For 120 years it’s been the preferred lodging for film stars, writers, loyalty and politicians but Raffles Hotel Singapore began life as a 10-bedroom bungalow.
When Tigran Sarkies migrated to Malaysia from Armenia in the early 1880s, he hoped to prosper from the business opportunities the Orient had to offer. The 23-year-old bought a large home in Georgetown, Penang, in north-west Malaysia and by 1884, he had turned it into the Eastern Hotel.
Tigran’s brother Martin, 33, joined him in buying a second site, also in Georgetown, and in 1885, the Oriental Hotel opened for business. Younger brothers Aviet and Arshak joined the venture and the Sarkies became renowned as successful hoteliers with ambitions to expand. But Penang was too small a market, so they began casting an eye further afield in Singapore.
The brothers knew they’d struck gold when they found a large bungalow on the corner of Beach and Bras Basah roads. The property had been a boarding house for the Raffles Institution (a boys school named after Sir Stamford Raffles, a British colonial officer who founded modern Singapore in 1819). It needed minor alterations and in December 1887, the Raffles Hotel was opened. It had only 10 rooms but in six years two new wings were added.
Demand for luxury hotels was growing, however, so in 1897, Tigran announced plans for extensive and elaborate additions to create “of of the handsomest hotels in the East”. Renowned architect Regent Alfred John Bidwell replaced the old central block with a grand three-storey building in the Renaissance style, which opened in 1899. It featured a Carrara marble floor, a 500-seat dining room, 100 suits, and the huge veranda so closely associated with the hotel today.
1910 – 1915 Raffles bartender Ngiam Tong Boon invents the Singapore Sling cocktail (the exact year is unknown).
1942 Japan occupies Singapore during World War II and Raffles is renamed Syonan Ryokan (Singapore Inn). When Allied forces liberate the nation, more than 300 Japanese troops commit suicide inside the hotel.
1987 The Singapore Government declares the hotel a national monument.
2008 Eight Raffles hotels and resorts operate internationally – in Singapore, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Beijing, Dubai, Los Angeles, The Grenadines and Paris – and 13 more are in development.