For sale: Billionaire puts Raffles on the market as his wealth plummets

Saudi Arabian prince hoping Singapore hotel's mythical status will force a quick sale – even at $450m

It's a tough business being a billionaire during a credit crunch. Apparently Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia is down to his last $13bn (£8.7bn), which is something of a pittance when you consider he was worth $21bn last year. But that was when his 3.9 per cent stake in Citigroup was fetching $50 a share rather than the present measly $4, and share prices continue to tumble.

All of which explains why he has decided to put that grandest of grand hotels – Raffles of Singapore – up for sale. So if you have a spare $450 million...

There is something apt about the sale. Prince Alwaleed, who will take a good deal less for one of London's most famous hotels, The Savoy, which he also wants to sell, lives a life which is a byword for extravagance. His 317-room-palace is said to be adorned with 1,500 tons of Italian marble, silk carpets and gold taps. He has 300 cars, 250 television sets and reportedly has an Airbus A380 on order as his private jet. Who knows how much of that is true? But then you can ask pretty much the same of the legendary Raffles Hotel.

Its very name conjures the heyday of empire. But though that may be correct of the man after whom it was named – Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, one of the architects of the British imperial expansion as the founder of the city of Singapore – the hotel dates from half a century later. The existing hotel dates only from 1887 and the fag-end of empire.

But then legends have a habit of becoming their own reality. Its rattan chairs and ceiling fans speak still of the age of the sola topi and the white linen suit in which the writer Somerset Maugham took up residence at Raffles. Every morning he sat at a table in the left hand corner of the Palm Court where he would write his clear and elegant prose in the heady fragrance of the frangipani tree, surrounded by orchids and bougainvillaea.

He visited the hotel repeatedly, turning the expat gossip there into the plots of his short stories. But that was in the 1920s, a decade before Noel Coward too arrived and was accounted by the locals, in his own words, as "a little rowdy, perhaps on the common side".

But then there was always something faintly seamy about a place which was, for all it was the apotheosis of raj-like Britishness, founded by four Armenian brothers. They were, however, masters of the art of spin. When the 23-year-old Rudyard Kipling recorded "a place called Raffles Hotel, where the food is excellent and the rooms are bad" one of the Armenians edited it into an advert, quoting the great man as saying: "Feed at Raffles where the food is excellent!"

The hotel gradually became more grandiose in a series of renovations, the first of which, in 1899, installed a 10,000-gallon tank to ensure a steady water supply and a steam engine to generate electricity sufficient to illuminate 800 bulbs and operate ceiling fans in all the public rooms. But it never lost its eye for a PR triumph.

In the 1850s Singapore had been plagued by tigers which ate at least 300 of the locals. So much so that the government offered rewards for every beastie bagged. Raffles claimed the last of these, though it turned out to be an animal which had escaped from a nearby "native show" rather than a wild creature. Fable soon had it that the last tiger was shot in the hotel's billiard room, though it was actually cornered beneath the room, which stood on stilts in the hotel garden.

Myth attached, too, to the hotel's celebrated cocktail, the Singapore Sling, a pink gin-based concoction for ladies which was invented in the hotel's Long Bar shortly before the First World War. The complex recipe, involving pineapple and cherries, was said to have been preserved in the hotel safe, even though the original formula had in fact been lost and it was inventively pieced together again from the fading memories of old barmen in the 1970s.

Then there were the 300 Japanese troops who committed suicide in the hotel using hand grenades following the liberation of Singapore in 1945. That tale seems to have been concocted from a single act of hara-kiri after a farewell sake party for 300 officers in the hotel.

Not all the myths of Empire were exaggerated. No Asians were allowed as hotel guests until the 1930. But the most celebrated guests turn out to be film stars – Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Ginger Rogers – as much as figures of imperial greatness (though Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia did stay there, his visit most distinguished by the fact that his Pekinese escaped the ban on dogs in the restaurant).

Raffles has been a place of conspicuous consumption as much as colonial grandeur. The house champagne is Bollinger and the house cigars are 10in Romeo y Julietas. One of its most cherished legends is of a 23st Dutch archaeologist, Professor Pieter van Stein Callenfels, who drank gin by the bottle – he sometimes had three for breakfast – and once ate every dish on the hotel's menu, and then proceeded to do it all over again, only backwards.

But the true story of Raffles is a lament for a past that never was. It is a caricature rather than a true remembrance, in which the modern moneyed classes, served by waiters in brass-buttoned white tunics, sip Singapore Slings in the Long Bar and throw the shells from their monkey nuts onto the floor in an emulation of colonial contempt for the locals which is about as authentic as smashing plates in a suburban Greek restaurant.

The reality was and is something different. Last week Raffles ordered the closure of two of the nine public toilets in its shopping arcade, whose tenants include Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, and Swarovski. The move would cut costs, the management said. Look on my water works, ye mighty, and despair.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

MBDA UK Ltd: Mission Planning and Control Solutions Systems Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? A pro-act...

MBDA UK Ltd: System Design Capability

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? The small...

Recruitment Genius: Production / Manufacturing Operative

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading garage door manufacturer are curr...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Software / Solution Sales

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a thri...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific