and not-so-spicy ones. They were all good.

At the Tiffin desert table, the durian cake is a must try. It looks like cheesecake with little seeds in the glaze instead of a graham-cracker crust. But it's advisable to hold one's breath, and nose, before swallowing, because most foreign visitors to Malaya (maybe about 99.7%) tend to associate the odor of the durian fruit with raw sewage. The fruit itself is banned by Singapore law from hotel lobbies and airplanes. It's not immediately clear how they smuggle the cake into the Raffles.

When three Armenian brothers--Arshak, Aviet and Tigran Sarkies--founded the Raffles more than a century ago, Singapore was a frontier town, a sleepy entrepot trade port. In the hotel's glory years, when the expatriates shoved their tables aside after lunch and held Roaring 20's tea dances in the Grill Room, Singapore was still a remote colonial enclave.

But after the British left in the 1960s, local Chinese leadership made Singapore an economic boom town on the Pacific Rim. The new city-state industrialized, virtually overnight. An authoritarian government rebuilt the island and erected clean, modern buildings for the prosperous citizens.

And the Raffles became a shabby but quaint anachronism, which somehow survived despite the inexorable drive to tear down old Singapore and replace it with glass towers and concrete blocks.

"It was old, but it wasn't crumbling . . . it was a comfortable place," recalls Robert Elegant, a veteran war correspondent and Asia hand who worked for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times in the region. "The Raffles was what it was reputed to be--all sorts of strange people would appear at the bar."

Elegant, who wrote the popular novel "Dynasty," stayed often enough at the Raffles that he had a suite named after him. But the hotel was sold and the new owners made the decision not to resurrect the Robert Elegant suite when they reopened after remodeling. Now, all the standard ($450) suites go unnamed.

Jennie Chua, Raffles Hotel's general manager, defended the high price of the rooms--which are four times the rate charged in 1989--saying the Raffles is a "legendary grand hotel."

Despite the major renovation, a 1987 historic preservation designation by the government required that the original shell and facade be retained. Architects went even further: They worked with the original blueprints.

"No one will ever need to ask whether they are in the old wing or the new wing, because every room here is historic," said Chua, a native Singaporean who graduated from the Cornell School of Hotel Administrationin Ithaca, N.Y.

"When you take into account the historical ambience, the size of the rooms and the Persian carpets on the floors, I think you can make the argument that we're not overpriced," Chua said. "And from a marketing point of view, the pricing level is part of the mystique."

The management claims that the hotel maintains more than 70% occupancy, which means a lot of visitors to Singapore are buying that logic. And if staying at the Raffles is a disappointment, paying the bill at checkout time is certain to be an unforgettable experience.

Schoenberger is a Times business writer and former Tokyo-based correspondent.


Spending Time at Raffles

Getting there: The Raffles Hotel, 20 minutes by taxi from Singapore's Changi Airport, is at 11 Beach Road, near the west end of the Orchard Road shopping district in downtown Singapore.

Room rates: Standard suites, $398-$429. Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham suites, $583; Grand Hotel suites, $2,454; Sarkies and Raffles suites, $3,680. A 3% tax and 10% service charge is added to all room rates.

Facilities: Five restaurants, three bars, a deli, 70 shops and boutiques, health club and swimming pool (24 hours), business center, theater-playhouse, ballroom and meeting rooms.

Reservations: In the United States, call (800) 232-1886; overseas, call 011-65-337-8041; fax 011-65-339-7650.

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