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Culture Vulture

Write way to woo travellers

Hotels can commission writers to write fiction inspired by their locations

Last weekend, I went with a friend to Kuala Lumpur, poking around an old neighbourhood and chatting with old-timers: a locksmith, a tailor and a drinks-stall boss.

Old residents and new tenants painted a picture of a city in flux, layered with numerous stories. Club kids-turned-entrepreneurs were busy setting up DJ decks, light projectors and instruments in their former haunts. An old Peranakan man sat at the entrance of the restaurant he owned, happy to talk to anyone who would listen to his stories about being a kampung teacher and rearing poultry.

Collecting these tales of real lives, while on my short jaunt to the Malaysian capital (my first in seven years), I began thinking of the wider possibilities for writing and story-telling in the Singaporean hospitality and tourism sectors.

Why not, I thought, commission writers to write short stories or novels set in particular neighbourhoods to enhance travellers' understanding and appreciation of where they are staying?

With young travellers becoming more discerning and hungrier than ever for "authentic" experiences - eschewing packaged tours and cheesy attractions, in favour of Airbnb stays that offer glimpses into real residents' lives - hoteliers and tourism boards are increasingly being challenged to cater to this need.

One important way to do so, I feel, is to scratch beneath the surface and uncover the hidden character of a place. To show visitors something invisible, but which is often called "the soul" - an element of history or fiction that lingers in the air.

The process requires an engagement of the imagination, which the literary arts are well poised to accomplish. Reading the famous Eloise children's books by American author Kay Thompson made me fantasise about living, like the books' plucky heroine, in the room on the tippy-top floor of the Plaza Hotel in New York.

British novelist Ali Smith's Hotel World (2001), set in the fictional Global Hotel, nudged my mind to conjure up the lives teeming behind the scenes at every hotel I check into. Singapore's own Raffles Hotel is gilded in reputation by its association with writers Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham.

Hotels commissioning writers to write stories inspired by the local colour right on their doorstep can create a new, thriving eco-system. Writers, particularly home-grown ones, will receive both encouragement and financial support to continue writing. A commercial impetus would mean creative constraints that can result in compelling narratives that balance literary experimentation with sensitivity to the marketplace.

Writers will look at their 'hoods with fresh eyes, introducing it to an incoming foreign audience. Hotel guests, in a sense, are captive audiences. They include corporate types jetting in for meetings and too time-pressed to venture out for sight-seeing, and holiday-makers finally with the time to relax, only to forget to pack a book or Kindle.

Imagine one's relief at opening a drawer and finding more than a bible, room service menu or society magazines to read. Visitors would be able to get a sense of the location and its personality - the stories teasing out lives and circumstances that would otherwise take years of repeat visits to understand.

In return, the hotel-as-patron will gain something intangible but priceless: a reputation for being an establishment that takes care to integrate itself into the intellectual life of its surroundings, respecting its unique urban tone. A carefully curated library of local literature does much to distinguish thoughtful, sophisticated accommodations from run-of- the-mill outfits. An owner- commissioned clutch of stories takes it a step further, playing an active part in the cultural landscape, which the visitor can then access.

Some local hotels already have artists-in-residence, who are given space to work and whose works add to the corporate art collection on the walls.

Elsewhere, writers-in-residence are increasingly common. Among the writers who have checked into London's The Savoy as their in-house wordsmiths are Kathy Lette and Fay Weldon (Stephen Fry became "blogger-in-residence" in 2010). The Paris Review literary magazine has a three-week residency at The Standard East Village hotel in New York, open to applications from writers who need a hotel room of one's own to work on their books.

On a related note, London's Heathrow Airport appointed Alain de Botton as its writer-in-residence in 2009 and Amtrak sent 24 writers on train journeys across the United States to write.

United Airlines' first- and business-class in-flight magazine Rhapsody features original work by A-list fiction writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody and Amy Bloom.

Already, I am dreaming about similar Singaporean collaborations: independent bookseller Kenny Leck could put together an anthology of local writing about Tiong Bahru, where his store BooksActually is located, for one of the many boutique hotels in the area. English literature students from the School of the Arts and Singapore Management University might create chapbooks about the Dhoby Ghaut area, published by Hotel Rendezvous across the road for the reading pleasure of their guests.

One easy way to get the ball rolling on this is to ensure that every local hotel here has a set of the recently published two-volume Singathology, edited by Gwee Li Sui, featuring 50 new works by award-winning Singapore writers. Or take a leaf from the book of French city of Grenoble, which tied up with a publisher to install in public places vending machines that dispensed free short stories - choose from one-, three- or five- minute reads - on receipt-like slips of paper.

One envisions similar machines or apps in tech-savvy Singapore. Print-on-demand flash fiction on the back of your room bill, perhaps?

As a fledgling writer of fiction, and a more seasoned one of non-fiction, I'd love to hole up in a hotel room here, listening to the voices seeping in through the walls and echoing down the corridors. I'd eavesdrop on conversations in lifts, chat with lounge pianists and give impromptu readings in the lobby when check-in and check-out queues grow long.

Without venturing far from my room, I'd find something to write about home - making sure it's something to write home about.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2015, with the headline 'Write way to woo travellers'. Print Edition | Subscribe