colonial hotels

In Which Nellie Makes It Half-Way Round the World

SINGAPORE
Nellie’s dates: 18 December 1889
My dates: 11-14 September 2014

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore

By the time she reached Singapore, Nellie Bly was half-way round the world and at the southernmost tip of her journey. Arriving at dark the night before, it was too risky to dock. The P & O Oriental was forced to anchor in the harbour, much to Nellie’s frustration.

“The sooner we got in, the sooner we could leave, and every hour lost meant so much to me,” she wrote.

When Nellie came on deck the next morning, “the ship lay alongside the wharf and naked coolies were carrying, two by two, baskets of coal suspended between them on a pole, constantly traversing the gangplank between the ship and the shore, while in little boats about were peddlers with silks, photographs, fruits, laces and monkeys to sell.’’

Nellie didn’t buy a monkey from the peddlers in little boats; but from the family of her driver.

“When I saw the monkey my willpower melted and I began straight away to bargain for it. I got it,” she wrote. That monkey travelled around the rest of the world with her. He was called McGinty and became one of the icons of her world voyage. It’s illegal to buy monkeys in Singapore today.

Nellie noted the shophouses  in Singapore “where families seem to occupy the second story, the lower being devoted to business purposes.’’ Today those shophouses are hot properties hosting chic hotels, restaurants and boutiques. I stayed in a renovated shophouse in Chinatown – a former pawn shop – now the Adler Hostel.

The National Museum

The National Museum visited by Nellie and me

In her one day in Singapore, she visited the Raffles Museum, now the recently restored and very impressive National Museum  standing today as it did in Nellie’s time. Nellie described it as “most interesting.” I visited it too and found Yeo Li Li to ask for help in tracing a Hindu temple that refused Nellie’s entry.
Nellie was incensed.
“Why? I demanded, curious to know why my sex in heathen lands should exclude me from a temple, as in America it confines me to the side entrances of hotels and other strange an incommodious things,” she wrote. “My comrades were told that removing their shoes would give them admission but I should be denied that privilege because I was a woman.”

I spent the afternoon temple-hopping in Singapore’s Little India only to discover that this temple that served the dhobies – those who made their living doing laundry in the nearby Stamford Canal — was now the site of Dhoby-Ghaut metro station. No worshipping here – hundreds of thousands of people pour in and out on pilgrimages to the area’s colossal shopping malls. That will teach them for excluding Nellie Bly.

Nellie landed in Singapore 70 years after Sir Thomas Stamford  Raffles, often known as the ‘father of Singapore.’ By the time she got here, he was already a legend. I stood before his statue, as Nellie did, and read the same inscription:

“On this historic site Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28th January 1819 and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.” The statue was sculpted in bronze by Thomas Woolner in 1887 – two years before Nellie’s arrival.

The Arts House at the Old Parliament Building

The Arts House at the Old Parliament Building

Around him soar some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers in the ultra-contemporary metropolis that is Singapore today. But look below these silver monumental giants and you will find the Singapore of Nellie’s time in graciously restored Victorian government buildings now devoted to art and culture — the Arts House at the Old Parliament Building, Victoria Theatre and Asian Civilisations Museum. Not far away, the Raffles Hotel maintains its original vocation hosting the wealthy and selling over-priced Singapore Slings ($35) to the rest of us. We’re drinking in the Colonial atmosphere as much as the gin-based cocktail invented at Raffles in 1915. The Long Bar retains the original air circulation system – individual palm-leaf fans in a horizontal row moving mechanically back and forth to ease the tropical heat. Nellie was fascinated by these fans.

The harbour at Nellie's time with Johnston Pier (left) illustrated on a postage stamp.

The harbour at Nellie’s time with Johnston Pier (left) illustrated on a postage stamp.

The Fullerton Hotel started life as Singapore’s General Post Office in 1928. It’s size and grandeur – taking up a full city block –are testimony to the major role of the post in Colonial times. Although not exactly the same era as Nellie, I picked up many clues on a guided tour of the hotel by Florence Minjout  arranged by Stephen Wang at the Singapore Visitor’s Centre . Nellie would have disembarked at the former Johnston Pier, long since replaced. She would’ve crossed the Cavenagh Bridge  built in 1870 – the oldest existing bridge in Singapore.

The Cavenagh Bridge crossed by Nellie Bly

The Cavenagh Bridge crossed by Nellie Bly

It’s easy to get lost in Victorian times via time-honoured places like Raffles, The Fullerton Hotel and the Arts House. Not so at the former Governor’s House which is totally off limits except for a few times a year when the public is allowed in. Now called Istana, the current home of Singapore’s President Tony Tan Keng Yam is heavily gated and guarded. You can’t even see it. Nellie was entertained there by the Governor of Singapore. It was built by convict labourers on the site of a nutmeg farm.

Heavily-guarded former Governor's Residence.

Heavily-guarded former Governor’s Residence.

The original Governor’s Residence sat atop the highest hill in Singapore until the 1850s, a welcome refuge from the heat below. Now called Fort Canning Park, it is also the site of Singapore’s first botanical garden and features a replica of the mast that would’ve guided Nellie’s ship into the harbour.

Nellie sailed into a colonial Singapore.  I flew into a ‘Disneyfied’ Singapore with its Westernised veneer, harbour light shows bouncing off of soaring steel and glass;  and street vendors now corralled into area hawkers centres. All with a slight nod to the past. Fascinating!

In which Nellie Visits the Mount Lavinia Hotel

Binara Full Moon Day at Garangaramaya Temple

Binara Full Moon Day at Garangaramaya Temple

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA

It’s a holiday!
Today is Binara Full Moon Day across Sri Lanka. It’s a public holiday where businesses close, no alcohol is served, and women in white flock to Buddhist Temples. A monthly occurrence, this particular Full Moon Day commemorates the value placed on women in Buddhism. How appropriate for my quest ‘to commemorate the value’ of Nellie Bly and her achievements in the Victorian age.

I discover this while reading the local paper at breakfast at 9 am in the Grand Oriental Hotel’s Harbour Restaurant overlooking the port where Nellie arrived at precisely the same time on December 8, 1889.

Inside the Garangaramaya Temple

Inside the Garangaramaya Temple.

Colombo reminded Nellie of Newport, Rhode Island. “Possibly—in my eyes at least—Colombo is more beautiful. Their homes may not be as expensive, but they are more artistic and picturesque,’’ she wrote. I can’t see the connection between Newport and Colombo; but it’s nice to think that Nellie did.

Not sure exactly which temples she visited in Colombo, I hop a tuk-tuk and and head for one of the most famous, Garangaramaya  situated around a lake. It’s brimming with women of all ages, shapes and sizes adorned in white to celebrate their day. Processions wind around the giant Buddha, the famous Buddha tree and throughout the park. The heady profusion of gold, gods, incense and icons is so intense it makes me wish I’d worn white.

The Mount Lavinia Hotel

The Mount Lavinia Hotel

The Mount Lavinia Hotel

The ‘smoothest, most perfectly made roads’ Nellie ever saw led to the Mount Lavinia Hotel. “Many of these roads were picturesque bowers, the over-reaching branches of the trees giving us telescopic views of people and conveyances along the road,’ she wrote.

The thatched huts lining the road in Nellie’s day have given way to rows of businesses – local and international like Pizza Hut, Mango and Burger King – on both sides of a congested road. But every trace of this disappears as the 19th-century splendour of the Mount Lavinia Hotel comes into view.

Nellie described the Mount Lavinia as “castle-like building glistening in the sunlight … on a green eminence overlooking the sea.” With is grace, gardens, history and fountains, the Mount Lavinia transports one back to the most lavish of Victorian times. I absolutely love it.

I am here courtesy of new friends and newlyweds Steffi and Moahan Balendra, again connected by my friend in London, who have more than kindly allocated their day off to tackle traffic on a public holiday to take me to the Mount Lavinia Hotel, 15 kms outside of Colombo. They have inadvertently, but with enthusiasm, joined the Nellie Bly trail. We explore the elegant hotel and wander down to the beach for a seafood lunch overlooking an ancient outrigger (called a catamaran locally as Moahan confirms on his i-phone) like the one Nellie rode to shore when she arrived in Ceylon.

Ocean view at the Mount Lavinia.

Ocean view at the Mount Lavinia.

The romance of the Mount Lavinia is flamed by the story of Ceylon’s second Governor Sir Thomas Maitland and his lover Lavinia, a dancer. Sir Thomas built the current hotel in the early 19th century as his residence including a tunnel where he could secretly meet Lavinia. Upon returning to England for his health, he purportedly named the residence for her. Steffi and Moahan tell me that many weddings take place at the Mount Lavinia.

Nellie found the Galle Face Hotel equally romantic. “Where the ocean kisses the sandy beach and while listening to the music of the wave, the deep , mellow, roar, (one) can drift – drift out on dreams that bring what life has failed to give; soothing pictures of the imagination that blot out for a moment the stern disappointment of reality.”

My only ‘disappointment of reality’ at the Galle Face tonight is the fact that it is being renovated so much of it is inaccessible — and cloudy weather has obscured what could have been a spectacular sunset. But just being here, enjoying the grandeur on a sultry evening after a day with friends at the Mount Lavinia, is just fine by me.

Outrigger on the beach at the Mount Lavinia

Outrigger on the beach at the Mount Lavinia

In Which Nellie Is Delayed in Ceylon

An outrigger like Nellie rode to shore

An outrigger like the one Nellie rode to shore

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (FORMER CEYLON)

Nellie’s  dates: December 8-14, 1889
My dates: September 7-11, 2014

Nellie was the first to step ashore in Colombo. Leaving the other passengers boarding a steam launch, she balanced on an outrigger that sped towards the small island once known as Ceylon.

“The island, with its abundance of green trees, was very restful and pleasing to our eyes after the spell of heat we had passed through on the ocean coming from Aden (Yemen), ” Nellie wrote. “We all stood impatiently on the deck waiting for the first opportunity to desert the ship.  With all our impatience we could not fail to be impressed with the beauties of Colombo … we could see the green island dotted with low-arcaded buildings, which looked, in the glare of the sun, like marble palaces.”

The Grand Oriental Hotel

Grand Oriental Hotel Museum with (l to r) Mr. Chandika, Mr. Nandana and Mr. Dushaatha.

Grand Oriental Hotel Museum with (l to r) Mr. Chandika, Mr. Nandana and Mr. Dushaatha.

One of them was the Grand Oriental Hotel. Nellie had already engaged her accommodations there when the steam launch arrived with the others. My own accommodations at the Grand Oriental Hotel were ‘engaged’ on the internet a month in advance. I’d hoped to stay in the same room as Nellie; but records of her stay no longer exist.

“It was a fine, large hotel,” wrote Nellie, “with tiled arcades, corridors airy and comfortably furnished… (where one could) sip the cooling lime squashes or the exquisite native tea or eat of the delicious fruit while resting in an attitude of ease and laziness.”

I was also greeted with a cooling fruit juice when I arrived at the Grand Oriental for the Asian start of my Nellie Bly 125th anniversary world trip.

With an exasperating five-day delay between ships, Nellie became well acquainted with the hotel. In her day, the corridors were ‘colonised’ by snake charmers, magicians and jewellers. They have long since disappeared — and so has much of the charm that once characterised the Grand Oriental.

GOH2

The Grand Oriental Hotel in its prime

Only 80 of the original 300 rooms remain – the rest were sold for police headquarters. Even so, the management is fiercely proud of the hotel’s legacy – it’s a listed site. The multitude of plaques in the lobby attest to the glorious heritage of the Grand Oriental Hotel, including a visit by Anton Chekov in 1890, a year after Nellie’s.

What’s missing is a tribute to Nellie. Perhaps I should arrange a plaque commemorating her stopover. I think they would make space in the lobby; or perhaps in the hotel’s little museum on the fourth floor where it could take its place among the time-honoured photos, ledgers, crockery and silver from the Grand Oriental’s past.

With a little help from my friends

Sri Lanka is known for its hospitality and I experienced it big-time. A simple introduction by email from a mutual friend in London was all it took for Lakmini Raymond and her two sons Jévon and Devin to share their local knowledge, their home and their friendship.

We started with a cup of famous Ceylon tea in the former Dutch Hospital — there even before the British arrived – now a dynamic mix of trendy shops and eateries. From there we relaxed in Lakmini’s home near that of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister; before dinner at the Hilton which was also hosting the Japanese Premier in the country to inaugurate a second terminal at the Bandaranaike International Airport as I discovered upon landing there that morning.

The Nellie Bly Research Team in Colombo — Lakmini, Jevon and Devin Raymond and Jagdesh Mirchandani.

Some of the sites Nellie visited in Colombo were evident, but Lakmini, her sons and friend Jagdesh Mirchandani formed the ‘Nellie Bly journey research team’ and managed to connect the current-day Ananda College with the Buddhist College Nellie visited 125 years ago. The big challenge was the Parsee Theatre where Nellie attended a theatrical performance so memorable that she spent two pages of her short book describing it. Even Jagdesh, whom Lakmini calls the Wikipedia of Sri Lanka, didn’t know. “Let’s ask a Parsee he said as he dialled a Parsee friend. We’re still not sure but Jagdesh’s friend thought it could have been at the Parsee Club under the pergola.

And that was day one in Sri Lanka.