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How Raffles Hotel changed author Pico Iyer’s life

The writer credits the Singapore icon for sparking his passion to travel and write about foreign worlds.

Fine hotels can be relied on for many things, like pillow menus, Michelin-starred cuisine and butler service. Providing moments of epiphany, however, are uncommon. But there was never anything “common” about Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, which Pico Iyer credits for setting him on the career path for which he’s widely known today.

“When I first came here (in 1984), I’d been cooped up in New York City, writing vivid eyewitness accounts of places I’d never been to, from colleagues’ reports,” says Iyer, who used to write for news magazine Time. “I’d grown up in England on Kipling, Maugham and Le Carre. All of them weren’t in an office in Manhattan, they were loose in this exotic world. How could I turn away from this and go back to midtown Manhattan?”

It’s fitting then, that Iyer, who’s spent over 40 years circumnavigating said exotic world as a novelist, speaker and travel writer, was recently named Raffles Hotel’s first writer-in-residence. This Could Be Home: Raffles Hotel and the City of Tomorrow – which details the hotel’s restoration, its symbiotic relationship with Singapore’s development, and the legacy of its enigmatic namesake, Sir Stamford Raffles – was released in time for the grand re-opening of the hotel on Aug 1. The book’s title is reflective of Iyer’s peripatetic life. Born in England to Indian parents, educated in Eton, Oxford and Harvard, he now divides his time between California and rural Nara, Japan, where he has a home with his wife, Hiroko.

(RELATED: How Raffles Hotel’s refurbishment strikes a balance between the new and old)

In person, he is unfailingly warm, curious and gracious, despite his celebrity. He possesses, as anyone who’s met him or watched his TED talks will attest, a strikingly preternatural calm which he attributes to living simply (“I’ve never carried a cellphone and don’t do social media and try not to follow the news. I’ve always found those kinds of things clutter my mind and lead to polluted skies”), tempered with a hearty dose of dry, yet effervescent British humour (“I grew up in England, so all my tastebuds were surgically extracted – I’m the most indiscriminate eater ever”).

The project holds particular resonance for Iyer, a passionate advocate of Singapore’s multi-culturalism. Long fascinated with liminal spaces, he endlessly dissects the concept of home and identity in works such as The Global Soul, which examines the cultural implications of globalisation.

“The global soul has many pieces of many different places inside her, and she’s trying to put them together in a stained-glass whole that would be greater than the sum of its parts,” says Iyer. “And she will define herself not as Indian, Chinese, Malay or whatever, but as Singaporean, which is already a mix of more cultures than you can count. When I arrived here, I thought, ‘Oh Singapore is my brother, my twin.’ I’m almost the same age, with the same elements of old England, Asia and other places too.”


“When I arrived here, I thought, ‘Oh Singapore is my brother, my twin.’”

IYER, ON IDENTIFYING HIS GLOBAL SOUL WITH SINGAPORE


He posits that “home” in the 21st century is a future-facing, constantly-evolving concept, citing a recent dinner where he was hosted by a group of 30-something Singaporeans whose work spanned Asia to sub-Saharan Africa.

(RELATED: Is Asia the key to the world’s future? Geopolitical strategist Parag Khanna thinks so)

“It’s something we’re constantly adding to, that has less to do with where you live than what lives inside you. And less to do with where you came from than where you’re going,” he adds.

Home, as it follows, is a story that we are free to adapt or even rewrite, in the spirit of Iyer’s first visit to Raffles so many years ago.

“In my grandparents’ time, ‘home’ was almost a given. All my grandparents were born in India. When they were born, they were told, ‘This is your race, this is your religion, this is your caste, this is your tribe.’ And they’d pretty much live their whole lives within those constraints,” he says. “Now we get an opportunity to craft ourselves, it’s not something we’re given. It’s a great liberation.”

His Life’s Journey

Pico Iyer shares his thoughts on travel.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE TRAVEL?

The heart of travel is the encounter of the individual with the unknown, something that’s foreign to her. And that hasn’t changed, even with GPS and Whatsapp and all the devices we have in the world. The world is inexhaustible.

HAS GLOBALISATION HOMOGENISED CULTURES?

At McDonald’s outlets in Kyoto, they serve moon-viewing burgers in the autumn, and you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s not like a McDonald’s in the US or England, or anywhere else. And the way that people in the Japanese McDonald’s carry themselves – covering their mouths and being very quiet – that’s entirely Japanese. So I’m not worried about the world getting homogeneous.

HOW CAN WE BECOME BETTER TRAVELLERS?

Leave your assumptions and expectations at home. Go to another country to listen, rather than speak, to it. I want to be turned on my head, surprised and confounded. I think of most countries as wise elders that we can gain from. When I meet someone who’s 80 years old and has been through a lot, I don’t want to lecture her, I just want to get all the wisdom she has to offer. Travel in order to be proven wrong. The only wrong way to travel is to assume you’re right.

(RELATED: Writer Pico Iyer on searching for a shared humanity in North Korea)