The keeper of Raffles Hotel’s history
Leslie Danker has lived through four owners at the oldest hotel in Singapore, and has seen many changes that have taken place, including some interesting discoveries.
BY: Eleanor Yap
The old adage that staff are often replaceable does not apply to 75-year-old Leslie Danker, as he really is irreplaceable at Raffles Hotel. Without the grandfather of two, the knowledge of the hotel’s past peppered with his actual experiences would all be gone.
Ageless Online talks to the resident historian, who has been interviewed by over 100 local and international media organisations (likely over a cup of cappuccino) (he was even recently featured in the SG50 book “Living The Singapore Story”), to give us a glimpse of his journey with Singapore’s oldest hotel:
You are one of the longest-serving employees of the hotel at 43 years of service. As you dispense history to guests and others, you too have become part of history. Can you comment?
I have been at Raffles Hotel before, during and after the hotel’s restoration in 1989
when the hotel was closed for two-and-a-half years. After that, there were many changes in the hotel. Previously, there was a ballroom where the driveway is now that was opened in 1921, the bar and billiard room was converted to guest rooms in 1917 and air-condition was introduced in 1932 . They had to lower ceilings in the guest rooms to accommodate these air-conditioning units.
Also, the [architecture of the] grill room was changed to Tudor style in honour of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. However, during the restoration, we had to remove all those features, but they were later brought back again in 1989. The ceiling was also brought up, the driveway put in and the grill room put back to its original location.
Not only have I seen these changes, I am part of the history. When I give the history tours not only to guests but also at new staff orientations once every six weeks, a good portion is on the hotel’s history. I used to work in those places in the hotel so I am part of the history. Now, I am semi-retired and work five days a week but half days (sometimes mornings or afternoons). Sundays and Mondays are my off days.
Can you share three memorable moments working in the hotel?
The first moment is when the hotel closed. We all worked with the previous management and were told we were going to be retrenched because a new company was coming in. On the day we closed, it was very sad. We had a gathering and many of us cried. Most came up to me and said they loved working with me and cried. It was March 14, 1989 at midnight that would be the last time the public could come to the hotel. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Leslie was the only employee to stay on and he became the site supervisor during the extensive renovation at the hotel.)
The biggest attraction was the Long Bar where everyone came for the Singapore Sling (cocktail drink). We expected a good crowd and that people would come to find souvenirs. I remembered before the stroke of midnight, we carried out the last guest, a young Japanese lady, over the threshold to the driveway and closed the gate.
The second moment was during the restoration when we found some discoveries. At the lobby, when removing the marble flooring, I saw the flooring of the 10-room bungalow (which was what existed before Raffles Hotel was built) and saw the fine sea sand, as [at the time] the sea was in front. I kept a little of the sand in a small container for safekeeping at home.
At the Bras Basah Wing (where gift shop is now), we had to change the floor tiles as they were badly damaged, and I saw horseshoes (there were horse stables that existed previously). And, at the Palm Court where some excavations were done, I saw a full-grown horse skeleton and some broken shards of chinaware with the logo SB (Sarkies Brothers), the first proprietors of the hotel. I have also kept a piece as a souvenir.
You also have penned a book in 2010 called “Memoirs of a Raffles Original” detailing a lot of the hotel’s history. Tell me how that happened? Will you consider doing another book?
The former general manager asked me to put a book together since I had been at the hotel so long. I took 12 months to finish it and it was tough particularly getting photos as the publisher wanted high-resolution ones. You can buy the book at the hotel gift shop (costs S$29.90) or at MPH. Regarding another book, we will have to wait and see.
You joined the hotel in 1972 starting out as a maintenance supervisor and worked your way through many departments before landing the front office manager position. First off, what made you join Raffles Hotel in the first place? Was it your first job?
Before Raffles, I was doing social work with the Red Cross as I wanted to help the less fortunate. I worked with them for seven years.
When I was at school at St Joseph’s Institution, which was nearby at the time to the hotel, I would often have to pass by. I had heard so much about the hotel and really admired the architecture. I wanted to know more about the hotel so I thought why not apply for the job as the maintenance supervisor. In joining the hotel, I learned there was more to the hotel than its architecture; I discovered it had a rich history as well. For example, the main building was the first building in Singapore that had electric lights and fans. And, under the building of the bar and billiard room, there was a tiger that had escaped from the circus in 1902 and was resting for the night. A principal from Raffles Institution who was a hunter and sharp shooter shot it.
If you hadn’t joined Raffles Hotel, what would you have done?
I liked an active life; I would have joined the army. In 1954 the British wanted to introduce National Service. I went to register but they later scrapped the idea. When I joined Raffles Hotel, they needed someone who could speak English very well as I would have to deal with guests. It was the right time. I was in my early 30s at the time.
You later went on to become guest relations and then to resident historian. How did that happen?
Even before the restoration, guests often asked me about the hotel’s history as I spoke good English and knew quite a bit about the history. I also loved the history and went to the National Library often to do research if guests asked questions that I didn’t know. There were no computers at the time! All this research added to my knowledge further.
When the restoration continued, I got more notes and information from the restoration. During the restoration, the hotel sent out a press release, which included the history of the location. I collected all this and put them in a big folder. This increased my knowledge of the history of the hotel and the building. Plus during restoration, I had the famous black book, which contained my notes during the restoration, as I would ask the architects different things. After, I was better equipped to talk to guests and media about the hotel. The previous general manager said he would change my designation to resident historian in 2004.
How often do you take groups around on hotel tours? I don’t think other hotels have such a person in their hotels, so you are also one of a kind.
Residents staying at the hotel are offered these tours; it is a special feature of the hotel. First preference is to the residents. Sometimes I would do six tours a day so I would combine the whole thing, so it would be a minimum of one hour. I would also give tours to media. Every week now we get about two a day. Most guests say they have never come across a resident historian back in their own countries.
This black book of yours sounds intriguing. Can you tell me more?
It is 200 pages paperback and it contains a lot of notes on Raffles Hotel. Besides the history of the hotel, I have also inserted the chronological history of Singapore. I stopped adding to the book in 1991 when the hotel reopened. I still refer to it especially on the figures but I try to remember them, like how large is the property? The answer is 27,731 sqm.
You are probably the only one who knows more about the hotel than anyone else. What happens when you decide to retire? Have you started grooming someone?
There is a staff that attended my training and tour. He can do the tours but [the difference is] I have lived through the experience. I worked in the ballroom; he can only see the picture. The experience that I have been through and knowledge that I have is all in my head. It will take a long time for him to learn and catch up. For example, when the hotel was built, it was on Milton Land and Lease 214, and stretched 11,103.2 sqm. If this staff doesn’t know something, he will come and ask me.
The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said that you should work as long as you can and you will be healthier and happier for it. For me, what is important is to take care of my health and whether the hotel wants me to stay on. I [currently] have a year-to-year contract.
Can you share an interesting fact about the hotel, besides it being the home of the Singapore Sling?
We have 12 personality suites out of the total 103 named after writers, actors, etc, who have a connection to the hotel. For instance, there was the British writer, W Somerset Maugham, who came to the hotel three times and stayed at the same suite for all of his visits. Before he left, he gave a beautiful quote – “Raffles stands for all the fables of the exotic East” – which the hotel wanted to use in its collaterals. The original letter that he had given permission to use the quote is hung up in the suite named after him. Writer Rudyard Kipling also has a suite named after him as he had a meal at the hotel. Out of the 12 personalities, I have met three including journalist Gavin Young, author James Michener and actor John Wayne.
So many famous people have gone through the doors of Raffles Hotel. Do you have your favourites?
1) I found John Wayne soft-spoken and humble. In the movies, he is very rough but in person, he is very different; that really struck me.
2) I had a photo taken with Michael Jackson. When I checked him into his hotel room, he was pleasant and soft-spoken.
3) I always admired Queen Elizabeth. When I heard she was coming to Singapore and staying at Raffles Hotel, I was happy. I got introduced to the Queen and even spoke to her. I said, “Good morning, Your Majesty. When you first visited Singapore which was in 1972, it was the same year that I joined Raffles Hotel.” Her reply was “That is great”.
When you were involved in the restoration, you also picked up some skills, which you use?
At home I did my own grotto, painted my house, did the cementing, etc. I have the tools at home. Since I was the site supervisor during the restoration and worked with the professionals, I learned how to read architectural drawings.
You have seen four owners take over Raffles Hotel. Any thoughts about the changes in the hotel over the years?
Raffles is Raffles. Changes are only in the owners; the service and history still remain and there are no changes. We need to keep the brand.
What keeps you busy on your days-off?
I take care of my grandsons who are three and five, as my daughter and her family live with my wife and I. Every time they ask me to tell stories. Sometimes I would also share some of my Raffles stories with them.
If you could turn back the clock, what would you change about your life?
I would have liked to get a degree in the history of Southeast Asia as the guests often ask about the history of Singapore and Southeast Asia.
** From now till August 29, Raffles Hotel is offering history tours of the hotel that will reveal areas that were previously not open to the public. These tours called the Raffles Walk of Fame will be done every Saturday lasting 45 minutes and there will be four tours a day – 9am, 11am, 3pm and 5pm – by volunteer guides from the Preservation of Sites and Monuments Division (PSM) of the National Heritage Board (NHB). These guides have been trained by Leslie.
The tour will start in the hotel lobby. En route, visitors will visit some of the 103 suites that make up the hotel, including one of its two presidential suites where Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Jackson have resided or the Grand Hotel Suite Ava Gardner stayed when she was in Singapore for the Asian premiere of her film “The Barefoot Contessa”.
Also part of the itinerary is fascinating facts about the celebrities and famous personalities that have resided in the hotel. Raffles Walk of Fame will also highlight the locations where films such as “Pretty Polly” and “Hawaii Five-O” were shot.
The tour is S$20 per person, and is fully redeemable at the Raffles Gift Shop or the hotel’s food and beverage establishments. To register, please e-mail the Preservation of Sites and Monuments Division at firstname.lastname@example.org with your preferred timeslot.