Visiting dignitaries to Singapore tend to plump for the Shangri-La hotel and its exclusive Valley Wing. And it’s likely Vice President Kamala Harris is staying in the hotel’s best, eponymously named, suite.
Guests arrive at the Valley Wing entrance – more private than the main hotel lobby – where the Shangri-La suite has its own entrance in the form of a private elevator.
Two dressing rooms, a gym and sauna await in the vast suite as well as personalized bathrobes, pillow cases and stationery. Butler service is available around the clock. Want gourmet cuisine or hawker street food served on fine china at the walnut dining table? No problem. As well as the primary bedroom, there’s an ensuite twin – usually utilized by guest’s security detail.
Last night I went to Raffles again. I didn’t dream it, and thanks to the delayed Hong Kong – Singapore Travel Bubble I wasn’t actually there either, instead, I watched an interactive play set and filmed at the hotel by Singaporean theatre companies, Double Confirm Productions and Sight Lines Entertainment.
The Curious Case of the Missing Peranakan Treasure, conceived, directed by and featuring Hossan Leong of Double Confirm and written by Jean Tay, was filmed entirely on location at Raffles with 360 degree virtual reality cameras. So I was able to virtually enter the familiar white façade, “check in” in the lobby and revisit the hotel’s bars, suites and courtyards while watching a mystery enfold through a cast of front of house staff and guest characters.
Leong who has previously filmed one man performances at the Grand Hyatt and W hotels in Singapore says: “From 2020 there was not a lot of work for us in the arts so I decided not to sit around but to create something for actors and crew. I have always wanted to create a production with the beautiful Raffles as a backdrop and they were very supportive of my idea of having a ‘whodunnit’ set in the hotel.“
Up until June 30th you can watch this entertaining tale online and attempt to solve the mystery yourself – there’s the prize of a real life stay at Raffles in the offing. Those lucky enough to be in Singapore can book a Daycation or Staycation package, watching the play on a tablet in their suite and then explore the hotel for clues (as well as being treated to Singapore Slings and satays). Alternatively, Virtual Play allows guests to buy a ticket from ticket agency SISTIC and watch from anywhere in the world.
“Raffles Singapore always had a connection with literary luminaries in our storied heritage with playwrights and authors being very much a part of who we are,” says managing director Christian Westbeld. Suites named after the likes of Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham attest to this and the former suite appears in the production. The hotel did have its own theatre, Jubilee Hall which opened in 1991, although this was transformed into a ballroom in the most recent refurbishment. Westbeld adds: “The virtual interactive play arose out of a business need to pivot, given the current pandemic.”
Also in Singapore at Hotel Soloha in Chinatown surreal comedy meets murder mystery, The Bride Always Knocks Twice, was also born out of a need to adapt in the current climate. “Arts and tourism were some of the key industries impacted by the pandemic and this project really shows how creativity and cross-industry collaboration can lead to new possibilities,” says Kuo Jian Hong, artistic director of The Theatre Practice, behind the production which streamed in the first week of June.
The fourth floor of the hotel, set in a converted row of shophouses, stood in as the mysterious house in The Bride Always Knocks Twice where seven women from different eras of Singaporean history co exist. Reflective of the Lion City the women variously spoke Mandarin, Indonesian, English, Cantonese and Malay with the multimedia platform allowing for sub titles in Chinese and English.
Split over several nights, viewers watched the first act of the play then had the chance to interrogate the characters by submitting online questions which they answered live to camera. Originally it was intended that the audiences visit the hotel to hunt for clues in act three though due to the heightened measures this had to be changed into a virtual crime-scene investigation. In the final act the murderer was revealed but not before viewers had an opportunity to submit their theories with a chance to win a stay at Hotel Soloha.
One of the first and still existing theatre and hotel synergies was The Savoy in London. The Savoy theatre actually opened before the legendary hotel which it sits adjacent to. Impressario Richard D’Oyly Carte opened the then state of the art venue in 1881 to stage the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. With the success of the comic operas he segued into hotels eight years later. Famous theatrical actors of the day flocked to stay at The Savoy including Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry.
While the venue is now owned by The Ambassador Theatre Group which operates several playhouses in London’s West End, there are regularly accommodation or F&B packages in conjunction with the hotel. A themed afternoon tea is currently being planned in homage to the just opened Pretty Woman The Musical, and starring actors often stay at the hotel.
Grand Hotel Timeo in Sicily also has a theatre adjacent, there’s even a secret entrance from the hotel into Teatro Antico. The well preserved amphitheatre was built by the Greeks in the third century for dramatic and musical performances, adapted by the Romans for gladiator games and now once again is used to stage the performing arts.
Other hotels are embracing opera and ballet as part of their guest offerings. In St Petersburg, Grand Hotel Europe patrons have access to the hotel’s private box at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. And in Milan, Hotel Principe di Savoia will arrange private guided tours of La Scala including behind the scenes access to backstage areas.
Before the pandemic Shangri La The Shard in London held Theatre in the Clouds, partnering with private theatre concept Revels in Hand to stage three actor plays for a small number of guests in one of its suites. Whether this returns remains to be seen but other hotel projects look to continue whatever twist happens next for the arts and hospitality industries.
“We believe that arts and hospitality is the perfect marriage and with technology, we are able to not only entertain in-house guests but have international reach,” says Derrick Chew, artistic director of Sight Lines who adds the company is looking to collaborate with more hotels following its successful collaboration with Raffles. And Kuo does not rule out The Theatre Practice staging another hotel play saying: “Our works have never been constrained by genre or format, much less specific locations so never say never.”
On the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s tenth wedding anniversary on April 29th we look back at why the British royals wear Welsh gold wedding bands.
While celebrities tend to choose wedding bands adorned with diamonds to match the bling of their engagement rings, British royalty including the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex opt for something more understated. For nearly 100 years Britain’s senior royals have worn plain yellow gold wedding rings and this regal metal has derived from Wales – the rarest, most expensive in the world with Welsh gold bullion worth up to five times the spot price.
The custom started with the Queen Mother in 1923 when a nugget of pure gold from the Clogau St David’s mine in North Wales was gifted to the royal family, a piece of which was used to make the then Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon’s wedding ring for her marriage to the future King George V1. That same nugget was used to craft wedding bands for Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, Princess Anne and Princess Diana.
Handily in the 1980s the Queen was gifted more gold from Wales. 36kg was presented by the Royal British Legion part of which was used to make Sarah, Duchess of York and, it’s thought, Sophie, Countess of Wessex’s wedding rings. And 1kg was gifted from Gwynfynydd mine in celebration of the Queen’s 60thbirthday. This is likely the source of Catherine and Meghan’s wedding rings.
Ahead of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s nuptials St James’s Palace made the statement; “The wedding ring that Catherine Middleton will wear will be made of Welsh gold. The gold was given to Prince William by The Queen shortly after the couple were engaged. It has been in the family’s possession for some years and has been in the care of the Royal Jewellers. There are no further details on which mine the gold was mined from.”
Sitting half hidden by her huge sapphire engagement ring, Catherine’s slim yellow gold wedding band was made by royal warrant holders Wartski. Fittingly the jeweller was founded in North Wales and has a store in St James’s, just around the corner from Prince William’s London home at the time.
Similarly at the time of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s marriage Kensington Palace made the statement; “Ms Markle’s ring has been fashioned from a piece of Welsh gold, gifted by Her Majesty The Queen.” The band was made by Cleave and Company which also holds royal warrants and is the jeweller Prince Harry chose to create his now wife’s engagement ring. A spokesperson for Cleave says they were asked to produce “a classic 18 ct gold wedding band” for the Duchess. The ring appears to be daintily slim, in keeping with Meghan’s apparent fondness for delicate jewellery.
Gold hasn’t been extracted in Wales since 1998 however Alba Mineral Resources who took over Clogau in 2018 plans to reopen the mine and has also submitted an application for exploratory digs on nearby land in Snowdonia. So there could be a new Welsh Gold Rush on the way which would ensure the royals’ wedding ring tradition continuing for some years yet.
[UPDATE: Vicky Lau has become the first female chef in Asia to gain two Michelin stars with the announcement of the Michelin Guide Hong Kong and Macau 2021. Here’s a look back at when Chopstix interviewed Lau in 2015.]
Asia’s Best Female Chef 2015 is Vicky Lau of Tate Dining Room, Hong Kong. Lau becomes the third winner of the award and will be officially presented with it at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony at the Capella Hotel in Singapore on March 9th.
“The aim is to promote and celebrate female talent in an industry that remains very male dominated,” says William Drew, spokesman for the award, sponsored by Veuve Clicquot – a drinks brand associated with a strong, woman boss. “We would love to reach a position where this award becomes unnecessary but I think we are some way off that situation yet, unfortunately.”
“I do think it’s necessary to recognize female talents in the culinary industry which has traditionally been dominated by males,” Lau agrees. “There are only a few female chefs behind Hong Kong kitchens. This could be due to the fact that chefs aren’t valued for their craft or it could be because women are discouraged to pursue this career because of the physical conditions of working in a professional kitchen.”
The under representation of female chefs can be seen worldwide. Ten years ago when I joined the launch team of a food magazine in the UK, I was approached by a bright young woman who had trained with Jamie Oliver for the original brigade of his Fifteen restaurant in London. She wanted to write a feature on why there were so few female chefs.
My editor, female and a veteran of the food industry, told me the reason was that the hours were not conducive to having a family. There were also a few others: the young chef wrote of not just the anti social hours but the macho culture, lewd conversation, unflattering clothing and physical hard work resulting in varicose veins and scars.
This experience is echoed today by Peggy Chan, chef owner of Grassroots Pantry in Hong Kong. “Unfortunately, there’s only a very rare breed of women who are capable of making it through the hours, the screams, the heat and physical pain, the sexist comments, foul language and very often feeling belittled,” says Chan. “Not to mention the sacrifices involved especially when it comes to personal time for relationships: Friday night outings with girlfriends, starting a family etc.”
It seems that in Asia, there are specific problems. “It’s tough enough in French kitchens, let alone working a wok over massive open flames in Asian kitchens,” says Chan. “Physically, it is much more demanding for an Asian woman much smaller in size to man and manage a male dominated brigade. And there are existing archetypes present in the psyches of Asian cultures (men as the head of the household).”
Vicky Lau also believes that traditional cooking techniques may play a part. “In Asia, perhaps more women choose to be in patisserie rather than cuisine due to the nature of the cuisine itself. For example, in a traditional Chinese kitchen the equipment can be quite weighty,” she says.
“There is no place for women in the professional Chinese Kitchen,” says Margaret Xu the owner of Yin Yang and one of the first female chefs in Hong Kong. “It’s a male dominated, chauvinistic crowd and there’s a lot of heavy duty labour – handling big woks and whole pigs. Some male kitchen kitchen staff tend to think physical strength means competence as a chef.”
In the West names like Alice Waters, Angela Hartnett, Elena Arzak and April Bloomfield may be well known But can you name an equally prominent Asian female chef? Perhaps Duongporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava of Bo.lan in Bangkok who was the inaugural Asia’s Best Female Chef winner or Lanshu Chen of Le Mout in Taiwan who won last year.
Ping Coombes, the Malaysian born winner of MasterChef UK 2014 says: “There weren’t really any well known female chefs when I was growing up as it really still is a very male dominated industry. In Asia, I feel women are still being viewed as the home cook. I always looked up to my mother when it came to cooking.” Similarly Chan says: “I grew up with a culinary certified mother who cooked massive feasts at home and always thought women were meant to cook at home, not in professional kitchens. The ratio of male to female at my culinary school was about 80:20.”
Both Vicky Lau and Lanshu Chen cite male mentors (Sebastien Lepinoy of Cepage in Hong Kong and Jean-Francois Piege at Hotel de Crillon in Paris respectively). Songvisava was a protégé of David Thompson at Nahm. Janice Wong, the two times Asia’s Best Pastry Chef, of 2am Dessert Bar in Singapore names Gunther Hubrechsen at Les Amis in Singapore who now has his own restaurant there, Gunther’s.
And Lau and Chen cite European and US fellow female chefs they admire – Dominique Crenn at Atelier Crenn, San Francisco and Anne-Sophie Pic from Maison Pic, France – rather than Asian ones. (Although Lau also mentions her successor Chen).
Female chefs are all too often found in the “ghetto” of the pastry section. Peggy Chan says numerous instructors at catering college tried to convince her to take this route: “rather than tough it out in the male dominated hot kitchens. There was always a clear distinction, almost as though it’s an expectation for girls my size to take the more feminine, meticulous and less ‘intense’ path in order to be considered ‘a chef’. Former Asia’s Best Female Chef Lanshu Chen made a conscientious decision to move out of patisserie. Angela Hartnett’s advice to young female chefs?: “Don’t take the option of the pastry section.”
And if women aren’t making it to head chef, they aren’t getting the media coverage either. Jason Black, chef and media consultant says: “We sadly live in a world where we only champion the people at the top (be they male or female). If I had to ask you the name of the sous chefs at 99% of the restaurants in HK, you wouldn’t be able to answer.”
Black’s cookbook calendar sold for charity and featuring notable Asia based chefs sparked a controversy earlier this month, one of the reasons being the lack of female chefs featured. But he says the reason is pragmatic. “This project was done at my own cost and I was very lucky to secure Ermenegildo Zegna as a fashion partner this year. They only make a men’s range. Given that it is not a “best of” [chefs] publication, having an all male line-up publication worked.”
That said, Black says about the female chef imbalance: “I really believe classifying by gender is wrong. Everyone should be given equal opportunity to succeed. I think Grassroots Pantry is one of the best restaurants around and Ta Pantry is one of the best Private kitchens too. They are such because of the skills of the chefs behind them. That they are run by female chefs for me is a complete non-issue.”
Margaret Xu agrees: “I think a best female chef award is condescending by nature. The best chef is the best chef full stop.” But Black adds: “If championing our chefs based on their gender or ethnicity is a way of encouraging people to get into the industry then I guess it is ok.”
When I asked David Thompson if he thought there were any female Thai chefs to watch out for he said: “There are many young, up-and-coming Thai cooks [male and female] which is just fantastic. But I have my eye on Chef Nan Bunyasaranand who runs Little Beast in Bangkok.”
And both Margaret Xu and Vicky Lau think the situation is changing. “I have been noticing some changes over the years with more female chefs making an impact in Hong Kong and the world’s best kitchens, especially in traditional Chinese kitchens with advances in technology and materials,” says Lau. “At my own kitchen at Tate, the kitchen staff has a female to male ratio of 3:1 – a happy coincidence but also perhaps a sign of the times.”
Now showing on HBO, Last Christmas the movie Henry Golding’s new film co starring Emilia Clarke and Michelle Yeoh makes London look wonderful. Director Paul Feig is a huge fan of the British capital and says the film is a love letter to London. The movie was actually filmed last Christmas when all the city’s festive decorations were in place. A lot of scenes took place in the middle of the night for maximum light sparkling and minimum crowds. Here’s where you can find the most scenic locations.
Tom and Kate’s Meet Cute, Apple Market
Flakey Kate (Emilia Clarke) first spots suave Tom (Henry Golding) through the window of Yuletide Wonderful Christmas shop where she works in Covent Garden Piazza, owned by Michelle Yeoh’s character “Santa”. Alas the shop doesn’t actually exist. IRL the site is a covered walkway cutting through the neo classical buildings of the former fruit and vegetable market. On the plus side it’s flanked rather deliciously by Ladurée tea room and Godiva chocolatier. And you can visit the spot where the two meet outside Yuletide – underneath the blue metal arches in Apple Market where a certain incident involving “looking up” seemingly brings them together.
Meet Cute Part Two, Covent Garden
When Kate and Tom run into each other again it’s also in the Covent Garden area. Though it looks like a film set, this quaint lane is real life Cecil Court. Linking Charing Cross Road with St Martin’s Lane, the pedestrianised street is lined with independent stores selling books and artworks. “London’s narrowest alley” where Tom takes Kate as part of his magical mystery tour of London is real too. Keep a close eye out for Brydges Place next to the Coliseum theatre on St Martin’s Lane – the alley measures only 15 inches across. As for Tom’s “secret garden”, it’s The Phoenix Garden an urban retreat hidden away between Soho and Covent Garden (the entrance is on St Giles Passage).
The two part company at a bus stop on Regent Street which has just turned 200 years old – well worth a visit to see the wonderful illuminated Angels flying above the length of the thoroughfare at this time of year. Tip: the scene was not actually filmed at real bus stop as it’s opposite Hamley’s toy emporium and outside Hackett where no stop exists.
St Mary’s, Marylebone
The gorgeous honey stoned building depicting the exterior of St Benedict’s homeless shelter in Last Christmas can be found in Marylebone, north of Oxford Street. While the photogenic Georgian columns, festooned with twinkling lights, provide a backdrop for several scenes featuring Tom and Kate, the ornate interior is the setting for the Christmas concert.
The Savoy Buildings
Kate’s calamitous audition takes place inside the Savoy Theatre, an Art Deco jewel tucked away next to The Savoy hotel’s main entrance on the Strand. It’s worth buying tickets to anything showing here just to see the interiors. Nearby is the spot on the river Thames where Tom gives Kate another pep talk, opposite The Savoy’s riverside entrance on the Embankment. The pair sit on the steps next to Cleopatra’s Needle, where the Thames bends at just the right angle to have the London Eye over on the South Bank appealingly illuminated in the background. Simpson’s, a restaurant owned by The Savoy, outside of which Kate and Tom sit with their skates on (see below) is back up on the Strand. There’s no bench outside Simpson’s but there is a bus stop should you wish to catch a double-decker like Kate.
While the ice rink where the couple have an illicit late night skate appears in the movie to be a short skip from the Embankment, you’ll need to visit far flung north London. Alexandra Palace is a vast Victorian era building known to locals as “Ally Pally” which houses a huge indoor ice rink among other venues. The rink is in a stunning high ceilinged space lined with French windows and it’s open all year round not just for Christmas.
Tom’s Flat, East London
Tom’s tiny, ultra neat flat is located on the corner of Brick Lane and Cheshire Street in East London. Brick Lane has long been famous for its curry houses and more recently for cafes, shops and street art. By coincidence Henry Golding actually used to live in a flat here, just around the corner from his character’s fictitious one. How’s that for a twist of fate.