Wednesday 7 August 2019

Faded grandeur is still grandeur

I was here in 1980. That was just the [pause for finger-counting] 39 years ago. Thirty-nine years! That was the last time I was in Singapore (passed through once or twice maybe since, but never left the airport) which means I would probably literally not recognise the city now. Like you, regular 😃 reader, I've seen the photos, of those amazing huge artificial trees all lit up, of that improbable three-legged hotel with the infinity pool way up on top, the interior shots of all those fancy restaurants. But if you were to plonk me down in the streets, I'd be lost, despite having spent about a week there in 1977, and then another four days three years later.

And yes, I was actually here - at Raffles Hotel, which has just been re-opened after another renovation, which is why it is featuring in the NY Times, from which I stole this photo. Looks splendid, doesn't it? And the interiors are equally spiffing. It wasn't quite so flash when we stayed there - though I would say it felt very authentic, if it's the Kipling/Somerset Maugham vibe you're after. Things may have been a little worn, not to say a touch scruffy here and there, but it sure did have atmosphere - in the Long Bar, full of cane furniture and potted palms, where of course we drank the Singapore slings that were invented there; and in the billiard room where a tiger (escaped from a circus, poor thing) was once shot under the table. The Tiffin Room had white-painted cane furniture, green cushions and a ceiling three storeys above. Our room was spacious but not fancy, and noisy with traffic rushing past right outside the shutters - no doubt it's all triple-glazed these days. And air-conditioned, naturally - when we were there, all they had were ceiling fans lazily circling, everywhere.

We ate well there, in the Elizabethan Grill, with its dark wood-panelled walls, starched linen table cloths and orchids, and where waiters wheeled a huge roast of beef to the table under a great silver dome (which had been buried in the garden for safety when the Japanese invaded during the war, and duly dug up again afterwards). The waiter removed it with dramatic flourish and then carved thick slices for us right there, hovering discreetly while we ate, ready to pounce on any imperfection. I watched with fascination as a waiter whipped up butter, cream and several liqueurs in a frying pan on a trolley nearby and then flambéed it all with great drama. I was still trying to guess what the dish was when he poured the sauce over icecream and placed it in front of me: my cherries jubilee! Yum.
My obsessive diary of the time records what seems to me now an incredible - and disappointing - quantity of shopping, rather than the diligent sight-seeing I would do these days. We were up for a bit more of the nightlife though than I could cope with now, including goggling* at the transvestite sights on nearby Bugis Street. So, even more incredibly, we overslept and missed breakfast several times - but finally, by dint of setting the alarm on the clock we had just bought (Imagine! Needing to buy an alarm clock in order to be sure of waking for flights and so on! Imagine!) we made it down in time to have, with great triumph, kippers for breakfast on the last morning.

It was all rather splendid - and very different from the other, so much grottier, hotel I dossed down at in 1977 on my first, solo, visit, where the walls didn't reach the ceiling, the staff slept all over the floor in the corridors at night, and I got bitten by bedbugs. Yes, by the looks of the Times photos, Raffles is a thoroughly modern 5-star now. But I'm glad to have seen it in its 1980 incarnation.

Isn't it strange to see that word now? Aren't you itching to correct it to 'Googling'? 


the queen said...

It seems impossible that the sky is that blue in Singapore. I had a friend go there in the late eighties, and he reported the haze was horrifying. Perhaps it has improved with time. Like you - how is it that you are cuter now than thirty years ago?

TravelSkite said...

Aw, shucks! Blushing, here. (But remember, I choose the photos, and editing programs are marvellous things.)

And air pollution does get better, in some parts of the world, and I would think Singapore is pretty responsible about such things. Even bossy...


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