The lost art of turn-of-the-century travel

Travelling was once an activity reserved for high society.

They dressed elegantly for the occasion and never failed to arrive at the destination looking their best.

For writer Kennie Ting, these nostalgic images of turn-of-the-century travel never cease to fascinate him.

Men and women in tailored wear, travelling in steamships, trains and vintage Citroens, or swanning around in colonial hotels and smoky bars playing Debussy's Clair de lune - they captured his imagination for years before he decided to write his first book on the lost art of travel in South-east Asia.

The coffee table book is titled The Romance Of The Grand Tour: 100 Years of Travel in South East Asia and was released last week by Talisman Publishing.

Its 208 pages brim with images of 12 of the region's most exciting cities in the early 1900s - namely, Rangoon (now Yangon), Georgetown (Penang), Malacca, Batavia (now Jakarta), Soerabaja (now Surabaya), Bangkok, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Manila, Hong Kong and, of course, Singapore.

A different South-east Asia

In the region then known as the East Indies, these thriving cities were connected through trade and travel.

Mr Ting, a sociologist and cultural heritage professional, says: "South-east Asia was a different place before decolonisation and nationalism.

Because of their active trade links, all these cities had similar features and travellers would feel a sense of familiarity going from one city to another.

"The road networks, the civic areas, the colonial architecture were similar. And, at the same time, these cities were open, tolerant and multicultural. It was easy to move around.

"In many ways, these cities have joint heritage. But a lot of that is lost or forgotten because of the negative connotations associated with colonialism today.

A lot of the buildings were also destroyed during the course of decolonisation. But if you were to walk around these cities and keep your eyes open, you'll see so many markers of a world from 100 years ago."

Each chapter presents a historical and photographic overview of the city's old town and colonial precincts through maps, postcards, posters and archival images, as well as recent snapshots.

But apart from that, the book also devotes a special chapter to that one grand colonial hotel which each city boasts. In Singapore, for instance, it's the Raffles Hotel. In Hong Kong, it's the Peninsula Hotel. In Penang, it's the Eastern & Oriental Hotel.

But, for his money, Mr Ting picks Hanoi's The Metropole as his favourite Old World hotel. He says: "The Metropole really retains that sense of classic glamour.

Every time you step into it, it feels as if you've entered a grand hotel in Paris. The food and service are impeccable. You can hire a vintage Citroen car with a liveried chauffeur for a day and drive down the streets with everyone looking at you. It really captures the Belle Epoch."

He also recommends the Hotel Majapahit in Surabaya for its similarly Old World charm. "Its period furnishings are splendid. It's got a Persian-like paradise garden and bubbling fountains in the courtyard. You get a real sense of what the Dutch East Indies era was like."

Old World cities galore

Among the 12 cities, Mr Ting loves Yangon the most.

He raves: "The old town of Yangon stretches for miles and is just stunning. You can really see the might of the British here, how they structured the city and invested a lot of money into its infrastructure. You can walk down the streets for hours and see traces of this world from a century ago."

His next two favourites are Phnom Penh and Manila, which he feels are often overlooked but offer so much in terms of historical architecture.

For anyone curious about the urban histories of South-east Asian cities, the visually-driven book helps you pick out clues to uncover a world mostly forgotten.

This article was first published on April 24, 2015.
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