Places separate from their stories have no meaning, and so the story of Raffles Hotel must be told as such; as a narrative of chance encounters and lifelong friendship. Memory Corps member Pauline Loh speaks with two of the hotel’s longstanding guests who have forged a most unlikely friendship at one of Singapore’s most iconic establishment.
If an international landmark and symbol of a nation could speak, oh the tales that Raffles Hotel could tell us! Unfortunately, this hallowed institution, no matter how stately and long-lived, is but a building, and must remain unmoved and silent.
However, it has many representatives who are more than delighted to speak up for it. These are composed of the long service staff who have found their vocation on its stately grounds, archivists and historians who recognise the irreplaceable niche that an institution like Raffles Hotel occupies in Singapore, and its beloved guests who have enjoyed its hospitality and protection.
In the last category, two guests in particular, Britishmen Cecil Holmes and Brian Grimwood have earned themselves a lot of right to speak for Raffles Hotel, after three decades of friendship and devotion to the Hotel.
Artist Cecil Holmes, 80, first encountered Raffles Hotel in 1983. It was in the nature of a stop off – he and his family were on their way to Malaysia. “Neil French said Raffles Hotel was the place to stay,” Cecil explained his choice of accommodation. Since then, he has visited Singapore and stayed in Raffles Hotel a total of 28 times. In 1988, he even stayed for 18 months, which meant that he saw Singapore through all the seasons of its multi-cultural calendar.
Brian Grimwood, 65, or Bertie as his friends affectionately call him, is a fellow artist and friend of Cecil. His first visit in 1984 was a working trip where he and Cecil acted as judges for an international advertising award competition. Since then, he has returned to our island nation a total of 27 times.
Singapore on Canvas
Any ordinary tourist can give you sketchy reminiscences of a new place, but show the same scene to an artist and he would present a whole new interpretation that could take your breath away. And that was just what the artistic pair accomplished.
Whenever they stayed in Singapore, they would render the local scenes in watercolours and ink, and sent these “mini portraits” back to their families in Britain in the form of postcards. When other Raffles Hotel guests saw them mailing off these gems, they thought the drawings were souvenir postcards for sale, and this gave the artists the idea to collaborate with the hotel.
The result was a limited edition series of postcards of Singapore life as seen through the eyes of ‘angmohs’. What would interest other countries about a little tropical island which is also one of the most sophisticated urban centres in Asia?
The answer is lizards. The common household gecko was given a new spin by Bertie’s inimitable brush. It is rendered simply and cleanly in black ink, instantly attaining icon status.
Not surprisingly, other local scenes that captured the imagination of visitors were trishaws, junks (boats, not garbage), stately palm trees, sparrows twittering on the five foot way and, of course, the ubiquitous Singapore Sling.
With each visit, Cecil’s and Bertie’s love for the island grew. Raffles Hotel, in particular, made them feel right at home. They began to adopt ‘traditions’ with each visit. For example, one of their traditions was to roll up to the front door in limousines and, just as the magnificent turbaned Sikh doorman would reach out to open the car door, they would order the driver to take off! The pair of doormen, brothers who have become friends with the eccentric duo over the years, would simply shake their heads and grin.
Raffles had always been known for its value-added services to its residents. An example of these was the brass plates with Cecil’s and Bertie’s names. When the pair was expected in town, the brass plates would be screwed onto the doors of their suites. Tacky battery-operated parrots, which the British men had bought in Mustafa emporium one year, would also be displayed tenderly in their suite windows to welcome them.
Bertie loved the old colonial feel of Raffles Hotel. While the rest of Singapore was madly developing to catch up with the first world, Bertie treasured the doormen’s uniforms, the carved and polished wooden pigeonholes in the lobby and the majestic double staircase from which the cheeky pair would heckle other guests.
They were forever won over when they saw the name tags of the Raffles staff. This was in the days before die cut plastic. Each name tag bore the name of the staff and the number of years he or she has worked in Raffles. To save on buying new tags, every time an employee clocks another year, the old number is crossed out and the new number written with ballpoint pen.
When the then-Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) wanted to promote Singapore as a tourist destination, Cecil was the logical person to approach. He created a brochure with cut out coupons which was circulated in European countries like Germany, France and England and the USA. Although that brochure is no longer in print, a copy of it is on display in a museum in Vienna, according to Cecil.
Cecil also designed a short film for STPB – an entertaining romp about a boy and his macaque monkey. The monkey escapes from the boy one day and his owner chases him all over Singapore. The merry pair leads viewers through museums, temples and a fire-walking religious festival, in short, all the Singapore sights.
Although Raffles Hotel has its own resident archivist, Bertie and Cecil put up healthy competition for the post.
If Bertie is to be believed, when Michael Jackson stayed in Raffles Hotel (which he did during his Dangerous World Tour in 1993), a gloved hand was spotted to have silently slid around the door of his suite and then quietly withdraw. Bertie is also adamant that the great singer moonwalked in the corridor.
They also reminisced of the time a great, great (they were unclear about how many great’s) grand nephew of Vincent Van Gogh stayed in Raffles. This famous person had made his suite into an art studio and had invited Bertie and Cecil to view his work.
“And did you know that the front door of Raffles Hotel was once at the side?” announced Bertie triumphantly, “Not many people know it. And breakfast used to be eaten outdoors, accompanied by songbirds in cages. Ahh, that has to be my fondest memory. But it’s not politically correct now.”
He also loved an old Raffles Hotel policy of employing local orphans as bellboys. “They wore these little hats. It’s as much a tradition as the doormen’s majestic turbans! It’s a shame the practice isn’t continued. It would be nice to see that again.”
Started on the topic of the doormen, Cecil declared affectionately, “The doormen are our friends. We’ve gone out socially with one of the brothers, Swaran. One year, he brought us out to eat frog. You heard right – frog. It was at a restaurant across the road from the hotel. Swaran said we must try it. The frog was still alive! It was huge! We couldn’t eat it. But we did buy a live one. We carried it back to Raffles Palm Court and released it among the bushes. So now, whenever we’re back, we would listen out for its croaks. We saved its life!”
Raffles Hotel, for Bertie and Cecil, started out as a place to hang one’s coat but now is almost as dear as home for the memories garnered within its stately walls.
For Cecil, the most treasured memory has to be the one on April 16, 2011. It was the occasion of his 50th anniversary with his wife, Marie. The couple were in Singapore. Cecil hadn’t made any romantic arrangements but he asked the hotel staff to lend a hand.
“They exceeded all my expectations,” Cecil beamed. “They organised a secret celebration, and that night, Marie and I were marched onto the lawn. There was a candlelit table laid out on the podium, flowers strewn on the grass, cake in the shape of a heart. And about thirty staff lined up waiting to congratulate us. You should have seen Marie’s face!”
Raffles is also forever linked with romance for Bertie. He proposed to his wife in the Raffles Grill in 2007. Like Cecil, he made the sensible choice to rope in the Raffles Hotel crew.
“They brought out the champagne and cameras; I got down on one knee; it was a big to-do! My wife was blown away!”
Cecil and Bertie may be English to the core, but because of their decades long love affair with Raffles Hotel, they have become part of the Singapore Memory.
All text by Memory Corps volunteer Pauline Loh. You can view the full interview with Cecil Holmes and Brian Grimwood here. Got your own memories to share? Tell us all about it at our Singapore Memory Project website or iremembersg Facebook and Twitter page.
Singapore Memory Project