Fancy a Cuppa at the Raffles?

May 18, 2010

Tea time. Those words conjure up images of ladylike Laura Ashley dresses, fine porcelain, delicate tea sandwiches, and scones with clotted cream.

Just as often, when I think of tea time, come images of old Asian men dressed in undershirts and flip-flops, tall glass mugs of tea sweetened with condensed milk, coconut jam covered toast, fish grilled in banana leaf packets, and meat-filled flat breads dipped in curry sauce.

Intrigued? Let me tell you a story about afternoon tea in Singapore.

Singapore, where I spent most of my junior year of college, gained independence from England only in 1965, and many remnants of British culture remain in this still-young country. This is where I first adopted the ritual of afternoon tea. Afternoon tea in Singapore is incongruous in many ways. First of all, Singapore's tropical heat and humidity could beat the conditions in a wet sauna; I could not understand why anyone would willingly drink cup after cup of nearly boiling tea in that weather. (I later understood the traditional Chinese medicine concept of drinking hot liquids to cool the body.) Second, I already liked my tea English-style – strong, black tea with milk. I was affronted, horrified, and I'll admit, scornful of what the locals knew as tea. Yes, it was black tea, mellowed with milk. But it was also thickly sweetened with condensed milk and often not brewed fresh, but made from an instant powder.

The tea served at the Raffles Hotel, on the other hand, would certainly be more like in the Motherland, England: refined, delicate, and just-so. But I wouldn't know, because I never had the privilege of having a cuppa there.

The story behind this is the tale my husband has heard thousands of times over the last almost twenty years, the one during the telling of which he actually will cover up his ears, even in the company of people we might want to impress, or at least not scare away. But it is a good one, so I will share it with you... my new audience.

I was a student (i.e. poor), I was from a liberal university (i.e. a little bohemian), and it was hot (definitely no stockings for me, regardless of the dress code). I had been living there for at least four months at this point, and while I was no longer dripping sweat constantly, I could not wear the sweaters and tights that the local girls could, as if they were in merry old England. There was a lot of excitement surrounding the grand re-opening of the famed Raffles Hotel, which had undergone its first major renovation in the years prior to my arrival. This is the place that invented the Singapore Sling (another too-sweet drink) and the former hangout of Somerset Maugham, in the days that tigers might have still been found roaming the streets of this former jungle. It was the archetype of British colonial architecture and society. As such, “she” was considered a venerable institution to be respected.


raffles hotel


So I combed my hair, which went crazy wild in that humidity, put on a neat outfit of a top and shorts, and excitedly walked inside, where I saw lots of other tourists milling about, in similar or even more casual attire. I gazed at the beautifully restored woodwork, and made my way back towards the famed Long Bar to have a taste of the Singapore Sling, at its birthplace. But I didn't quite make it there. I was stopped by a uniformed employee, who gently directed me outside. “No shorts are allowed. This is an expensive hotel.”

“Pardon me?” I asked. “What about all those other people?” I gestured to the long-haired Australians in their board shorts and flip-flops, lounging casually and having a raucous good time.

“They are guests here.”

I was embarrassed, but wondered what made me look like someone who could not possibly be a guest at “an expensive hotel”. It wasn't my clothing that made me stand out. In fact, I suspected that my welcome was because I didn't stand out – I looked like a “local”.

I discussed the incident back in the hostel's canteen (dorm cafeteria) with my local friends. They immediately and unanimously concluded that it was the customary discrimination against locals, while pandering to Western (appearing) tourists. They shrugged it off; it was such a commonplace occurrence to them. But I was enraged, on my own behalf but also theirs.

I wrote my first ever letter to the editor to The Straits Times, the local/national newspaper (it's a very small country), in which I implied that the hotel had race-based double standards. I kept the clippings from my letter, which I think still emanates heat twenty years later. In it, I concluded, “It reminded me of what the glorious Raffles must have been like in colonial times – attentive Asian staff catering to every caprice of their esteemed Western guests. Perhaps the newly renovated Raffles hotel should also update her thinking.”

Like a harbinger of blog posts gone viral, this letter generated a month of responses. A few sadly sympathised that there were post-colonial attitudes, but the vast majority threw insults at me, someone they had never met or seen. I was called “scruffy and sloppy”. The best insult was “Raffles Hotel is no place for... scruffy or unkempt visitors. For these people, there are lots of coffee houses, beer lounges, karaoke joints and perhaps even hawker centres.” The Sunday Times had a full editorial dedicated to the subject of... Me. And the major tabloid did an investigative report where they sent two journalists, separately, to re-enact my actions. One was Caucasian, one was a local Singaporean Chinese. They were both dressed in bike shorts (I would never!), and each went in the lobby, as I had done. In the end, both were thrown out, though the Chinese one by a good 10 minutes earlier. The conclusion was that there was no discrimination. Yes, these were my 15 minutes of infamy.

So, very long story short, this is why I never got to have afternoon tea at the Raffles. I am sure it is lovely.