From colonial outpost to international empire

The Raffles Hotel in Singapore, a throwback to times past, is an important part of Colony Capital’s portfolio of hotel holdings.

In Singapore, littering is a serious crime. It is somewhat ironic, then, that in the city-state’s most famous landmark, the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel, patrons are expected to throw the shells of the complimentary monkey nuts on the floor. In fact, by the end of the day, there are so many shells on the floor that a constant crunching sound pervades the historic drinking establishment.

The littered floors are quite intentional, however, a throwback to a tradition during the grand hotel’s colonial past. Built in 1887, it was once the central hub for upper-class British colonials making their fortune in the Far East. Today, no visit to Singapore is complete without a stopover in the Long Bar, where the hotel serves its signature drink, the Singapore Sling. The cocktail was created at the bar around 1910 and quickly spread throughout the world.

The modern hotel, which underwent an extensive renovation in 1989, strives to recreate the hotel’s famous—and sometimes infamous—past. The Long Bar, part of the original 10-room colonial bungalow, is designed in the style of the old Malaysian plantations of the 1920’s. Rows of wicker fans hang from the ceiling, powered by antique motors and pulleys. Sitting in the center of the bar one can understand the sentiments of English writer Somerset Maugham, who once called the hotel a symbol of “all the fables of the exotic east.”

Raffles Hotel was founded by four Armenian brothers, who opened the property at Beach and Bras Basah roads on December 1, 1887. Originally a bungalow, the hotel expanded over the years with the addition of wings, a main building, a verandah, a ballroom and a bar and billiards room. The 1920’s saw a boom in the hotel’s popularity as famous personalities such as Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Charlie Chaplin graced its tropical gardens during their travels.

The hotel also holds some patriotic appeal for Britons. During World War II, as the Japanese bombed the Malay Peninsula and made their way south, British families retreated toward Singapore and congregated at the Raffles Hotel. When Singapore eventually surrendered to Japan, British colonials gathered at the Long Bar to dance and sing “There Will Always be an England.”

The hotel has also been home to some not-so-inspiring events. It is reputedly where the sole surviving wild tiger in Singapore was shot into extinction. And the hotel was used as a transit camp for war prisoners after the end of World War II.

Today Raffles International has grown into a successful chain with over 56 properties worldwide under the Raffles and Swissotel brands. Last year Raffles Holdings sold the entire hotel business to Colony Capital for an enterprise value of $1 billion, a sum hefty enough to pay for more than a few drinks at the bar.