Raffles Hotel

Singapore Infopedia


Raffles Hotel is a Singapore landmark located at No.1 Beach Road.1 Established in 1887, the award-winning colonial-era hotel with a rich history is well known for its period architecture and decor, luxurious accommodation and fine cuisine. The hotel is particularly known for its popular Tiffin Room buffet2 and for the Singapore Sling cocktail created in 1915.3 Raffles Hotel was first gazetted as a national monument in 1987 and again in 1995.

Raffles Hotel began as Beach House, a private home built in the 1830s by Robert Scott. In 1878, Charles Emmerson leased the building and opened Emmerson’s Hotel. After his sudden death in 1883, the hotel closed.4 On 1 January 1884, it reopened as Hotel Des Indes, owned by a “W. F. Van Erp”.5 Later on, Raffles Boarding School took up tenancy until its expiry in September 1887.6

The Armenian Sarkies brothers Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak (who joined later), already established hoteliers at the time, then leased the building from its owner, the wealthy Arab merchant Syed Mohamed Alsagoff, and announced their intention to turn it into a hotel offering fine accommodation and cuisine.7 On 1 December 1887,8 Raffles Hotel commenced operations as a 10-room hotel.9 While the facilities in its early years were still under development, its prime seafront location near town made it very popular with European residents and travellers.10

Building and development
Under the Sarkies brothers, Raffles Hotel grew as a commercial enterprise and became known as a first-class establishment that attracted guests of stature.11

Tigran Sarkies, in particular, was closely involved in the hotel’s development.12 He established the popular Raffles Tiffin Rooms at Commercial Square (today’s Raffles Place)13 and undertook major building projects, adding three buildings to the original Beach House in the hotel’s first decade. A pair of two-storey wings containing 22 new suites was completed in 1890, followed by a new Billiard Room located at the junction of Beach Road and Bras Basah Road. In 1892, the brothers leased the site at No. 3 Beach Road and built the Palm Court Wing, which was completed in 1894.14

The main building of the hotel was designed by Regent Alfred John Bidwell of the architecture firm Swan & Maclaren and built on the site of the original Beach House. Completed in 1899, it was considered a state-of-the-art building at the time. It was designed with tropical architectural features such as high ceilings and extensive verandahs, and also included modern conveniences like powered ceiling fans and electric lights. The Dining Room, which featured pillars and a white Carrara marble floor, could seat up to 500 people.15 In 1904, the Bras Basah Wing was added16 and the ballroom opened in 1920.17 The Grill Room, which joined the main dining room, was opened in 1923.18

Unfortunately, with the onset of the Great Depression, the Sarkies brothers accumulated debts of $3.5 million and by 1931 were declared bankrupt.19 However, the hotel survived and was incorporated in 1933 as Raffles Hotel Limited.20

Japanese Occupation and postwar years
The impending war prompted the Raffles staff to bury the hotel silverware, including the silver beef trolley, reportedly in the Palm Court.21 The Japanese renamed the hotel Syonan Ryokan (Light of the South Hotel), and its main entrance was moved to face east to catch the morning sun.22

After the Japanese surrender, M. S. Arathoon, whom the Japanese had retained as assistant manager, reopened the hotel in September 1945. Many of the local staff had remained with the hotel during the war years, and other displaced staff returned. The silverware was duly retrieved from its hiding place. The hotel became a temporary transit camp for prisoners of war who were to be repatriated.23 

After the war, Raffles Hotel regained some of its former fame, remaining a colonial landmark that drew expatriates and foreign visitors. During the 1950s and ’60s, the hotel faced new challenges due to changing political, economic and social circumstances. With the withdrawal of the British colonial administration, the Singapore government actively promoted tourism to earn revenue. Raffles Hotel became a tourist attraction because of its reputation as a historic hotel, though it encountered competition from more modern hotels that had sprung up along Orchard Road. By the 1970s, some of the hotel’s former glory had faded and its buildings were in need of refurbishment.24

Raffles Hotel was gazetted as a national monument in 1987.25 In 1989, the hotel closed for large-scale restoration lasting two years26 and reopened on 16 September 1991. The S$160-million restoration was undertaken by Architects 61,27 with interiors by Bent Severin and Associates,28 based on the original building plans and old photographs. Taking 1915 as the benchmark year, the restoration process involved replacing the 1920s ballroom with the original cast-iron portico; repairing decorative plasterwork; and reinstating the large timber staircase. Also added was a new block featuring an in-house museum, a shopping arcade and the Jubilee Hall theatre, a reproduction of a 19th-century playhouse.29 Raffles Hotel was gazetted again as a national monument in 1995, superseding the 1987 gazette boundary.30

Ownership and accolades
In 1990, Jennie Chua was appointed general manager of the hotel, the first Singaporean and woman to manage the hotel.31 In 2005, the hotel was sold to US investment fund Colony Capital.32 A subsequent merger with Fairmont Hotels and Resorts led to the creation of Fairmont Raffles Hotels International (FRHI).33

In April 2010, Raffles Hotel was acquired by Qatar Diar, the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar.34 The following month, Raffles Hotel received Ultratravel magazine’s Ultimate Luxury Travel Related Award for Best Hotel in Asia/Australia for the fourth consecutive year.35 In 2015, FRHI was bought over by Paris-based AccorHotels.36

Guests and visitors
Over the years, Raffles Hotel has developed a long list of distinguished guests that includes members of royalty, political figures and celebrities such as King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Indonesian president Suharto and entertainer Michael Jackson.37 The Writer’s Bar is named for the numerous literary figures that have visited the hotel, such as Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Noël Coward. There are suites named after early hotel guests like Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maugham, who is reputed to have spent his days writing at the Palm Court.38

In addition, the hotel has seen some more unusual visitors including a python and a wild boar.39 In a well-known incident in 1902, early one morning an escaped circus tiger found its way under the hotel’s Billiard Room, which stood on stilts at the time. Charles McGowan Phillips, then principal of Raffles Institution and a member of Singapore’s rifle team, was summoned to the hotel, where, still dressed in his pyjamas, he shot and killed the tiger.40


Joanna HS Tan

1. “Raffles Singapore,” Raffles Singapore, accessed 3 April 2016.
2. “Belly-Buster of a Breakfast,” Straits Times, 14 July 1995, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Long Bar,” Raffles Singapore, accessed 3 April 2016; Melissa Kok, “Singapore Sling Turns 100,” Straits Times, 10 May 2015, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Gretchen Liu, Raffles Hotel (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2006), 17 (Call no. RSING q915.9570613 LIU); “Fortnight’s Summary,” Straits Times, 26 May 1877, 14; “Untitled,” Straits Times, 2 June 1883, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
5.  W. F. VAN ERP, “Notice,” Straits Times, 15 December 1883, 2; W. F. VAN ERP, “Hotel Des Indies,” Straits Times, 26 February 1884, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Liu, Raffles Hotel, 17; A New Hotel in Singapore,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 21 September 1887, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “New Hotel in Singapore”; “Sarkies Brothers Failure,” Straits Times, 26 August 1931, 13 (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Raffles Hotel, 17–18.
8. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 26 November 1887, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Jamie Ee Wen Wei, “Who Built Raffles Hotel? Straits Times, 12 July 2009, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Raffles Hotel, 52.
10. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 19 November 1887, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Raffles Hotel, 21.
11. “Travel and Adventure,” Daily Advertiser, 15 June 1893, 2; “Raffles Hotel,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 10 December 1894, 3; “Untitled,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 31 January 1896, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Liu, Raffles Hotel, 19.
13. “Untitled,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 17 May 1892, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Raffles Hotel, 20.
14. “Singapore News from Penang,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 15 August 1889, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Raffles Hotel, 19, 24–25; Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore) and Preservation of Monuments Board, Raffles Hotel Preservation Guidelines (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 1997), 22. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 RAF)
15. “The Raffles Hotel,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 1 July 1897, 2; “Raffles Hotel,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 15 November 1899, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Raffles Hotel, 44, 57, 60.
16. “Raffles Hotel,” Straits Times, 8 April 1904, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 27 December 1920, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Raffles New Grill,” Straits Times, 7 April 1923, 10 (From NewspaperSG); The Raffles Hotel Cookbook (Singapore: Raffles Hotel, 2003), 43. (Call no. RSING q641.5095957 RAF)
19. “Sarkies Brothers Liabilities,” Straits Times, 14 July 1931, 12; “Sarkies Bankruptcy Sequel,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 12 September 1931, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Raffles Hotel Limited,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 26 July 1933, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
21.Liu, Raffles Hotel, 93; Doug Morrison, “The Empress’ Old Clothes,” Business Times, 31 March 1990, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Liu, Raffles Hotel, 93, 128, 162.
23. “Two Thousand By Air in Five Days,” Straits Times, 22 September 1945, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Raffles Hotel, 128, 157.
24. Liu, Raffles Hotel, 128–33.
25. “Raffles Hotel,” National Heritage Board, accessed 3 April 2016; “Raffles Hotel Gets Official Protection,” Straits Times, 7 March 1987, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Tan Ee Sze, “It’s Goodbye, Raffles… until 1991,” Straits Times, 16 March 1989, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Lim Seng Tiong, “A Grand Old Lady Returns, More Beautiful Than Ever,” Straits Times, 15 September 1991, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Gurdip Singh, ed., Raffles Hotel, Singapore: A Masterpiece Reborn (Singapore: Al Hilal Pub. (Far East) Pte Ltd, 1991), 3, 11. (Call no. RSING q647.945957 RAF)
28. Goh Hwee Leng, “Grace Under Pressure,” Business Times, 8 July 1995, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Singh, Raffles Hotel, Singapore, 4, 11; Liu, Raffles Hotel, 137, 162.
30. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore) and Preservation of Monuments Board, Raffles Hotel Preservation Guidelines, 24.
31. Tan Ee Sze, “Jennie Makes History as Raffles’ First Singaporean at the Helm,” Straits Times, 4 May 1990, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Raffles Hotel, 137.
32. Teo Joyce, “Raffles Hotel’s New Owner Takes Over,” Straits Times, 1 October 2008, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “FRHI Confirms In-Principal Sale of Raffles Hotel,” Business Times, 9 May 2008, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Esther Teo, “Raffles Hotel ‘Sold for $384M’,” Straits Times, 8 April 2010, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “Raffles Hotel Honoured ‘Best Hotel in Asia/Australia’ for Four Consecutive Years,” Targeted News Service, 11 May 2010. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
36. Wong Siew Ying, “Sold: Raffles Hotel goes to French Chain Accor,” Straits Times, 11 December 2015, 1 (From NewspaperSG)
37. “Take a Few Tips from Expert,” Straits Times, 9 August 1956, 12; “’Asean Must Stand Together on Indochina’,” Straits Times, 24 January 1976, 12; “Rosamund Kwan Seen with Middle-Aged Man Outside Raffles Hotel,” Straits Times, 1 September 1993, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 21 March 1905, 5; “Reliving the Past at Raffles,” Straits Times, 21 March 1980, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Raffles Hotel, 29–30, 89–91, 170, 189; The Raffles Hotel Cookbook, 36.
39. “On the Margin – Boar Hunt,” Straits Times, 23 February 1953, 6; “Python at Raffles,” Straits Times, 20 January 1903, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
40. “A Tiger in Town,” Straits Times, 13 August 1902, 4; He Shot a Tiger in Raffles Hotel,” Straits Times, 15 August 1955, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Gretchen Liu, “Raffles Hotel & the Romance of Travel,” BiblioAsia (Oct–Dec 2014)

Yasmine Yahyay, “Singapore’s Raffles Hotel: A Look at the Iconic Landmark through the Years,” Straits Times, 10 December 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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