Steeped in history, Raffles Hotel is the epitome of elegant days gone by. Built in 1887, it was considered the place to stay by upper class British colonials and, even today, no visit to Singapore can be considered complete without stopping by.
The Long Bar, part of the Raffles Hotel, was a popular watering hole for colonial Singaporeans, almost a social institution, and it was not uncommon to see the gents tipping away on their glasses of gin or whisky. However, this was in stark contrast to the women. Prevailing etiquette dictated that they should not drink in public. It was very unladylike to see a woman swaggering or wobbling in public, but quite okay for men to do so. Alcohol was very much the preserve of male habit in those days. Ladies were relegated to sip on juice or water or tea.
These fact sets the background of the creation of the world famous Singapore Sling. In a genius moment of early Singaporean marketing prowess, barman Ngiam Tong Boon clicked that he could slip a dash of gin and cherry brandy into his pink “fruit cocktail” and the men (and public) would be none the wiser. The popularity of the drink spread throughout the world and although tourists may have tasted the drink in their own country, they still love to sit and sip the drink in the very place that it was invented. This is the story of the man behind the timeless cocktail.
Early Life & Career
There is very little evidence that could provide the knowledge of when Ngiam Tong Boon was born – even his great grandson do not know the year till this day. According to him, it is very hard to find out as there are no records from Qing dynasty China.
Ngiam Tong Boon was born in Hainan, China. Grew up working in rice farm back in Hainan, he ventured on sea voyage because during that time it was the only way for the young boys to get off Hainan Island– ready to make better future for themselves. Another story behind the quest was that the night before Chinese New Year, he went into the family kitchen and tried to swipe something to eat from the roast. The meat fell into the stove and was covered in ash, destroying the family’s New Year Meal. Afraid that he might get into serious trouble he ran away and didn’t look back.
He landed up in Vietnam where he began to work as waiter and work his way up to bartender. He was assumed to be working in Hotel Continental in Saigon (opened in 1880) and The Hanoi Hotel in Hanoi (opened in 1896). Vietnam was part of the French colonial Indochina that time and it is most likely there that the rising star met with a French Chef, who later on moved with him to Singapore. By the time he moved to Singapore, he was able to speak French and English on top of his native Hainanese language. He was also equipped to tend bar in Asia’s best hotels.
An Iconic Creation
Ngiam Tong Boon first worked in Singapore at the Adelphi, a grand hotel which was once the settlement’s finest. It was also consider to be one of the oldest hotels in Singapore, operation for more than 120 years. Then he moved to Raffles, which once it expanded in 1899, introducing both electric lights and electric fans, became Singapore’s best hotel. It is the place where Ngiam Tong Boon made a name for himself for his creation and game changer drink that remains to be timeless cocktails enjoyed by many well-travelled connoisseurs.
The drink originally called Gin Sling as it was easier for Chinese travelers. On the account of Arthur, his great grandson, the drink became the Singapore Sling thanks to the sailors who often frequent to Raffles Hotel as it was previously right on the beach.
Ngiam Tong Boon has transformed his life from poor Chinese migrant, rise up to bar captain, and then to become plantation owner as well as an investor. His life revolves around the three key values; respect for ancestors, respect for elders and work ethic. He was a canny man and also very generous. He ran a lodging house for new immigrants from China and provide them at employment either at a coffee shop that he owns or at The Long Bar.
He made connection with chairmen of all the big companies in which at the end allow him to acquire rubber plantation. He used his influence to talk to other Hainanese immigrants to send their money home to their family instead of gambling.
Near the end of his days, he went back to Hainan for a visit to his family. It was presumably due to malaria or dengue that eventually took his life. As his family would have put it, he is known as a very strong, determined man, and that made his energy’s presence was felt still very strong.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of this iconic cocktail, Raffles has teamed up with Sipsmith, passionate pioneers of London’s artisanal gin renaissance, to create a bespoke Gin for Raffles Hotels & Resorts. Raffles 1915 Gin was created by Sipsmith Master Distiller Jared Brown and handcrafted at the Sipsmith Distillery in London, exclusively for Raffles Hotels & Resorts.