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Raffles Singapore
Photograph: Shutterstock Raffles Singapore

Interesting stories behind Singapore's oldest hotels

There are some pretty interesting facts you probably never knew about our heritage hotels

Dewi Nurjuwita
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Dewi Nurjuwita
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A hotel is more than a place to rest your head. Each property has its own story, especially if they're amongst the world's historical hotels. In Singapore, our grande dames are mostly built during the pre-war era – and have been standing way before Singapore gained independence. In fact, the oldest hotel in Singapore turns 134 this year. And with each historical building comes decades of stories and anecdotes that have graced their hallways. From Bengal tigers running loose to being one of Singapore's first fortresses, there are some pretty interesting facts you probably never knew about Singapore's oldest hotels. 

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Raffles Singapore
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Built in 1887

From being home to the world-famous Singapore Sling to a tiger hunt and an illustrious roster of guests including authors Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling, Raffles Singapore is full of stories. The grande dame is celebrating its 134th birthday this year – and no one knows the history of the hotel better than resident historian Leslie Danker, who has been with Raffles Singapore for 48 years. Mr Danker has just published his book A Life Intertwined, which unveils a collection of anecdotes and personal recounts of history since he first stepped foot in the hotel at 18 years old.

The hotel was established by Armenian hoteliers the Sarkies Brothers in 1887, proprietors of the Eastern & Oriental in Penang, and named after Singapore's founder Sir Stamford Raffles. What started as a 10-key accommodation housed in an old bungalow at the corner of Beach and Bras Basah Roads expanded over the years. Its Main Building – fronted by the now-iconic neo-Renaissance architecture – was completed and opened on November 18 1899, marking the beginning of the hotel's heyday. Raffles Singapore soon welcomed illustrious guests from all over the world including W. Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Taylor, Rudyard Kipling, Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson, who celebrated his 35th birthday at the hotel.

Interesting fact Perhaps Raffles Singapore's most famous visitor is a Bengal tiger that found its way into the hotel's Bar & Billiard Room. It is known to be the place where the last tiger in Singapore was shot. This happened in 1902, when a tiger escaped from a performing circus at the far end of Beach Road. The 2.3-metre long feline cowered in the space underneath the Bar & Billiard Room, which was then used as a storage for empty boxes and crates. A staff member at the hotel saw the tiger and alerted a headmaster, who was known to be a hunter and a sharp shooter.

"Mr Charles McGowan Philips, principal of the neighbouring Raffles Institution, was roused from his bed by the hotel staff," Mr Danker wrote in A Life Intertwined. "Clad in pyjamas and armed with his Lee-Enfield rifle, he stalked the tiger, which was hiding under the elevated floor of the bar. The first three shots missed, but the fourth found its mark." 

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Built in 1928 

A majestic grey Aberdeen granite structure characterised by its Doric columns watches over the Singapore River. That's Singapore's 71st national monument, once home to three of the most important institutions of Singapore: The General Post Office, The Singapore Club and the Chamber of Commerce. 

"The building is, and will be for many years, one of the principal landmarks of Singapore," said then-governor of the Straits Settlements Sir Hugh Clifford when he opened the building in June 1928. And man, was he right. 

Since then, the building has witnessed Singapore's modern history unfold, even acting as the last bastion of Singapore’s Governor Sir Shenton Thomas as the Japanese army marched into Singapore in 1942. Allied soldiers took refuge in its spacious corridors. The building also served as a backdrop for pivotal political rallies during the post-World War II battle for Singapore's Independence from the British. 

Interesting fact In 1829, a fortress was built at the entrance of the Singapore River, where The Fullerton Hotel now sits. It was one of the earliest forts to be built in Singapore, predating even Fort Siloso. Fort Fullerton commanded high views over the Singapore River on the Singapore River on the North and the harbour to the South, a prime spot to defend the settlement against naval attacks. 

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Built in 1904 and 1930 

Now a majestic presence in City Hall, The Capitol Kempinski Hotel Singapore has had a long history of glitz and glamour. The luxury hotel is housed in two historic landmarks: the neoclassical-style Capitol Building (1930) and Venetian Renaissance-style Stamford House (1904), built in the years leading up to World War I. 

The Stamford House, the first of the two, was debuted in 1904 and designed by British architect R.A.J. Bidwell of Swan & Maclaren. It was home to multiple businesses, including the Whiteaway Laidlaw & Company and the famous Sarkies brothers, who used the top two floors as a hotel annex in the early 1910s. The entire structure was transformed into a boutique hotel called the 'Oranje Hotel' during the mid-1930s and remained active through World War II. 

Meanwhile, Mizra Mohammad Ali Namazie began developing an extravagant movie theatre and upscale apartment complex immediately next to the Oranje Hotel. These eventually opened in 1930 and became known as the Capitol Theatre and the Namazie. It was not long before Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner and Mary Pickford frequented the theatre to promote their films.

Interesting fact By the mid-20th century, the luster of all three facilities had begun to fade and the Shaw Organization had come to acquire both the Capitol Theatre and the Namazie Mansions, renaming the latter as the "Shaws Building" in 1946.

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Built in the 1880s 

Sentosa's only six-star luxury hotel is set against a lush rainforest with views of the sea, attracting Singapore's well-heeled. But do you know of its history?

The building was built in the 1880s to accommodate the British officers of the Royal Artillery and their families. Four classic colonial military buildings – comprising of Blocks 48 to 51 – were given conservation status on August 7 under the Conservation of Built Heritage. The buildings were masterfully restored in March 2009, and has is now one of Singapore's most exclusive hotels. 

Interesting fact The four blocks all had different purposes. Blocks 48 and 49 (where the reception now stands) were used to house the Officer’ Mess and barracks for unmarried officers. The officers and families also had their meals and wined, dined, and danced there. Blocks 50 and 51, on the other hand, were used for the married officers whose families stay with them during their service on the island.

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Built in 1900

Nestled amongst landscaped gardens on Scotts Road is a prominent colonial-era building. The Goodwood Park Hotel may be a household name in Singapore now, especially famed for its durian pastries, but its beginnings were far from local. It was built as the Teutonia Club in 1900, then an elite enclave for the expatriate German community in Singapore. Three Jewish brothers – Morris, Ezekiel, and Ellis Manasseh – bought over the building in 1918 and renamed it as Goodwood Hall after the famous Goodwood Racecourse in England.

By 1929, as more businessmen travelled from Malaya, it was converted into the Goodwood Park Hotel. The hotel soon became one of the best-known hotels at the end of the 1930s, welcoming esteemed guests from around the world including the Duke of Windsor and the Prince of Wales of England. 

Interesting fact When World War II reached Singapore's shores in 1941, the hotel was converted into a residence for high-ranking Japanese soldiers during the three-year occupation of Singapore. The hotel then served as a British War Crimes Court before it was returned to Mr Vivian Bath, a Manasseh descendant, in 1947.

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Built in 1904

The Barracks Hotel may be a new property, but the beautiful facade that it's housed in boasts a long history. The two-storey buildings were once the Blakang Mati Artillery Barracks and date back to 1904. It has seen many past lifetimes as a prisoner-of-war camp during World War 2, SAFTI Training Institute in the 1960s and the Sentosa Tourism Academy in 2005.

Interesting fact When the government developed the island into a tourist spot in 1972, the barrack was left abandoned. It fell into disrepair during the nineties and became a mystery to urban explorers and chalet goers. In 2005, the barrack was renovated to make way for the offices for Sentosa's Tourism Agency and finally developed into The Barracks Hotel. 

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Built in 1926 

Located within 18 hectares of greenery in Fort Canning Park, the historical Hotel Fort Canning has become a popular spot for staycations and grand weddings. But its storied past dates back to the early 20th century, when the building functioned as a British military administration site. 

It served as the Administration Building of the British Far East Command HQ until 1942, when it was then occupied by the Japanese Military during the Occupation. The building was also taken over by the Singapore Armed Forces after independence in 1965 and was used by the Singapore Command & Staff College. 

The present owners took over the premises in November 2002 and launched a premium members-only town club called The Legends Fort Canning Park. Hotel Fort Canning came to be when the restored heritage building eventually reopened as a luxury hotel in July 2011, along with a stunning Glass House.

Interesting fact Fort Canning Park was originally known as Bukit Larangan, or 'Forbidden Hill' in Malay. Ancient kings were believed to be buried on the hill. In fact, it is believed that a palace stood on the hill in the 14th century. 

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