Contributing to your company’s bottom line is one thing, but how many of us can claim to have written history while doing it? Leslie Danker, Raffles Singapore’s famed resident historian – who has been with the hotel for 48 years – has done it twice.
Most people (deservedly) want to put up their feet at 81 years of age but not Raffles’ longest-serving employee, who continues to stride through its airy hallways with a vigour that belies his years. Last week, Raffles Hotel released Danker’s memoir, A Life Intertwined, to mark its 133th birthday. Produced with the support of the National Heritage Board, the book is Danker’s second and is filled with key moments in Raffles’ rich heritage as seen through its author’s lens.
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To browse its pages, which are replete with personal memories, historical factoids and sepia-tinged photographs, is to revisit an era which saw Raffles assume its form as a microcosm of rarified luxury, worldliness and celebrity. It was also a time when anything was possible, a fact which Danker was surely betting on when in 1972, he walked up to the front desk and asked for work despite having “no experience to speak of”. Fortunately, his excellent command of English won him a job as a maintenance supervisor and over the next few decades, his natural ease with guests and colleagues would see him move to overseeing the hotel’s F&B operations, then become chief information officer, guest relations manager, training manager and finally resident historian in 2004.
His was the face every guest grew to know and trust. Many of these faces were celebrities – Danker’s collection of celebrity photos, which include Queen Elizabeth II, John Wayne, Jackie Chan and Michael Jackson, is so extensive that new ones continue to be unearthed, like a recently discovered snap of a cowboy-hatted David Bowie.
Starry encounters aside, Danker is also known for his formidable mental archive of key architectural details, dates and events. Many of these have made their way into his book, from the historical (when the occupying Japanese army renamed Raffles Singapore to Synonan Ryokan) to the quirky (the reason behind a set of seemingly mismatched pillars). Another anecdote relates an amusing incident when in 1904, a guest mistook a water vessel for a bathtub, promptly got stuck and had to be unceremoniously broken out of it.
When the arrival of new management led to mass retrenchments, Danker was the sole employee asked to stay on as a site inspector for Raffles’ first restoration in 1989. He started compiling his black book, an exhaustive record of architectural details he collated with the help of the project’s interior designers and architects, and that he still refers to occasionally.
In his memoir, he recalls the time workmen lifted the main building’s worn marble floors to reveal sea sand, a reminder of the time the hotel fronted the sea. He made careful note in his black book, then collected the sand in a glass vial, which he has kept to this day.
“I felt like an intrepid archaeologist digging for buried treasure,” he writes, later acknowledging he is the only staffer to have witnessed Raffles’ two restorations and the historical revelations these entailed. “The fact that I am also part of this tale, in its lived history, is a privilege beyond words.”
To mark the launch of the memoir, Raffles Hotel has created A Life Intertwined with Raffles Hotel staycation experience (from $880++ a night, with 50% off the second night). It includes breakfast for two, an autographed copy of Danker’s memoir, and a trishaw tour around Raffles Hotel through the historical precincts it highlights. It also includes a Heritage evening experience for two at the Grand Lobby, featuring a new set menu inspired by the rich flavours of Singapore’s culinary history including exclusive cocktails and local classics such as Laksa and Hainanese Chicken Rice.