Armenians are one of the most scattered races in the world. Whether enticed by better prospects elsewhere or forced to flee by conquest, they have put down roots in many new lands. When conditions for some Armenians long domiciled in Persia became untenable, they looked for new homes, turning towards India and later, Penang and Singapore. Although fewer than 830 Armenians ever lived in Singapore and Malaysia, they played a significant role in the social, civic and economic life of the early British trading settlements in both countries.
Their achievements were quite incommensurate with their minute numbers. Not only did Armenian become respected citizens during their lifetimes, but four of Singapore’s icons owe their existence to them: the Straits Times newspaper, the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid, Raffles Hotel and the Church of St Gregory.
Based on extensive research from newspapers, church, cemetery and official records, interviews with Armenians and their descendants, this seminal book by Nadia Wright provides a documented social history of this hitherto neglected minority.
The Eastern and Oriental Hotel, Penang
The Sarkies brothers – Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak who came from Isfahan in Persia, became the foremost hoteliers of the East, their enterprises in Penang and Singapore dominating the hospitality trade in the Straits Settlements for nearly fifty years.
It was 23-year-old Tigran who took the first step into the hotel industry, seeing it as more profitable than his fledgling auctioneering business. Taking over the lease of a large compound house at 1A Light Street, he named it the Eastern Hotel, announcing on 15 April 1884 that the hotel was open to receive boarders.
Tigran was joined by his older brother Martin, and calling themselves Sarkies Brothers, the pair acquired Hotel de l’Europe which was situated on the seafront in Farquar Street, and renamed it the Oriental Hotel. Tigran managed the Oriental while Martin was responsible for the Eastern. Younger brother Aviet was persuaded to join them and was soon made manager of the Eastern Hotel.
By August 1889, the extended and entirely renovated Oriental Hotel was ready for the public. The brothers gave up the Eastern, but not wanting to lose the goodwill and familiarity of its name,
decided to rename the Oriental, the Eastern and Oriental Hotel – which soon became shortened to the E. & O.
When Martin retired to Isfahan in late 1890, youngest brother Arshak joined the E. & O., having gained valuable work experience at Raffles under Tigran’s watchful eye. Soon each brother took responsibility for a different hotel. Tigran remained in charge of Raffles, while Aviet opened the Sarkies Hotel in Rangoon, leaving Arshak in control of the E. & O. Apart from short breaks in Singapore or abroad, Arshak ran the hotel until his death in 1931.
Within a decade of opening the Eastern Hotel, the brothers’ reputation had been made. Speaking at a celebratory lunch at the E. & O. in 1893, Sir Frank Swettenham first told the joke which was to pass into history: ‘A little boy was asked by his teacher in Perak who the Sakais were, and replied that they were people who kept hotels.’ (The Sakais are one of the indigenous races of Malaysia.)
With experience gained from running their hotels in Penang, Tigran and Martin Sarkies investigated the possibility of opening a new hotel in Singapore. They found a large bungalow on the corners of Beach and Bras Basah Roads, fronting the seashore, yet quite close to the commercial centre of town.
Previously the boarding house for boys at the nearby Raffles Institution, the bungalow needed only a few alterations and repairs before Tigran announced the opening of his new hotel which he called Raffles, in December 1887. His initial advertisement highlighted the factors that would make Raffles such a success: the promise of ‘great care and attention to the comfort of boarders and visitors’.
Hotel extensions in 1889 soon proved insufficient, so the brothers opened a new two-storey Palm Court Wing in December 1894, offering thirty well-furnished suites, bringing the hotel’s total to seventy-five. Sarkies Brothers were rewarded for their efforts as members of royal and aristocratic families and other dignitaries began to patronise Raffles.
But the Straits Times remained scathing of Singapore’s hotels, declaring that Singapore lacked a well-designed, convenient hotel offering quality accommodation. Presumably Tigran heeded this criticism for he announced extensive, grandiose renovations in 1897. These plans finally won over the Straits Times which concluded that the ‘palatial building with excellent ventilation, and the vast airy dining room’ would make Raffles ‘one of the largest and handsomest hotels in the East’.
The new wing was opened on 18 November 1899. The old central block had been replaced by a magnificent Renaissance style three-storey block featuring a huge T-shaped dining room as the centrepiece. Boasting a Carrara marble floor, it seated 500 and occupied the whole of the ground floor, while its roof, crowned by a skylight gave the room an awesome air space. The two upper floors each contained fifteen suites, plus a large reading room and two drawing rooms. Two suites were set aside for Tigran and his family. A wide, richly decorated verandah surrounded the building, protecting the rooms from sunlight and rain while the new billiard room and bar were sensibly housed in a separate block.
The hotel now offered 100 suites, all with furniture suited to the climate, as well as electric lighting –
The Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator (Singapore)
making Raffles the only hotel in the Straits lit by electricity. Not only did the hotel have its own steam engine to generate electricity, but a 10,000-gallon tank ensured a steady water supply.
A special inauguration dinner for 200 guests was held in the dining room where electric light was used for the first time. The Straits Times representative who went along after the grand opening to see what things were like on an ordinary night, was most impressed, especially by the blazing lights as he approached the hotel from the sea front. Indeed, his only complaint was that the drawing rooms were unsuitable for flirting – due to a lack of screens, anyone who walked along the passageways could look in. Tigran should have sought the advice of a lady, he admonished.
Tigran was quick to respond, assuring the writer that when the drawing rooms were finished, they would give every facility for flirtation.
Ecstatic reviews of dinners dotted the press for the next three decades. Among early successes was the 1900 New Year’s Eve dinner. Lauded as the best banquet yet offered by a hotel in Singapore, it was claimed that half the town turned up for the dinner and the rest came in later to dance.
However, travellers were once more complaining of the dearth of quality accommodation, strongly feeling that a first rate hotel under European management was urgently needed. Perhaps such comments encouraged Arathoon Sarkies and Eleazar Johannes to acquire the Adelphi Hotel in 1903, and the new owners of the Hotel de l’Europe to construct a modern hotel in 1904 (poaching Charlie Chaytor from Raffles to manage it).
These entrepreneurial Armenians in charge of Singapore’s three leading hotels kept one another on their toes. An intense advertising war ensued as each tried to outdo the other vying for patronage for their special dinners, race dinners, coronation dinners and musical dinners. They wooed the diverse expatriate communities with lavish menus accompanied by musical delights to celebrate the birthdays of Kaiser Wilhelm, Queen Wilhelmina, King Edward and Queen Alexandra.
In November 1910, having guided Raffles for twenty-three years, a sick Tigran sailed for England. Of some consolation would have been the Pinang Gazette’s glowing praise of his achievement – ‘Raffles is more than a hostelry, it is an institution – the hotel has made Singapore famous to the tourist and an abode of pleasure to the resident.’
Built in 1835, the small, carefully restored Church of St Gregory the Illuminator, is the oldest Christian place of worship in Singapore. Recognised as George Coleman’s masterpiece and the finest landmark of early Singapore, St Gregory’s Church was gazetted as a national monument on 28 June 1973.
For over 165 years, St Gregory’s Church has bonded the Armenian community of Singapore and helped preserve its identity.
The church was named for St Gregory the Illuminator and consecrated on 26 March 1836 – the anniversary of his death.
The Singapore Free Press glowingly praised the completed building, its only criticism being that the main entrance was at the rear of the church, not facing Hill Street as Coleman had intended, but custom decreed the chancel had to face East.
The paper described the design of the church, noting that the interior comprised a thirty-six foot circle with a semicircular eighteen-foot chancel at the Eastern end.
There were four small rooms: two for vestries and two for staircases, so that the body of the church formed a square. On three sides, offering shade to the windows and entrances, plus shelter for carriages, stood porticos each with six Doric columns. All this was topped by a balustrade.
In the centre of the flat roof rose a truncated cone twelve foot in diameter and ten foot high. On top of this was an eleven-foot bell turret comprising eight arches and eight Ionic pilasters. These supported a six-foot dome which was topped by a ball and cross the top of which was fifty foot high.
The design incorporated many distinctive features of traditional Armenian churches, notably the vaulted ceiling and the cupola, while the three porticos helped the congregation withstand Singapore’s tropical climate.
However, major changes soon had to be made to the roof. The bell turret and cupola were considered unsafe and in the 1840s were demolished and replaced by a square turret with four Doric pilasters and a short, pointed square steeple.
Around 1853, George Maddock removed the turret and steeple, and built the pitched roof that exists today. He added the east portico to the chancel and on top of this, constructed the present tower and steeple. Maddock’s changes have led to the criticism that the church does not look Armenian. But a glance inside dispels this notion.
Except for a few minor alterations, the church has remained unchanged since the 1850s. The bell, which was cast in 1861 by renowned founders George Mears & Company of London, was donated by Seth Seth, but may not have been hung until 1883.
A rare surviving description of the church in 1887 noted that it was set some way back from Hill Street and surrounded by trees. The building was painted a pale blue, which turned darker in the rain, and the shutters and doors were painted a bright green. Inside the church, a picture of the Last Supper hung behind the altar upon which were placed thirteen lighted candles and the large embossed Bible.
The church lost some of its land in the 1980s, when the Government widened Hill Street. A further slice was acquired in 1993. Although this meant a noticeable shortening of the land in front of the church, the monetary compensation received was a welcome contribution to the Armenian Church Trust’s meticulous restoration of the church, parsonage and grounds. Initiated by Helen and Jon Metes, and carried out by the architectural firm of Quek Associates, the church restoration won an Urban Redevelopment Authority Architectural Heritage Award in 1995.
The presence of the Church today truly vindicates the words of the Singapore Free Press in 1836:
This small but elegant building does great credit to the public spirit and religious feeling of the Armenians of this settlement; for we believe that few instances could be shewn where so small a community have contributed funds sufficient for the erection of a similar edifice…. the Armenian Church is one of the most ornate and best-finished pieces of architecture that this settlement can boast of
The Vanda Miss Joaquim Orchid
While many of the Armenian men in Singapore achieved political and social acclaim during their lifetimes, it is a woman whose name lives on, both in Singapore and beyond. She is Ashkhen Hovakimian (Agnes Joaquim) who bred the world’s first cultivated Vanda hybrid. Named Vanda Miss Joaquim after her, it is also known as the Singapore orchid, the Wah Kim orchid and the Princess Aloha orchid. Not only was Vanda Miss Joaquim chosen as the national flower of Singapore, but it became one of the most popular and prolific orchids in Singapore, the Philippines and Hawaii.
The eldest daughter of Parsick and Urelia Joaquim, Agnes developed a keen interest in gardening as did her mother and several of her siblings. From 1881 onwards, family members collected prizes for their flowers, fruit, vegetables and floral arrangements in the annual flower shows, with Agnes usually winning the most prizes. She excelled in the 1890s, collecting ten firsts and two seconds in 1893, followed by ten firsts and five seconds in 1894, and seven firsts and eight seconds in 1895.
Although the Straits Times considered the 1897 Flower Show to be a failure, concluding that ‘with the exception, perhaps, of a languid interest in a few orchids, the European is no lover of flowers’, Agnes won prizes for orchids, other flowers and fruit. Amongst her awards in 1898, was the first prize for orchids, but her crowning success occurred the following year.
With its splendid exhibition of numerous and gorgeous orchids, the 1899 Flower Show was lauded as the best for years. The highlight was Agnes’ orchid which, the Straits Times noted, was named after Miss Joaquim and raised by her. Agnes had lived just long enough to see her orchid win first prize for the rarest orchid and be publicly recognised for her achievement. Suffering with cancer, she was dead within three months.
Agnes had bred her orchid by crossing the Burmese Vanda teres with the Malayan Vanda hookeriana. In early 1893, she showed the plant to Henry Ridley, the director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. After carefully examining the hybrid and having it sketched, Ridley sent a detailed description, emphasising its intermediate floral characteristics, to the Gardeners’ Chronicle. This authoritative journal published the details on 24 June 1893, along with those of two other new hybrids.
Cuttings from that one plant led to the millions of Vanda Miss Joaquim orchids that were to bloom in Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Hawaii, the Philippines and other tropical habitats. In Singapore itself, the orchid became one of the most common flowering plants, with many gardens having at least one bed of Vanda Miss Joaquims. Its exquisitely beautiful colour and shape and resilience, plus the fact that it was one of the few garden flowers to bloom throughout the year, and was one of the easiest orchids to grow and propagate, ensured its popularity.
In 1947, Vanda Miss Joaquim, described by John Laycock as ‘a child of Singapore’ was chosen as the most fitting emblem for the nascent Progressive Party, and not surprisingly, as the crest for the Malayan Orchid Society in 1957. But in April 1981, came the ultimate accolade. From a field of forty
contenders, Vanda Miss Joaquim was selected as the national flower of Singapore.
Vanda Miss Joaquim *
In the 1890s, Agnes was acknowledged as having obtained the orchid through hybridisation, but subsequently, some have stripped that honour from her. Aspersions were first cast in 1931 when the Straits Times announced that a hybrid orchid had been produced in Singapore using the new technique of germinating seeds in a sterile culture. This new orchid was described as the second hybrid to be produced in Singapore or, if Vanda Miss Joaquim had arisen naturally, the first.
The record must be set straight, and the case that Agnes merely ‘discovered’ the orchid in her garden dismissed. Henry Ridley’s 1893 statement that Agnes had bred the orchid is unambiguous. After examining the orchid, he wrote:
A few years ago Miss Joaquim, a lady residing in Singapore, well-known for her success as a horticulturist, succeeded in crossing Vanda Hookeriana Rchb. f., and V. teres, two plants cultivated in almost every garden in Singapore. Unfortunately, no record was kept as to which was used as the male. The result has now appeared in the form of a very beautiful plant, quite intermediate between the two species and as I cannot find any record of this cross having been made before, I describe it herewith.
Agnes should have full credit for her achievement restored to her. Not only did she produce the first Vanda hybrid, but it appears she was the first woman in the world to breed a hybrid orchid.
For further information on this topic go to The Debate.
Catchick Moses was the most famous of the pioneering Armenians. Born at Basra on 30 August 1812, Catchick landed in Singapore on 1 August 1828, just before his sixteenth birthday, and his well-established uncle, Aristarkies Sarkies soon found him work as a clerk with Boustead & Company.
After gaining five years’ experience at Boustead’s, Catchick set up on his own and began trading with Calcutta. Then, on 2 March 1840 he teamed up with his uncle to establish the firm of Sarkies & Moses, merchants and agents. On 6 March 1841, just two days before his death, Aristarkies relinquished his interest in the firm, leaving it in Catchick’s capable hands. Retaining the existing name, Catchick guided the firm for the next four decades, making it a respected entity in the commercial world of old Singapore. Apart from running Sarkies & Moses, Catchick was a shareholder in the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company and other companies, and also invested in considerable real estate.
In the early years, Catchick had regularly served on grand inquests and the grand jury. A subscriber to the Singapore Institution and its successor, Raffles Institution, he was wealthy enough to stand for election as a municipal commissioner. However, unsuccessful in his first attempt in 1862, Catchick never tried again.
The recognised head of the Armenian community, Catchick was its representative in the delegation which welcomed Prince Albert and Prince George upon their arrival in Singapore in 1882. Actively involved with the Church, Catchick was unstintingly donated money for renovations and additions.
Catchick founded the Straits Times, albeit almost by default. In the early 1840s, his friend, Martyrose Apcar had ordered a printing press from England, intending to publish a newspaper but his firm’s financial woes seemed to dash this hope. To ensure Martyrose’s dream materialised, Catchick took over the equipment and launched the Straits Times, having appointing Robert Woods as editor. (Perhaps Catchick had developed an interest in papers during his early days with Edward Boustead who had edited the Singapore Chronicle before starting the Singapore Free Press.)
The first edition of the Straits Times came out on 15 July 1845. An eight-page weekly, it was published at 7 Commercial Square using a hand-operated press. The paper comprised two sections – the first covered matters of general interest to the settlement while the second provided current prices and market information. It was also planned to send an eight-page monthly summary to Europe and elsewhere. With a subscription of Sp.$1.75 per month, Catchick did not find the venture financially rewarding and in September 1846, he sold the paper to Robert Woods.
Author: Nadia H Wright Paperback Pages 350; 24 pp. black/white plates; maps, tables; bibliography pp. 316-330; index Price $A40 (+ GST + postage)