By ELLEN TIAMU
RABAUL Hotel has had three name changes over its 50-odd years.
It was originally called the Ascot Hotel. The owner and operator then was Arthur Brown who was demobbed in Rabaul from The Australian Air force after WW2. Sir Julius Chan later purchased it from him and renamed it Hamamas Hotel. It was famous for its Chinese cuisine and beautiful chandelier in the hotel entrance.
Sadly, much of the hotel was destroyed by fire in later years and Sir Julius persuaded a friend, Gerry McGrade, a Scot who once played football against him in Rabaul, and his wife Joyce to buy 50 per cent of the hotel. Gerry rebuilt it and later bought Sir Julius out.
Sadly, the volcanic eruptions in 1994 severely damaged the hotel. Once again Gerry McGrade took to rebuilding it but it took years of constant cleaning, repairing and renovating by the whole family and their loyal staff, during which time the hotel was still open to guests.
It was at this time too that McGrade somehow found time to add 12 new executive style guest rooms. After many eruptions, floods, practically impassable roads and lack of water and electricity, the hotel reopened in November 1998, in a town devoid of government services (everything was going to the building of Kokopo as the new capital of ENB).
Before 1994, Hamamas Hotel was a first of its kind with a “portecochere’ drive-through entrance with giant Sepik totem poles on guard, which are now common in most hotels around the country.
Susie McGrade is Gerry and Joyce’s daughter and is today running the hotel.
“I had been part of the management of the hotel from 1992 and over some time, I gradually took complete charge as Mum and Dad gradually withdrew from management. I renamed the Hamamas Hotel – Rabaul Hotel in 2005.”
Rabaul Hotel has 40 rooms that range from budget to deluxe, as well as executive and long term apartments, and while most of government business has moved to Kokopo, Rabaul Hotel still enjoys a loyal customer base and is grateful of steady numbers of patrons, according to Susie.
Most of Susie’s growing up years were spent in Rabaul. Her parents married there 57 years ago, and she and her two sisters were born there and baptised at St Francis Xavier Cathedral.
“Growing up in Rabaul was wonderful. The schools were fantastic. The shopping was extraordinary. We had three cinemas, several clubs (Yacht club, Golf Club, New Guinea Club, Kumingtang Club, Ambonese Club) and associations, Brownies, Girl Guides, Red Cross, Lions, Rotary Club, Art Club, etc.
“The town was very safe and everyone was friendly. There was such freedom. I would disappear from our house with all the street kids and only return for dinner. No one would be concerned if they didn’t see me all day.
“Saturdays and Sundays were days of leisure because the shops all closed at 12 noon Saturday. Saturday night you kept your fingers crossed that your parents would take you to Palms Theatre or the Kadat Theatre in Kokopo. Sunday was always family picnics, beach, fishing days.
“I have always been a great believer that wherever you reside you must try to make it better and you can do this by contributing to the community. Because I was born in Rabaul and it is my only home, I really want it to be the best it can be. The tidiest, the cleanest and the safest,” she said.
Susie sits on several committees. She is the secretary/treasurer of the New Guinea Club which the committee has turned into a small museum, she is secretary of the Rabaul Historical Society which performs some significant events and also hosts the Frangipani Festival, chairlady of the Una Mai Rabaul Cultural Centre committee which is trying to encourage a craft and culture centre for Rabaul.
Her name is also on the roll books of several other committees in the town.
“I think I got this from my father who has always contributed to the community. He was in the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, the Waratahs football team, he built buildings for the missionaries and he also started a bag pipe band which brought hundreds of young men from the villages together to learn music and the pipes and drums. Sadly all this equipment was looted during the eruption.”
Her father came from Scotland after WW2 and rebuilt a lot of Rabaul’s infrastructure, including thousands of metres of curb and guttering and barets.
Her mother’s parents are buried in the town cemetery.
“Rabaul is where my maternal uncle John Christie (a doctor) and aunt Deidre (a nursing sister) served at Nonga Base Hospital. Not to mention my mother who also worked in the office at Nonga Base in the late fifties and early sixties and my grandfather who worked for the Health Department Malaria Control at Nonga.
“That is a lot of history and the only home I know. We just cannot abandon this place, it is wedged in our heart.”
Always an optimist, her father Gerry McGrade believed that Rabaul could be rebuilt after 1994.
“I believe as my father does, that port cities never die. Ports are the engine rooms and he has taught me to never give up your asset, because no one is ever going to give you something in life for free. Life was not meant to be easy.”
Rabaul of the 60s and 70s cannot be compared to Rabaul of 2018. The 60s and 70s did not suffer volcanic eruptions. Rabaul of the 60s was known as the Pearl of the Pacific and without visionaries and good leadership today, it will be difficult to reclaim that moniker, Susie said.
Regarding Rabaul Hotel, Susie says “There are lots of challenges for all entrepreneurs – male and female. I am very fortunate that I have good staff (35), a wonderful loyal supportive partner and of course my incredible family and daughter who encourage and rally around me. I just feel so proud that even when the going gets tough, I feel I cannot let them down or disappoint.”
For her, the satisfaction of being an hotelier comes from meeting interesting people from many parts of the world, knowing that guests are comfortable, well fed, entertained and sometimes becoming almost “part of the family.”
Rabaul Hotel also boasts a Japanese tunnel under its restaurant, an English naval canon that was brought there by the Japanese, and brags the largest tabu wheel in the Pacific.
Since her parents acquired Hamamas up till now, Susie has described the rapport with other lodge and hotel owners in Rabaul as terrific.
“There are loads of tourism potential, however, we must address the serious concerns of law and order, cost of domestic travel and assist and improve tourism sites and products.
“The cost of doing business in PNG is prohibitive. We cannot compete on the Asia-Pacific market against Fiji, Vanuatu and Bali. We do not get the big numbers to sustain a tourism industry.
“However, we do offer a different, unique, intimate experience and we must work on our niche markets, but we need to address the first three concerns urgently,” she stressed.
Susie works seven days a week. She admits to having days where she doesn’t jump out of bed in the mornings. There are times too when floods hit the hotel after the rain. But they are now prepared for it.
About half an hour away sits the newer sister-town of Kokopo. Following the volcanic eruptions in 1994, Kokopo has gained all the attention of bureaucrats and politicians, and all the money and development that comes with the building of a provincial capital.
Susie says there isn’t much competition between the two towns.
“We have different markets and we are a family-run hotel. I would like to see a fairer focus on building of infrastructure and of tourism priorities between the towns, however within the hotel industry I respect what other hotels do.”
Here’s a poem is by Gordon Thomas, a prisoner of war of the Japanese:
Ode to Rabaul
Twine gently, Vines about this vanish’d town!
Bloom on O Flow’rs; in riotous array;
Lie lightly, Leaves, as you come tumbling down!
Who knows?…..Rabaul may live again some day
- POW Camp, Rabaul 7 June 1945