Raffles Hotel's resident historian tells his stories in a new book, A Life Intertwined

SINGAPORE – The first time Leslie Danker set foot in Raffles Hotel, he was 18 and had just finished school.

He wandered into the Long Bar and watched bemused as people sipped drinks of a pink hue, which he would later learn was the hotel’s signature cocktail, the Singapore Sling. Not knowing any better, he ordered a draft beer, drank it and left.

Little did he know then that his existence would be so thoroughly intertwined with the hotel’s.

Danker, 81, is the hotel’s resident historian and its longest-serving staff member at 48 years. Notably, he is the only employee to have witnessed not one, but two restorations, from 1989 to 1991 and 2017 to last year respectively.

Last Tuesday (Sept 15), he launched his second book about the hotel, A Life Intertwined, which weaves the memoir of his own life with little-known facts about the hotel, which just turned 133 years old.

His first book, Memoirs Of A Raffles Original, was published in 2010.

Mr Danker has spent much of his life in the same neighbourhood as the hotel.

The son of a Public Works Department office administrator and a housewife, he grew up in Penang Road. As a boy, he hung out with friends at the Catholic Centre, watched movies at the Alhambra or Marlborough Theatre and went for dinner at the Satay Club off Beach Road, back in the day when Beach Road was actually near the beach.

“The sea was just in front of the building,” he says in the Grand Lobby, gesturing out beyond the hotel driveway. “The sea was there.”

He spent 15 years as a social worker, but decided in 1972 he wanted a change. He walked up to the front desk of the Raffles Hotel and asked to speak to the manager about a job.

To his surprise, he got an interview and was later hired as a maintenance supervisor. He went on to work his way through the hotel’s various departments, from food and beverage to front of house.

He has met celebrity guests such as Jackie Chan, Michael Jackson and John Wayne, although his favourite remains Queen Elizabeth II of Britain – “a gentle lady, very soft spoken”.

His propensity for making discoveries about the hotel – during the first restoration, he found hundreds of pottery shards in an old kitchen dump, one of which bore the distinctive crest of the hotel’s Armenian founders, the Sarkies brothers – led to him becoming the resident historian.

Mr Danker, who possesses an extraordinary knack for calling up facts and even exact dates from memory, is devoted to digging up and preserving records of the hotel’s history.

Some of these appear as anecdotes in A Life Intertwined, like the humorous story of how in 1904, guests took their baths by scooping water out of large earthenware containers called Shanghai Jars. One guest mistook the jar for a bathtub, tried to climb in and got stuck. His cries for help were eventually heard by a room attendant, who freed him with the aid of a hammer.

Mr Danker, who is married with two daughters and two grandsons, has retired from the hotel, though he still goes in to work part-time.

He notes that the hotel industry is going through a difficult time during the tourism drought due to Covid-19 border closures, but he remains optimistic.

“In the history of Raffles Hotel, there are a lot of ups and downs,” he says, citing the founders’ bankruptcy in 1931; the Japanese Occupation in World War II, when Japanese soldiers stayed in the hotel; and the rise of rival hotels in the Orchard Road area in the 1970s.

“We had so many crises, but the hotel still remains. So I always say, there will always be a Raffles.”

• A Life Intertwined ($32.90) is available at Raffles Boutique and at this website.

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