Monday, November 11, 2013


Arab Street Circa 2013

Raffles Hotel
Raffles Doorman and Me during one of my visits to the hotel
Marj on the left; Ho in the middle; Me on the the Writer's Bar
Me in my infamous white dress with a young Dutchman and a fine, elderly gentleman enjoying a drink in the Writers' Bar
Same Dress; Same Place; Same People with the Finnish Marine Architect sitting on the right.  These last two pictures were taken on my first visit to Raffles.
An article taken from the book "Year of the Tiger"; it was published in 1986 in celebration of Raffles Hotel Centenary. At the beginning of the article mention is made of Ho Wee How (bar manager of the Writer's Bar) being Somerset Maugham's bell boy.  Click on picture to enlarge it...making it easier to read.

After only a few hours sleep Marj and I were up bright and early; awake and rearing to go.  At least, I was ready and rearing, having showered, donned make-up; dressed with hair done.  Marj ran on Mexican Time I quickly discovered. Fiddling around taking forever to get ready was her way.  I’m not the most patient person in the world; however I accepted the fact she wasn’t going to change overnight (even though it seemed to take that long for her to change from her night attire into her day wear).  Realising there was no point pacing the room while waiting until Marj finished her preening and fussing, I decided to bury my frustration.  Fortunately, before our departure from Brisbane Airport I’d bought a couple of interesting books from the airport bookstore. They became my pacifiers as I waited for Marj to complete her daily ablutions and dressing.

Finally, Marj appeared, dressed ready for the day ahead.  Spontaneously, we remembered we’d not eaten anything the previous evening; we were both starving.  Wasting no further time with our waists dwindling, off we raced to graze upon the tempting array of the hot and cold dishes on offer at the Hilton’s breakfast buffet.  The hotel catering staff certainly knew how to put on an elaborate breakfast. The choice was limitless. Over breakfast we discussed our plans for the day.  Our first point of attack would be upon Arab Street.  We’d been told Arab Street with its myriad exotic vendors would capture our imaginations and open our wallets. Once our appetites were sated, we approached the reception desk to arrange for a cab, and also to ask a few questions about our destination.  

To our surprise, who should be standing at the desk barking orders - none other than Herr Commandant!  There she was in full flight, waving her arms around as she gathered together her flock.  Once she had them under control she went through the day’s schedule. When satisfied everyone had absorbed every minute component on the plan, she then began detailing the next day’s organised outing. 
The cold glare I received from Herr Commandant meant she recognised me from our previous evening’s encounter. As she moved closer to me with evil intent in her eyes it was obvious she’d chosen to ignore my explanation given that Marj and I weren’t members of her little group of disciples; and we had no future intentions of ever being dedicated followers. She probably didn’t believe my words because no one had ever dared cross that line with her before! 
With Marj and I once again rounded up to be recipients in her methodical commands, after completing her orders of the day at hand, she then began to sprout off about the following day’s trip to Kuala Lumpur. Like a gruff headmistress she gesticulated towards a form that required completion with one’s personal details, agreeing to whatever needed to be agreed to before embarking on the safari into Malaysia.  
Eventually,she paused for a second to take a breath.  I grabbed the opportunity to reiterate what I believed I’d made very clear less than 12 hours previously.

“Excuse me for interrupting…” I said, looking directly into her eyes. Looking down into her eyes because she was only about two feet tall…give or take!  “As I explained to you last night, my friend and I aren’t in your tour group. If we want to go to Kuala Lumpur we’ll find our own way there, thank you very much…that’s if we wanted to go, of course; maybe we won’t want to go!  Who knows?  We’re going to play it by ear. We’re going do whatever we feel like doing whenever we feel like it; and we’ll go wherever we want to go…whenever.  If we don’t feel like doing anything….that’s what we will do…nothing! We’re quite content to go our own way, thank you.”
I didn’t smile while explaining our point of view. On the other hand, I wasn’t rude.  I spoke firmly, succinctly, but politely. I will admit it was difficult to maintain a level of politeness with her, but I did!  Our message and purpose had finally set in. 
Why is it that when some people don a uniform an inflated sense of power goes to their head?  Her khaki uniform, complete with epaulets and a few other indistinguishable badges she probably purchased off a hawker for next to nothing made her feel like she was seven feet tall, bulletproof and indestructible, I think.
As we crossed the lobby to exit hotel, I was sure I noticed a few daggers flying past us; mainly directed at me. 
The distance between Orchard Road and Arab Street is around 3kms only, but as we were new to the surroundings we figured rather than walk we’d hail a cab. On the way to Arab Street, we’d draw on and learn from the cab driver’s local knowledge.  Who better to ask about the “lay of the land” than a cab driver?  Surely he wouldn’t brusquely communicate like a carnival barker; and he didn’t. 
During our stay in Singapore we used the services of taxis often. Never once did we find a driver who wasn’t willing to expound the virtues of his city. They were always very pleasant and obliging.   I’ll expand upon Singapore taxi drivers a little later; as there is a vignette to tell.

Arab Street was a-buzz with life when we arrived there.  I could feel the electricity in the air; I could see it all around me. Marj and I looked at each other.  I could also see her excitement, as well; I wasn’t alone in my feelings. Which way do we go?  Where do we start?

At the time of our unplanned trip to Singapore, Marj owned and operated a little dress shop in Graceville, a neighbouring suburb of Chelmer, the suburb in which she lived.  Chelmer, situated on the Brisbane River, is considered by some as being one of Brisbane’s prestigious addresses. It’s only 7kms west of the CBD.
As well as not being a “group” or “club” person, I prefer to browse and shop alone, too. I’m the first to admit I stand outside of the circle of “normal”.  In my defense, there’s nothing more boring than to hanging around, tapping your toes; fidgeting; balancing from foot to foot; twiddling your thumbs wishing to be somewhere else other than waiting for the person you’re with while they pour over whatever it is they’re interested in; things you’ve no interest in at all.

Because of her store, which, along with pre-made clothes, offered fabrics for sale together with all the “bibs and bobs” enough to satisfy the most discriminate dressmaker’s needs, Marj was interested in the shops/stalls selling silk and other exquisite, colourful fabrics, lace, sequins and baubles of diverse fashionable descriptions and uses. The shops along Arab Street, particular down one side of the street when we visited the area in November, 1986, were filled to overflowing with boundless stock to satisfy the most discerning tastes. Myriad textiles of vibrant colours; prints and designs one could only dream about. They were overwhelming. 

My interests lay elsewhere. After visiting a couple of textile shops with Marj, I suggested she went her way in search of her Holy Grail, and I go in search of my own.

My desire was to visit the vast array of fresh food vendors and spice shops rather than tag along with her. She felt similarly; fortunately, we were in accord, as often we were about many varied things.  We decided our best plan of attack was that we each went our own way to wallow guiltlessly in whatever our own individual pleasures were. 
With both of us being supposedly mature adults in our early 40s, it was my belief if we weren’t smart enough at the age when “life begins” to find our own way back to our hotel if we lost track of each other in Arab Street we were past the point of no hope.
Before separating I said to Marj if we didn’t catch up again during our wanders she would know where to find me at 4 pm…I’d be at Raffles Hotel in the Writers’ Bar; and for her to join me there if she wanted to do so. We then each went our own way, happily alone.

If it’s possible to be at peace with the world and in an emotionally roused state of excitement at the same time, then how I felt the morning I entered Arab Street proved such emotion is possible.  
Very soon I came upon a spice shop. 
Dingy and dark, but yet inviting, upon entering I found myself engulfed in a multitude of brown hues; sepia, taupe, tan, russet, burnt umber; all fifty shades of brown. Hessian bags filled with a potpourri of spices crowded the floor and the long, wide, unpainted wooden shelves that ran the course of the shop on both sides. Down the centre of the narrow store ran an island bench; it, too, was laden with bags and boxes of spices. With barely room enough to move, I became lost in a world of extraordinary aromas. The air was pleasantly heavy with the scent of spices.  They were nigh impossible to differentiate. A man, the store owner I supposed, and I began to converse.  He’d noticed my keen interest the moment I’d set foot into the shop. Even though he spoke broken English; more broken than a smashed China tea cup, and I didn’t speak his language, whatever his language was, we managed, somehow, to understand each other.  His swarthy complexion blended with his shop’s dusky interior.  I had no idea what nationality he was; but he was a kindly person.

As the spice man and I were bantering back and forth I noticed, to my amusement, Herr Commandant march by.  Her dutiful disciples followed close at heel.  She pointed towards the spice store as her obedient group paused briefly, marked time, and dutifully cast their eyes in the direction of the store.

In a stern, knowledgeable voice, “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed” declared: “And this here is one of the spice stores that Arab Street is known for.”

If not for their illustrious leader’s perceptive, concise information the captive tour members wouldn’t have known it was a spice shop!

I couldn’t help but break out into a wide smile. I realised how fortunate I was; and how unlucky those in the tour group were.  They were missing out on a wonderful experience.  They weren’t mixing with the locals. Being regimentally ushered along at a pace difficult to keep up with, they were given no chance to mingle and talk amongst the locals, nor were they able get to know them, albeit only fleetingly.

Standing in the middle of the foreign, unlit, dark, narrow hole in the wall, surrounded by spices beyond my imagination; inhaling not only the exotic aromas, but an ambience that was almost tangible; an ambience impossible to describe to do it justice unless personally experienced, I felt so at home.  Talking with an interesting, intriguing stranger I was in my element, and totally at ease. I wouldn’t have traded places for the world; and definitely not to become a member of the tour group.  That brief glimpse of Herr Commandant was the last time I saw her during my Singapore sojourn.  I didn’t fret

Movies are made with scenes similar to the one in which I’d found myself. As a child, engrossed, lost in the stories, characters and sights on the silver screen during Saturday matinees, the mysterious, fanciful adventures that unfolded seduced me Saturday after Saturday. I was beguiled by the romance of the Far East.
My first morning spent in Singapore made me feel as if I was the star in one of those movies I’d become hypnotised by all those years before.  I wanted to hug myself; I wanted to hug the dark stranger before me; but I refrained from doing either.  With difficulty, I contained my joyful emotions, but they were very close to bubbling over.  I enjoyed feeling like a kid again.

Marj and I continued on our separate ways. Our paths didn’t cross again during our Arab Street meanderings.  Marj contentedly immersed herself in silks, satins, sequins, buttons and ribbons. For me the spices sufficed; as did the stores laden with hand-woven rugs and basket ware.  I was in my glory following my own trail.
Until that day, other than in films and books, I’d never seen a mosque.  Pausing briefly, I watched with innocent interest as men, some dressed in unfamiliar garb, discarded their sandals or shoes outside the entrance to a grand mosque.  The Adhab echoed through the air calling all believers to prayer.  I didn’t heed the call.
I had another call to heed later in the afternoon! It was the only call that beckoned me; and the only one I would obey!

With my eye on the time knowing I had a date to keep, I grabbed a light snack from a street stall somewhere along the way before going back to the Hilton to shower and change for my most important rendezvous!  There was no way in the world I was going to be late for my most momentous date!
There was still no sign of Marj, but I wasn’t concerned.  Butterflies started fluttering in my stomach, however.  My excitement was growing; my expectations high.  I was becoming closer to satisfying one of my dreams; of fulfilling a promise I’d made to myself long ago.

My white dress, made of pure cotton, had been the first item I’d unpacked the previous evening, to allow enough time for the creases to un-crease.  Before showering I ironed my precious, chosen garment, ready for my grand entrance into Raffles.  I felt like a debutante must feel making her debut into the “grown-up world” - going to her first ball!  No one else other than me knew it was a “grand entrance” I intended making through the entrance of Raffles Hotel. It was my own private bit of personal fun; and I was going to enjoy the moment to my utmost.  My desires may sound a little self-indulgent; but they weren’t.  I was going to indulge my dreams; and make the most of the experience that had been handed to me the day I collected Ray Arnold’s airline ticket at Brisbane Airport!

I didn’t wait around for Marj; I knew she wouldn’t expect me to. I also knew she’d understand. She knew where I’d be.  I wouldn’t be difficult to find if and when she wanted to join me.

Without difficulty and no time wasted, I hailed a cab directly outside the Hilton.  My eye was on my watch and the time. I was on my way; and those excitable butterflies were accompanying me!
A few minutes later, I arrived at my destination…1 Beach Road, Singapore. 
At first sight the exterior of Raffles Hotel was everything I had imagined it to be.  I was not disappointed. If it was a dream I was experiencing, I hoped no one would wake me, not even the smiling doorman dressed in white with a pith helmet firmly planted upon his head. Gallantly, he held open the cab’s door enabling me to gracefully alight my chariot.
I beamed at him. He reciprocated in kind.  From that moment on to the week’s end, he and I became close friends. Every visit thereafter, he greeted me warmly.

My White Knight escorted me up the stair towards the hotel’s entrance.  I asked for directions to the Writers’ Bar. He kindly obliged by giving me a detailed run-down of all the bars.  Did I look thirsty?
Entering the Writers’ Bar I was greeted by a man whom I soon learned was the head barman; a man of indiscernible years
Ho Wee How was his name.

Immediately Ho and I struck a rapport.  It was as if we were old friends, he and I.
Ho had been bell boy to Somerset Maugham when Maugham frequented Raffles Hotel years and years before (see pictured above).  Ho recalled Maugham, each morning clad only in shorts, having his breakfast under an umbrella in the garden area; and there he worked diligently until lunch time.

Ho was a fascinating, gentle man to speak with, and again, over the course of the week during my daily afternoon visits to the Writers’ Bar, Ho and I became firm friends.
Oh! The spirits that lingered in that bar; and I don’t mean those of the bottled liquid kind sitting on the stained wooden shelves. 
The ghosts of Rudyard Kipling; Herman Hesse, Maugham, Hemingway, Noel Coward, along with so many others of note; writers, actors, statesmen, royalty; all haunted the hallowed halls of Raffles, particularly the Writers’ Bar. Their spirits remained there in a most welcoming, friendly way. 
It was at Raffles that Noel Coward discovered a young actor called John Mills. 

At the time, R. C. Sheriff’s “Journey’s End” was being performed at Singapore’s Victoria Theatre.  The lead actor fell ill.  Coward had turned down an offer to take the lead role in the Broadway production, but when asked to replace the leading man in Singapore, Coward readily agreed to act as substitute.  Within three days he was word-perfect, and he gave a performance Singapore had never seen before.

During my first afternoon visit to Raffles, I also met Din, Ho’s bar assistant.  Din was a handsome Sri Lankan fellow in his early to mid-thirties. When Ho was busy elsewhere, Din stepped in to regale many stories of his own.  At 4 pm the bar wasn’t busy.  Most patrons were either in the Long Bar, while others were playing billiards in the Tiger Bar, or mingling in the Palm Court.  As the afternoon progressed a crowd, not large in number, of the conservative kind, entered the Writers’ Bar.  The bar exuded a gentle atmosphere of quiet reverence.

After about an hour of my arrival Marj joined me.  I introduced her to Ho and Din before we excused ourselves and headed off to visit the Long Bar to do what every honourable tourist should do; we ordered a Singapore Sling each. There are few who have visited the Long Bar and not indulged in a Singapore Sling; but I’d bet my bottom dollar none have repeated the legendary feat by five guests who once upon time, as the story goes, downed 131 Slings in less than two hours!  If in fact that is a fact and not fiction, I’m sure they wouldn’t have survived to tell the story.  Only those who witnessed the legendary deed lived to spread the tale; either that or those who committed the exploit are still sleeping under a palm tree in the Palm Court!
Being an independent person, not unlike myself, Marj had enjoyed her day, too. We always had lots of fun together, but we never crowded each other, either. We were and still are very good friends; friends who understand each other’s quirks and ways. She filled me in on the details of her Arab Street adventures, and of the exquisite fabrics she’d discovered. As we sat at the long bar in the Long Bar with its polished teak floor, outside a tropical downpour pounded the pavement slowing the passing traffic. The street and footpaths glistened; some folk scurried to find shelter; others strolled with not a care in the world as they enjoyed a respite from the day’s heat; a pleasant interlude of coolness from the intense humidity.  At a similar time each afternoon, Singapore was drenched by tropical downpours. The rain stopped as abruptly as it started.

After our Singapore Slings (with which, by the way,  Marj or I weren’t overly impressed  – but we couldn’t not have one.  To not indulge one’s self with a Singapore Sling in Raffles would have been a sacrilege), we ventured back to the Writers’ Bar for a couple of pre-dinner scotches.  There we struck up a conversation with a couple of fellow imbibers; two Americans visiting the city on business and a Finnish marine architect.  They invited us to join them for dinner, but Marj and I had already made plans. We politely declined their generous offer.  However, our respective paths were to cross again a day or so later.
We returned to the Hilton.  We’d made a booking the `a la carte restaurant on one of the upper floors.  The restaurant’s name escapes me, but it was a fancy establishment of highly-polished silverware and glassware; white starched tablecloths adorned the tables with quality porcelain dinnerware. The waiters were suitably attired in black and white. Pleated cummerbunds completed their outfits. Marj and I had a couple of drinks at the bar before we were escorted to our table.

An exemplary meal followed.  All the while a jazz quarter or quintet played softly on a slightly raised dais on a highly-polished dance floor.  As the evening progressed, so did the music tempo; and the mood of the diners.  Very soon without much prompting, we were cutting quite a rug on the dance floor, having ourselves a whale of time!   I loved music; and I loved dancing.  What more could I ask for?

I have no idea what time we finished up that night, but it was late! We'd had a wonderful night; quite a wild night, actually, with a bit of dancing on tables thrown into the mix.  I admit to nothing!

When the time came for the final curtain to fall, we somehow found our way back to our room, exhausted, yet exhilarated from a wonderful day and night; a little merry, but nicely merry; knowing after a few hours sleep, we’d be ready to do it all over again!
Chinatown; Bugis Street and the Tanglin Club were on our list, along with a few other places…and, of course, it goes without say really….Raffles was permanently on my list!

This is not the end of the story....Chapter Four will follow...but not today!


  1. You look gorgeous - and I love that your dream lived up to itself - and then some.
    The sort of memory to hug to yourself on dark days.

  2. You look great! And fantastic pics. You really should write a book. Do you pen all of these from memory?

  3. Thanks, memories of that week give me pleasure...and bring many smiles to my face. :)

  4. Hi there, RK...thanks. Yes, all are withdrawn from my memory bank.

  5. What fun memories you have of this trip, Lee! And I love the infamous white dress - you looked beautiful in it.

  6. G'day Lyn...I realised last night that it's almost 27 years ago to the day that Marj and I flew to Singapore...perhaps that's why the memories were rekindled.

    The dress was a simple white cotton was the cut that made it so special, I think. Italian design and made...the Italians really know their fashion; their well as shoes. It cost me an arm and a leg...but it was worth it. I'd never had a designer dress before...or will never happen it was worth it! :)

  7. I agree with Riot Kitty - you really 'should' write a book!

    What fun times you must have had. Great post :)

  8. Hey there, Wendy. I keep threatening to write a book one day...I wouldn't know where to begin. It's the financing in getting one published that's the hiccup...particularly if no one buys the book upon completion...and I'm left holding the bill...and the books! ;)

    Thanks for coming by. :)

  9. Sounds as if you and Marj had yourselves quite a time, Lee. You're probably the centre of a few stories beginning with, "I remember the time these two Australian women were visiting..."

    Ah, good fun was had by all.

  10. Oh...we'd only just started, Robyn...we weren't even warmed up! It was only our first full day and night in the city...a city that never sleeps! We tried to match it! ;)

  11. I still fail to find the police raid......

  12. I still fail to find the police raid......

  13. Keep looking! Keep looking, Adullamite.

    Would you like some're repeating! ;)

  14. That looks like a beautiful white dress and not dated at all. Sounds like you and Cheryl had a memorable time.

  15. Hi Molly...yes...the dress would never date...can't say the same about me, though, unfortunately! ;)

  16. Sounds like you had a truly wonderful time.

  17. And it's not over yet, Janice! ;)

  18. A beautiful dress! And your descriptions of the tour guide in this and previous post make me smile although it doesn't sound as if it was funny at the time! It's just unbelievable someone involved in peoples holidays can be like that!

  19. Hello there, Jenny...well, she, the tour guide really was funny. She was a character out of "Fawlty Towers" or "Monty Python".

    Her officiousness was so over the top, one couldn't help but be amused. Well, someone with as insane a sense of the ridiculous as me! She took herself far too seriously that it was impossible for me to return the favour! ;)

  20. Hi Carol in Cairns...thanks for coming by.

    You live close to my old stomping area I've featured often throughout my blog. After I left Hinchinbrook Island, I lived in Yorkeys Knob and then Clifton Beach for three year.

    It saddens me to know that the resort on Hinchinbrook at Cape Richards is now shut down.

  21. Still out of jail, and still no Humphrey in sight... Is this a good thing? (LOL?)