Selling Dreams - Early advertising in Singapore


Commercial lodgings and accommodation were first available in Singapore in the 1820s and catered to early travellers – merchants, missionaries, sailors and explorers. The advent of a regular steamship service from Britain to East Asia in 1845 and opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 substantially increased visitor traffic to Singapore, resulting in the growth of hospitality industry.

By the turn of the 20th century, Singapore was home to several luxurious hotels of international renown – the many advertisements of Hotel de l’Europe (1857), Adelphi Hotel (1863) and Raffles Hotel (1887) testify to this fact. They belonged to the league of grand hotels – luxurious accommodation with excellent cuisine and impeccable service – that started in Europe, America and other parts of the world in the late 19th century, catering to wealthy leisure travellers. Housed in magnificent buildings with modern amenities, early luxury hotels were also centres of social life for the who’s who in Singapore. Gala dinners, performances and fancy dress balls were events where the European and Asian elite rubbed shoulders with one another.

As Singapore developed into a modern cosmopolis in the 1930s, hotels and dining options proliferated. As seen in ads from the era, there were accommodation options to suit every budget and the city’s restaurants offered cuisines from diverse culinary traditions. A sophisticated lifestyle was evident in the ads of fashionable cafes and restaurants that catered primarily to well-heeled Europeans.

After the Second World War, a new generation of high-rise hotels came on the scene. Cathay Hotel (1954) in the 16-storey Cathay Building was a fine example. The 1960s ushered in a new era for hospitality in Singapore as Orchard Road emerged as a hotel and retail hub.

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Hotel Legends

Advertisements of Singapore’s early luxury hotels frequently appeared in publications targeted at tourists and local elite. Among the advertisers, the most illustrious was Armenian hoteliers the Sarkies brothers, who founded several of the finest hotels in Southeast Asia, including the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. When its main building opened in 1899, the Raffles was one of the first establishments in Singapore to install electric lighting and appliances. The Sarkies faced keen competition from Hotel de l’Europe, which was on par with the Raffles in terms of facilities and service.

Modern amenities, luxury and elitist branding were major selling points of these hotels. The Raffles advertised itself as ‘The Savoy of Singapore’, after the famed hotel in London. Not to be outshone, Hotel de l'Europe publicised its patronage being the ‘elite of European and American society’. A common tagline in ads of these hotels – ‘under European supervision’ – seemed to be a guarantee of quality.

In the 1950s, new hotels in high-rise buildings offered an experience quite distinct from the grand dames above. Located within Singapore’s once-tallest building, the Cathay Hotel offered air-conditioned rooms with telephones, panoramic views of the city and facilities like squash courts, cinema and shopping arcade as key highlights.


Seaside Havens

In the early 19th century, Singapore was considered a place for recreation and convalescence for colonials from the region, thanks to the island’s mild climate and beaches. For Europeans who believed that tropical climate was detrimental to health, seeking refuge from heat was a constant need. By the end of the century, the coastal Tanjong Katong area had become a desirable residential and recreational area.

A 1892 guide describes Tanjong Katong as ‘a long beach above which small country bungalows peep through groves of coconut palms’. Here the rich built their seaside bungalows with pagars (which refers to open sea swimming enclosures here) and the Singapore Swimming Club was thronged with Europeans on weekends. The area had the reputation as the ‘Brighton of Singapore’ – a tagline repeated in the ads of hotels that were set up here in the early 1900s. The idyllic charm of Tanjong Katong and respite from the heat and hustle of the city centre were often highlighted in the hotel ads.

Among the beach hotels, Sea View Hotel established in 1906 reigned supreme. Here Singapore’s high society mingled and revelled – in its domed dance hall or the seafront lawn under the stars.


Doors to
Affordable Hospitality

Imagine yourself a visitor to Singapore in the 1930s or 1950s, looking for accommodation to spend the night. You would love to stay in one of the grand hotels such as Raffles Hotel, Adelphi Hotel or Sea View Hotel. However, unfortunately, they were beyond your budget…

Fret not, besides premium hotels, early Singapore had many other accommodation options to suit every budget and preference. Open the doors to discover other hotels and their attractions, some of which are still standing today.


Gastronomic Diversity

Located at the crossroads of east and west, Singapore takes pride in its cosmopolitan food culture. The country’s migrant communities brought their culinary traditions to the island and blended them to create fusion dishes. The advent of international travel in the late 19th century brought visitors of every nationality to Singapore. As such, numerous dining facilities were established to cater to the diverse tastes of its residents and tourists.

As seen in advertisements, there was a great variety of dining options in Singapore – from 19th-century tiffin rooms to restaurants that served local and international cuisines in the mid-20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, cafés catering to the sophisticated urban crowd sprouted in the city areas. Food aside, some restaurants advertised themselves as social spots for the elite and choice venues to entertain guests.



Desker & Co.

The Straits Times, 5 August 1865
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Fresh meats were highly sought after in Singapore in the 1800s, as there was only the occasional shipment of fresh meat from overseas, which had to be sold and consumed quickly to avoid spoiling from the lack of re-frigeration.

Getz Bros & Co.

The Straits Times, 18 January 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Before the advent of the modern supermarket, resident and business owners in Singapore sourced their provi-sions directly from importers such as Getz Bros. & Co.

William J. Bernard

The Straits Times, 20 September 1947
Singapore: Straits Times Press

The Fresh Food Refrigerating Co.

The Straits Times, 16 April 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Cold Storage

The Straits Times Annual, 1970
Singapore: Straits Times Press

While Cold Storage may have had its origins as a busi-ness primarily catered towards Europeans living in Sin-gapore, it soon expanded its clientele to include the local audience. Even in the 1970s, supermarket shop-ping remained largely the province of the middle and upper classes, as illustrated in this ad that promises value for money when one shops at Cold Storage.