As Raffles Singapore’s resident historian, Leslie Danker has much to tell of his 48 years working at the city’s most recognisable hotel.
Few hotels here have as rich a history as the Raffles Singapore. In her 133 years on Beach Road, the Grand Dame has weathered wars and welcomed dignitaries. A tiger was even shot under the Raffles Singapore billiard room in 1902.
Now, fresh from a two-year-long facelift completed last August, one of Raffles’ most loyal custodians has released a book celebrating the enduring Singapore icon.
A Life Intertwined chronicles the 48 years that Raffles’ resident historian Leslie Danker has spent at the hotel. As the hotel’s longest-serving employee, Danker shares in his book the various posts he has held over nearly half a century (from maintenance supervisor to guest relations officer), and how he became an “accidental historian” during the hotel’s first restoration in 1989.
He is the only employee to have witnessed two restorations at the hotel, from 1989 to 1991 and 2017 to 2019.
Over 14 chapters, the book outlines the hotel’s colourful history and its clientele. From its early days, Raffles attracted the glitterati of colonial Singapore, who drank, danced and even whizzed about in roller skating parties at its lobby. During the Japanese occupation, the Japanese army moved its officers and civilian administrators into the hotel. It was also renamed Syonan Ryokan, or “Light of the South Hotel”, until the war ended.
Danker, 81, also tells of his life working at the national icon, which took him from translating guests’ requests to excavating forgotten artefacts during restorations.
Over his years working at the hotel, he has also had the opportunity to welcome various celebrities, from American singer Dionne Warwick in 1987, “frequent guest” Jackie Chan and the Queen of England in 2006. Danker even posed for a picture with the King of Pop himself, when the late Michael Jackson performed at the National Stadium in 1993 as part of his Dangerous tour.
“A Life Intertwined is my love letter to the Grand Dame,” says Danker, who is married with two daughters and two grandsons. “Raffles Singapore Singapore has provided me a lifetime of wonderful experiences… and I hope that readers will be able to learn more about her rich heritage and history through my recollection.
This is Danker’s second book about the hotel. His first, Memoirs of a Raffles Original, was published in 2010.
But there are other books about the hotel in the works. Last year, the hotel announced its writer-in-residence programme, hosting up to two writers annually for up to four weeks at a time.
Travel writer and author Pico Iyer took on the title of the first Raffles’ writer-in-residence last year. He released This Could Be Home: Raffles Singapore And The City Of Tomorrow, via local publisher Epigram Books in August. Meanwhile, the hotel is expected to announce another international author as its second writer-in-residence in the coming months.
Six months after its grand reopening, Raffles Singapore had to contend with the outbreak of Covid-19. Danker says he has never seen anything close to the disruption earlier this year. “SARS was not this bad; we still had guests who could come in. [But] international borders are closed now so no tourists can come in.”
“We were very fortunate when the circuit breaker was lifted and we could introduce staycations. A lot of locals came here,” he adds.
Covid-19 has also brought about new practices at Raffles: Suites will be kept vacant for a 24-hour window between bookings, with increased sanitation of high-touch points like handles and doorknobs. Even the contents of the in-suite minibars will be disinfected daily, with a hygiene seal applied on the doors.
To mark the launch of Danker’s latest memoir, Raffles Singapore has launched the A Life Intertwined with Raffles Singapore staycation experience. Bookings start at $880++ a night, with a 50% discount on the second night.
This includes breakfast for two, a trishaw tour around the city precinct, an autographed copy of Danker’s book and the Heritage Evening experience at The Grand Lobby, which has hosted many extravagant parties in the past.
Available from 6.30pm to 9pm, the set menu ($68++) starts with a sharing platter that quickly filled our table for four. We started with the crispy Vegetable Spring Rolls, quickly followed by dainty fried starters in the form of Spicy Tiger Prawns and Sesame Shrimp Toast.
Tiny but packing a punch, the Chilli Crab Cake carried spicy notes reminiscent of otah (grilled fish cake), honouring one of Singapore’s most recognisable national dishes in one bite.
As for the mains, the Laksa presented itself with full-length rice noodles, which are meant to be enjoyed in spoonfuls. The dish comes with squares of tofu puffs to soak up the fiery gravy and is topped with a delicate, hard-boiled quail egg.
Another highlight is a mainstay found at hawker centres islandwide. The Hainanese Chicken Rice served here stole the show. Presented alongside the classic condiments like ground ginger, chilli and dark soy sauce, this dish more than rivals the big names serving chicken rice at Balestier Road or Maxwell Food Centre.
To complete the meal, a selection of Singaporean-inspired sweets was fronted by a showy sweet potato swan, complete with a light flaky crust resembling feathers. Desserts from the Heritage Evening menu played out like a who’s who of sweets: Kaya Pineapple Roll, Chendol, Ondeh Ondeh, Kueh Lapis and even bird’s nest makes an appearance here, paired with coconut in the unusual form of a tartlet.
In a most Singaporean fashion, the Heritage Evening menu concludes with a choice of kopi or teh tarik, with an additional option of tea from the Raffles Signature Tea Selection.
It may not be as rambunctious as a roller skating party, but for diners to sip quietly at tea, full up from an evening of treats, a century feels like no time at all.