Armenian Wonders in Singapore

The small nation of Singapore is situated on 63 islands in Southeast Asia and is essentially one large city with a total area of around 700 square kilometers. Today, this country is part of the “Four Asian Tigers” and is considered one of the wealthiest in the world.

In translation from Malay, Singapore means “Lion City,” where the syllable “singha” refers to the king of beasts, and “pura” means citadel, capital, or stronghold.

However, as local residents say (either jokingly or seriously), there was once talk of renaming the city to Sarkispur, meaning the city of Sarkis, because the evident Armenian influence here has long united the ‘puras’ of Singha and Sarkis into a single entity.

Primarily, this refers to the four Sarkis brothers – Martin, Tigran, Avet, and Arshak – who, in the 19th century, managed not only to bring fame to their community but also to contribute to the economic prosperity of their new homeland through donor participation in local regional development.

Admittedly, they were not pioneers of the Lion City, as the earliest mentions of our compatriots on the Malay Peninsula date back to 1669.

Singapore’s oldest Christian church was built by Armenian settlers.

Active settlement of the island state began in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore as a free port and invited foreigners to collaborate.

The first Armenian settlers from Malaysia, India, and New Julfa were mostly attracted by the “free port” status, which allowed duty-free import and export of goods.

From the population lists of that time, it is definitively known that among the foreign settlers there were only 45 Armenians, of which only four were descendants of mixed marriages. And although, as the British said, “Armenians dress in European fashion and usually speak English and Portuguese fluently, traditions of the historical homeland are nevertheless strictly observed in the colony itself.”

In some cases, Armenian entrepreneurs publicly emphasized their national identity by appearing at costume balls dressed as the Cilician King Levon and other iconic historical figures. Local aristocrat Kechik Moses even named his first representation “Mount Ararat.”

Historical chronicles have repeatedly noted that Singaporean Armenians were able to create an ethnic community thanks to their unity, where all adults speak, read, write in Armenian, and attend Mass on Sundays.

Their faith was so strong that in 1833, the Singaporean authorities decided to allocate a plot of land in the city center for the construction of an Armenian church. Armenians from the Indian city of Kolkata and the island of Java, Chinese traders, and overseas elites joined the donations; the latter considered it an honor to build the first Christian temple far from European civilization.

The cornerstone of the church was laid on March 26, 1835, and exactly one year later it was consecrated in honor of the first Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, St. Gregory the Illuminator.

This date also became the official starting point for the establishment of the Armenian community in Singapore, which recently celebrated its 180th anniversary. The “Free Press” newspaper of that time wrote: “The small but elegant building does credit to the civic and religious sentiments of the Armenians of this settlement, for we believe that only in very rare cases would such a small community raise sufficient funds to erect such a structure.

This is one of the most ornate and well-furnished examples of architecture.”

Designed by Irish architect George Coleman, the church is considered by experts to be not just one of Coleman’s most famous works, but also the pinnacle of his creativity.

Although the project bears clear traces of British colonial-era classicism, the interior of the building is designed in the traditional style of Armenian religious architecture.

The main adornment of the altar is a painting depicting the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with His disciples. Soon a bell cast in London was brought here, and after some time the Armenian church became the first engineering structure in Singapore to have electric lighting installed.

Today, it is the oldest surviving building in Singapore and one of the two ancient Armenian churches in Southeast Asia. Inside its enclosure, an American Armenian named Levon Palyan has arranged a small memorial from the graves of our compatriots. In 1973, the temple was declared a monument of national significance under state protection.

Two years ago, Catholicos Karekin II of All Armenians visited Singapore on a patriarchal visit, where he consecrated a khachkar in the church courtyard in memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey.

He noted that the local church has always been a center of Armenian identity for Singaporean compatriots. It’s no coincidence that Nadya Wright, a descendant of Armenian immigrants, would later write in her book “Respectable Citizens: The History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia” that the Armenian church not only met religious needs but also maintained community unity through collective participation in baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

Living far from their historical homeland, our compatriots have never remained indifferent to its fate. For example, at the initiative of Bishop Torgom Gushakyan in the early 20th century, a branch of the Armenian General Benevolent Union was founded, to which donations came from all over Malaysia to help the afflicted.

Tragic events – the massacre of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey – were consistently covered by local newspapers such as “Singapore Chronicle,” “Singapore Independent Newspaper,” and the English-language “Straits Times.”

Incidentally, the latter was the first Singaporean periodical publication, founded with the resources of Armenian entrepreneur Kechik Moses. Today, it has become the country’s leading national newspaper with a readership of over one and a half million people.

Four years later, in 1849, Gregory Galstan would release another newspaper – “Usumnasir,” but this time in Armenian. By the mid-19th century, two publishing houses with printing presses, “Arpi” and “Masis,” would be established here.

In the halls “Tigran” and “Arshak” of the historic Raffles Hotel, luxury still prevails.

Despite their small numbers, Armenian settlers actively participated in the country’s public life. Due to their good reputation, proficiency in the English language, and Christian faith, they were invited to prestigious jobs in law firms, municipal committees, and legislative assemblies.

Prominent families participated in the annual celebration of Her Majesty the English Queen’s birthday. The English traveler John Friar also wrote about business people of Armenian origin, noting that “Armenian merchants can be characterized as honest and decent people, skilled in the art of trade in all its intricacies.”

By the way, the first merchant from Armenia was Aristakes Sarkis, who settled in Singapore in 1820. Soon after, other traders followed. Before long, 113 Armenian enterprises were already registered here, among which dominated firms selling antimony and medicinal preparations, dealerships for jewelry and diamonds, a chain of photography studios, watch salons, law offices, mining companies, insurance funds, restaurants…

And, of course, a merchant fleet with family crests on the sides of vessels such as “Armenia,” “Ararat,” “Arutyun Apkar,” and “Grigor Armen,” registered to the “free port” at the main crossroads of sea routes from Europe and Africa to Asia.

Being natural builders, Armenian entrepreneurs soon turned to the construction of buildings, offices, shops, and other engineering structures. The service sector was not left out either, where enterprising Armenians owned a network of eleven boarding houses and hotels. A special point of pride is the legendary “Raffles,” opened by the Sarkis brothers.

The owners understood perfectly well that a hotel with a sea view would always be profitable due to wealthy guests. And they were not mistaken. Charlie Chaplin, Rudyard Kipling, and Somerset Maugham loved to stay here, and their portraits still adorn the hall of the fashionable hotel today.

As the promotional brochures say, it is considered a treasure of Singapore and still meets the highest star ratings in the hierarchy of hotel services.

Ancient Persian carpets and unique works of art not only emphasize the aristocratic status of the establishment but also convey a special atmosphere of bygone years.

According to a long-established tradition, in the “Tigran” and “Arshak” halls, hundreds of candles in antique silver candleholders still flicker in the evenings. Musicians play the cello and harp, and scattered garlands of orchids spread an intoxicating aroma all around.

The Orchid Vanda Miss Joaquim by Ashkhen Hovakimyan Became a Symbol of Singapore

Another emblem of Singapore is the orchid Vanda Miss Joaquim – Josephine, bred by Singaporean Armenian Ashkhen Hovakimyan, who was anglicized to Agnes Joaquim.

From childhood, the girl was passionate about gardening. At annual flower shows, she won numerous top prizes for cultivating rare varieties of orchids, totaling over forty in all.

One day, upon inspecting her flowerbed, Ashkhen discovered a small purple flower, a hybrid of the Burmese Vanda teres and the Malayan Vanda hookeriana.

The flower was so exquisite that the gardener immediately named it after her younger, beautiful sister Josephine. In 1890, she presented her creation to the director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, hoping her efforts would be duly appreciated.

However, the bureaucratic machine was apparently sluggish even back then. Initial expert evaluation was conducted in the reputable horticultural publication “Gardeners Chronicle,” where the first results were later published.

But it wasn’t until 1897 that the stunningly beautiful flower became a topic of conversation in Europe, specifically after the Singaporean orchid, causing a sensation at the Royal Agricultural Exhibition in London, received a certificate of the highest category.

Although skeptically inclined scientists debated the significance of the discovery for a long time, almost a decade later, the award for “Developing a New Orchid Species” was eventually granted to her. Ashkhen passed away three months after this event, never learning the role her flower had played in the destiny of her second homeland.

Nearly half a century later, the “Orchid Princess Aloha” (as the local residents call it) became the emblem of Singapore’s Progressive Party. In 1981, Vanda Miss Joaquim was recognized as the national flower of the island nation as a symbol of resilience and the ability of its citizens to persevere through difficult times towards a better life.

Modern Renaissance

In the last quarter of the 20th century, the Armenian community in Singapore practically ceased to exist. Although hard times had struck much earlier. First, Singapore’s economy was weakened by the Great Depression, followed by World War II, and then the island was occupied by the Japanese.

The remaining Armenians on the island, as subjects of the British crown, were interned in special Changi camps, where some of them perished. Unfortunately, the Armenian community in Singapore was never able to recover from its losses after the end of hostilities: many families were ruined during the occupation, while others moved to Australia, America, or Europe.

For those who returned to Singapore, regaining their former prominence was unattainable. However, not only did migration play a role but also assimilation. In many cases, even surnames were anglicized; for instance, Setyans became Seths, Hovakimyans became Joaquims, and Edigaryans became Edgars.

Among the old Singaporeans, perhaps only the descendants of the Sarkis brothers remain. According to the 1947 population census, there were just over sixty Armenians in the country.

However, with the collapse of the USSR, a new wave of Armenian migrants emerged, mainly coming from former Soviet republics. Like before, the newcomers settled near the church on Armenian Street. Interestingly, in George Coleman’s 1836 map, this street still had no name.

The Chinese among themselves called it in their own unique Eastern way: the western part of the land from the wall of Seng Poh’s new house, whose son Tan Ah Hua is a cousin of Seah Eu Chin — a well-known importer of opium in the city. But the newly erected church soon allowed it to be officially renamed as Armenian Church Street.

Later, it became known more succinctly. This is not the only Armenian trace in the toponymic history of Singapore. For example, Galistan Avenue memorializes the creator of the Singapore Trust Fund, Emil Galistan.

Local drivers favor Sarkis Road, named after Regina Sarkis, and there’s also a St. Martin’s Drive. Tourist brochures note that due to recent developments, Armenian Lane and Narkis Street have relatively recently disappeared from the map. However, according to the local governor, they may soon reappear on city signs.

Meanwhile, guides escorting Armenian travelers usually advise them to speak with Geraldine Low-Ismail, who is known here as a “living treasure” and a “walking dictionary.”

The ethnographer and historian says that she has Russian, Chinese, Danish, Palestinian, and Armenian blood flowing through her veins. “All in all, I am a real ‘Singapore Sling,'” she says humorously, referring to the cocktail from the famous Raffles Hotel bar.

The original drink, the recipe of which is a closely guarded secret, has long been a relic and national treasure, and the story of its creation is shrouded in legends and speculation. However, switching from jest to a more serious topic, she adds that each of the nations she belongs to has its own special, unique aspect that she cherishes.

“But the undeniable fact remains that the Armenian community, of which I can consider myself a part, has left a quite significant mark in Singapore,” she says. Perhaps this is why she usually prefaces her tours with the words, “I’ll start with the Armenians!”

Notably, during the state visit of the President of Armenia to Singapore, the hosting country’s highest authorities warmly emphasized the significant role of the Armenian community in the island nation’s history.

According to President Tony Tan Keng Yam, Armenians have made a substantial contribution to Singapore’s development. “Although diplomatic relations between the two countries were established just 20 years ago, the history of Armenian-Singaporean ties spans more than 150 years. In this regard, trade and economic cooperation play a significant role. Moreover, the Armenian community built the first Christian church in our country. Your compatriot bred Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid, through selective breeding.”

“In the humanitarian, cultural, and educational spheres, we can speak, for instance, about the first local newspaper, which was also published by Armenians. All these components serve as a vivid example of mutual respect between our peoples,” he noted.

Over two centuries, the chronicle of the island and the history of Armenian settlers have become so closely intertwined that on the fiftieth anniversary of Singapore’s independence, symbols of the Armenian community’s heritage were included in the country’s celebrations.

“I hope that in the near future, more of my compatriots will come here to work or relax. Perhaps many of them will get married, have children, and then the community will gradually begin to grow,” says Jesse Sarkis, the granddaughter of Martin Aratoon Sarkis from the famous family of founders of the renowned Raffles Hotel.

Although today the number of Armenians makes up no more than one percent of Singapore’s population, the current state of the Armenian community can nevertheless be described as a renaissance.

There is hope that the new generation will make an equally significant contribution to the economic, political, and social life of the Singaporean miracle, just like the Armenian pioneers did on this land.

Sergey Tigranyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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