BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
If it were not for the cruise that my husband and I booked, we wouldn’t have traveled to Singapore. I took this opportunity to inquire about Armenian life on that island and write.
When my cousin learned that we were planning a trip to Singapore, he told me, “How exciting! They say Singapore is the cleanest state in the world. You will be fined if you spit a wad of chewing gum or throw a cigarette butt on the sidewalk.”
Indeed, Singapore is one of the cleanest and safest countries in the world. You may meet someone there that never in his whole life chewed gum. The people are very careful about how they behave because undercover police hide in regular clothes and scan the crowds. Also superb in Singapore are the architecture and designs. Wherever you turn, you can see a visual feast.
No visit to Singapore can be complete without a stroll on the world-famous Orchard Road, lined with towering shopping centers, hotels and restaurants. Shiny and glamorous malls of glass and steel are occupied by designer stores including Cartier, Dior, Prada and likes. Amid this astonishing milieu stands the most famous hotel of Singapore, Raffles, which was built in 1887 by the Armenian Sarkies Brothers.
It gives me chills to think that these brothers who were born in the mid-1800s in Isfahan, Iran, had the foresight to travel from Iran to Southeast Asia and built many luxury hotels in Java, Indonesia, Burma and Malaysia.
History tells us that modern Singapore was founded in 1819 when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a British statesman, established a trading post on the island. Sixteen years later, in 1835, the Armenian Church of St. Gregory of the Illuminator was built on the island. The site was granted to the Armenian community by Queen Victoria.
February 8th was a pleasant morning in Singapore when our ship docked there at 7a.m. We took a taxi to the hotel, and at around noon, after we had settled in our room, we took another taxi to go to the Armenian Church.
The round church, with Greek columns, stood in the midst of lush grounds surrounded by mature trees. Its whitewashed walls were in top condition, as it had recently undergone a major renovation. Inside were rows of wooden pews, but only one painting. I hadn’t expected to see a church surrounded by what must have been an acre of land. I was also surprised to find that the doors were open to the public.
My friend Lynn Yekiazarian, who has lived in Singapore for number of years, had arranged for me to meet Pierre Henes, a trustee of the church. Pierre is an energetic businessman in his forties who has been living in Singapore for over thirteen years. His mom is Armenian from Iran, his dad German, and he was born in Chicago.
We arrived early at the church. While waiting for our meeting with Pierre, I met a Greek woman who had come to visit the church. She asked me, “Why there are no paintings on the walls?”
I replied, “Probably because they might get stolen.”
We saw another woman kneeling at a pew and praying. When she rose and spoke with us, she said that her work was close to the church and that most every day during her lunch break, she came there to pray. While we were there, a few other people dropped in as well.
One thing that really impressed me was the Guest Book near the front door. Many people on daily basis, from all over the world had visited there and written in the book. One of the most interesting remarks was by a woman who said that she had been adopted by the Sarkies brothers and was very appreciative of her family.
When Pierre Henes arrived, he spoke in Persian-Armenian dialect. His accent amused me. He had never been to Iran but had acquired the perfect jargon. He gave us a brief history about Armenians in Singapore.
“Although the Armenian community here has been small, its contributions to the culture have been significant,” he continued. “The Armenian Church was the first Christian church built in Singapore. Armenians established the Straits Times, which is a daily newspaper that it is still in circulation. Agnes Joaquim developed The National Flower. And, of course, the iconic Sarkies brothers created the prestigious and luxurious Raffles Hotel.”
He led us to the garden on the right side of the church, where about a dozen tombstones had been erected in a half-circle. Some of the statues were missing their heads. Pierre explained that those tombstones had been brought there from a cemetery that the government destroyed it to use the land for housing. “Fortunately, an Armenian, Levon Palian, was able to salvage some of the tombstones, which belonged to famous Armenians of Singapore.”
He pointed to the grave site of Ashken Hovakimian, better known as Agnes Joaquim. “She cultivated the National Flower of Singapore, and at the Annual Flower Show of 1899, she won the first prize, in the amount of $12. Unfortunately, a few months later, at the age of 44, she died of cancer.
To the left of the church, a two story building was being renovated. It had been originally built for the resident priest, but since there is no longer a priest staying there, the trustees of the church decided to turn the quarters into a community center, which will house the first Armenian museum in Asia.
A recent government grant made the restoration of the church and the adjacent building possible. The job started about two years ago. Pierre told us, “We hope to open the museum in late 2017. The second floor will have accommodations for the caretaker of the church, and the museum will be on the first floor. The plan also includes a small banquet hall.”
After our informative visit to the Armenian Church, we headed to Raffles Hotel, which was within walking distance, arriving there at around 3pm, we saw a line had formed for their English Afternoon Tea, which ranks amongst most expensive and luxurious Teas— about $70 per person.
The Raffles hotel which is named after the founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, is built in colonial style architecture with an Indian influence. It is a three story expansive building which includes many gardens and verandas.
It started as a privately owned beach house in the early 1830s. in 1887 the Sarkies brothers, who had already built other luxury hotels, leased the property with the intention to turning it into a high end hotel.
The expansion of the hotel occurred in different phases. On November 18, 1899 the Raffles main building was completed and opened with a great fanfare. The hotel boasted Singapore’s first electric lights and ceiling fans.
In 1987 the Singapore government designated Raffles Hotel a National monument. Today Raffles shines like a diamond in the middle of Singapore.
This is how Sarkies brothers left a legacy. Arshak, the last of the brothers died on January 9, 1931. Same year, on June 10, a bankruptcy case was filed against the Raffles hotel, eventually resulting in the Sarkies family losing control of the Raffles hotel in Singapore. However the Sarkies name still lives on in Singapore through the namesake of Sarkies Rd. The Armenia Street runs next to the church.
As we were heading back to the hotel, we stopped at a café. There I saw a magazine rack, which included The Straits Times. As Pierre had mentioned the paper was started by an Armenian, Catchik Moses. It was launched on July 15, 1845 and the monthly subscription was $1.75.
The information I gathered on that day got me so excited. I could hardly wait to start writing about Singapore and the Armenian legacy.