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The Armenians of Singapore: An Historical Perspective

Special for the Armenian Weekly

Travellers visiting the bustling city-state of Singapore may not be aware of the great impact made by the Armenians who form one of its smallest minorities. Between 1820 and 2000, fewer than 700 Armenians ever lived in Singapore. Although most were transient, with a mere 12 families residing for three generations, they have left a legacy incommensurate with their numbers. Along with the Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the oldest existing church in Singapore and its parsonage, there are other reminders of the Armenian presence. These include Raffles Hotel, the Straits Times newspaper, and Singapore’s national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim.

Members of the Armenian community of Singapore in 1917

Members of the Armenian community of Singapore in 1917

As in most cities where Armenians settled, there is an Armenian Street. In Singapore, this short street gained its name because it bordered the back of the church property. Three other streets attest to the Armenian presence: Sarkies Road, named after property owner Regina Sarkies; Galistan Avenue, which recognizes the work of Emile Galistan of the Singapore Im­provement Trust; and St. Martin’s Drive, which commemorates the philanthropic Martin family who once owned a mansion and substantial property along Orchard Road. Stamford House, built by the firm of Stephens Paul in 1904, still stands offering insights into Edwardian architecture.

Armenians in Singapore in 1960

Armenians in Singapore in 1960

So, when and why did Armenians arrive in Singapore and what happened to them?

They were descendants of Armenians from Persia, in particular those deported from Julfa to Isfahan by Shah Abbas in the early 1600’s. In later years some of those Armenians migrated to India, the Dutch East Indies, Burma, Malacca, Penang, and lastly to Singapore, thus forming an extensive trading diaspora. To better assimilate, most Persian Armenians Anglicized their names; thus some surnames are not recognizable as Armenian. For example, Mardirian became Martin, Stepanian became Stephens, and Yedgarian became Edgar.

The tombstone of Sarkies A. Sarkies who passed away in 1849

The tombstone of Sarkies A. Sarkies who passed away in 1849

In 1820, one year after the British opened a trading post in Singapore, the first Armenians, the apparently unrelated Aristarkies Sarkies and Sarkies A. Sarkies, arrived from Malacca. They were soon joined by Carapiet Phannous, Mackertich Moses, the Seth brothers, and the Zechariah brothers. All were traders or commercial agents. By 1824, there were 16 Armenians out of a population surpassing 10,000. More arrivals trickled in hoping to make their fortunes in the new duty-free port.

Before long, the Armenians wanted their own priest rather than relying on visits from the priest in Penang. In 1825, Isiah Zechariah, on behalf of the community, wrote to the archbishop in New Julfa asking that a priest be sent to Singapore, and in 1827 Reverend Gregory Ter Johannes duly arrived. The next step was for the Armenians to have their own church. Having been granted land by the governor, the community, which was basically comprised of 10 families, raised most of the construction costs. In 1836, the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator was consecrated, and for the ensuing century met the needs of the growing community.

Between 1820 and 1983, Armenians in Singapore operated more than 85 commercial enterprises. Most set up as traders, specializing in importing textiles and exporting regional produce. Such firms included Andreas & Company, Edgar & Company, Demetrius & Company, Arathoon Brothers, and Chater & Company. The Calcutta-based Armenian shipping line Apcar Brothers was patronized by the Armenians, and was also the main carrier of the then-legal opium into Singapore from the 1860’s until the 1880’s.

Some firms petered out after a short time, whereas Sarkies and Moses, founded in 1840, lasted until 1913. Others developed into multinational import and export firms, including Edgar Brothers (1912-68), Stephens, Paul, and Company (1896-1941), and A. C. Galstaun (1957-83).

George Michael ran Singapore's leading photographic studio until 1919

George Michael ran Singapore’s leading photographic studio until 1919

A few individuals owned law firms, restaurants, watch-making, and jewelry shops, auction houses, small factories, and photographic studios. The legal firm of Joaquim Brothers was well known throughout Malaya until its closure in 1902, while George Michael was running Singapore’s leading photographic studio when he left in 1919.

The hospitality industry attracted many Armenians, their ventures ranging from small boarding houses to the grandest of hotels: Raffles Hotel. This future icon was the initiative of Tigran and Martin Sarkies, who were already running two successful hotels in Penang: the Eastern Hotel and the Oriental. Propitiously, they named their hotel after Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s founder, whose statue had recently been unveiled amidst much pomp and splendor.

An advertisement for Raffles Hotel

An advertisement for Raffles Hotel

Opened in December 1887 and managed by Tigran, Raffles Hotel quickly established a reputation for its dining innovations. Its fame escalated after its magnificent new Renaissance-style block was opened in 1899. The grandest balls and banquets were hosted at Raffles, and guests included royalty and celebrities such as Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward.

Managed by Tigran for nearly 20 years, then his younger brother Aviet for another 10, the hotel reached its halcyon days in the 1920’s under managing proprietor Martyrose Arathoon.

Advertisement for Hotel de l'Europe

Advertisement for Hotel de l’Europe

For a short time at the turn of the 20th century, the three major hotels in Singapore were managed or owned by Armenians. Competing with Raffles was the Adelphi Hotel run by Johannes and Sarkies, while even the exclusive Europe Hotel was being managed by Joe Constantine. Before that, there had been a series of Armenian hoteliers operating smaller hotels, including Moses’ Pavilion and Bowling Alley, St. Valentine’s Bath Hotel, and Goodwood Hall and the Sea View Hotel, which was finally acquired by the Sarkies brothers. The Oranje Hotel, in today’s Stamford House, which was run in the 1950’s by Klara van Hien, was the last of the Armenian hotels.

Some of the pioneering merchants built or acquired magnificent houses, and played a significant role in the educational, economic, civic, and social life of the colony. They served on various committees including the first Chamber of Commerce, which met in 1837. In 1895, two out of the eight elected municipal commissioners were Armenian: a very high ratio for such a small community.

A notable individual was prominent lawyer Joaquim P. Joaquim (Hovakimian) who served as president of the Municipal Commission, a member of the Legislative Council, and was appointed deputy U.S. consul in 1893. Another prominent figure was George G. Seth, who rose to become solicitor-general of the Straits Settlements in the 1920’s and later served as acting attorney-general.

Agnes (Ashkhen) Joaquim

Agnes (Ashkhen) Joaquim

One Armenian who received posthumous fame was Agnes (Ashkhen) Joaquim. In the 1880’s she hybridized an orchid by crossing the Vanda teres with the Vanda Hookeriana, thus creating the flower named after her: the Vanda Miss Joaquim. Propagated by cuttings, this orchid proliferated not only in Singapore but in the other tropical countries where it had been introduced. It became especially popular in Hawaii, where it is better known as the Princess Aloha orchid. In Singapore, the orchid was selected as the nation’s national flower in 1981.

The Armenians were very loyal to Britain; Hoseb Arathoon, for example, donated an aeroplane to the British War Office in 1915, and young men volunteered for both World Wars. The community was also acutely aware of the suffering of their brethren in Turkey and raised large amounts of money for the victims of the massacres of the 1890’s and later the genocide.

Although the community was too small to run its own school, an Armenian newspaper was printed for a short time. Gregory Galastaun published “Usumnaser” (“The Scholar”) from 1849 until 1853, with his friend Peter Seth creating an exquisite etching of Singapore for the masthead.

Gregory Galastaun published 'Usumnaser' ('The Scholar') from 1849 until 1853, with his friend Peter Seth creating an exquisite etching of Singapore for the masthead.

Gregory Galastaun published ‘Usumnaser’ (‘The Scholar’) from 1849 until 1853, with his friend Peter Seth creating an exquisite etching of Singapore for the masthead.

In 1845, Catchick Moses established the 'Straits Times' newspaper

In 1845, Catchick Moses established the ‘Straits Times’ newspaper

In 1845, Catchick Moses had established the “Straits Times” newspaper, which today is the leading newspaper of Southeast Asia. Moses had acquired the printing press to help out his beleaguered compatriot, Martyrose Apcar, but soon sold the newspaper to the paper’s editor, Robert Woods.

‘Armenian numbers peaked at just over 100 in the 1920’s. A branch of the AGBU was up and running, Raffles Hotel was in full swing, and the trading firms were busy and all employed young Armenian men often from other Armenian communities. However, this was the calm before the storm. First came the Depression, which adversely affected the trading companies in particular; then in 1938, the last resident priest returned to New Julfa; and in 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese. The Armenians suffered diverse fates: Some women and children escaped to Australia, while their menfolk enlisted. Civilians who were British subjects were interned, while those who were classified as Persians were not. Death struck both soldiers and civilians.

After the war, a new Singapore emerged: one in which Armenians faced limited prospects. The few Armenian firms included Edgar Brothers and Arathoon Sons, and A. C. Galstaun, which was the last of the Persian-Armenian firms. Gradually the families migrated mainly to Australia, the U.S., or Britain.

By the 1970’s the community had virtually disappeared; only a handful of the old families who still spoke Armenian remained. The very smallness of the community, which had helped it to integrate, also helped cause its demise: It was demographically unviable. Intermarriage and the consequent assimilation into a larger culture, death, and emigration had taken their toll. In 2007, Helen Metes, the last of Singapore’s Persian Armenians, died.

But not the Armenian community of Singapore. This has been revitalized by the recent migration of Armenian entrepreneurs from Armenia and Russia. Along with other expatriates they are creating a new, vibrant, and growing young community, building on the past to secure a sound future for Armenians in Singapore.

Armenian Street, Singapore, 1890

Armenian Street, Singapore, 1890

Armenian Street today

Armenian Street today

33 Comments on The Armenians of Singapore: An Historical Perspective

  1. thank-you intersesting

  2. avatar Rev. Dr. George A. Leylegian // January 6, 2015 at 5:11 pm // Reply

    Dearest Dr. Wright,

    Thank you, as always, for preparing and for sharing such a wealth of information for us to enjoy!

    You remain a bright light amongst the modern day scholars of Armenian history, and you contribute immeasurably to the corpus of knowledge regarding the Armenians in Singapore, Penang, the Malay Peninsula, and points beyond. Be assured that all of your efforts are truly lauded!

    I am one of your faithful readers, and I sincerely commend you for each and every detail which you have discovered and continue to share with all of us. The community of Armenians spread across colonial Asia is deserving of praise and is worthy of scholarly research, especially of yours!

    May the New Year bring you and your family the best of health, and may you persevere in your most appreciated studies and articles!

    All my best to you always,

    Rev. Dr. George A. Leylegian

  3. avatar Vahe Nalbandian // January 6, 2015 at 8:36 pm // Reply

    Wonderful and very interesting article. I visited Singapore in the 1980’s and made it a point to see Armenia Street, the Armenian Church and adjacent cemetery, and the Raffles Hotel. This article places everything in perspective for me.
    V.N.

  4. Exceptional research beautifully illustrated, thank you Nadia. A note and a question. In the middle of the photo captioned “Armenians in Singapore in 1960” stands Father Aramais Mirzaian who also served for decades as a priest in the Armenian community in Sydney. Question: I query if the reference to “A. C. Galstaun (1957-83)” in the article is to Arshak Galstaun, the founding benefactor for Galstaun College, an everyday primary and secondary Armenian school in Sydney – http://www.galstaun.nsw.edu.au/benefactors. Prior to settling in Sydney Mr Galstaun was a merchant and trader in South-East Asia.

    • Yes. A. C. Galstaun is indeed Arshak Galstaun. He arrived in Singapore in 1937 and initially worked for Edgar Brothers. After the war Arshak worked for several firms before establishing his own company in 1957. It specialised in the reptile skin trade, and expanded into Australia and the Pacific Islands. In the post-war years Arshak was the doyen of the Armenian community and served as president of the Church trustees for over 30 years. In 1983 Arshak and his wife Sophie migrated to Sydney which was already home to a community of Armenians from Southeast Asia.

  5. avatar Mack Vahanian // January 6, 2015 at 10:16 pm // Reply

    I am so glad that the Singapore Government did not allow our late Archbishop Aghan Baliozian to sell the Singapore Church and properties, the way they sold the Surabaya church and other properties and blue up the proceeds into the thin air.
    Let Sydney Diocese explain to what happened to all those monies.

    • avatar Saaten Maagar // January 8, 2015 at 3:24 am //

      This is in line with the new wave of doing things with Armenian leadership nowadays, be it for selling churches and assets to closing schools and selling the properties. No one is accountable for anything and we Armenians are idiots for not asking and demanding accountability from those in charge, whoever can sell anything and get away with it is and will be doing it forever. We deserve what we get.

    • avatar SG Armenian Church // September 17, 2015 at 10:26 am //

      We are shocked to see this comment… Late Archbishop Baliozyan was a true spiritual leader of Armenian Church in Singapore. Not only did he not attempt to sell the Armenian Church property, he was in fact the spiritual leader of a coalition of volunteers and benefactors from around the world who joined together in 2001 and worked tirelessly to oust the former Trustees of the Church over THEIR intent to sell the Church Property.

      In 2013, a Cross Stone (Khatchkar) in memoriam of Late Archibishop Baliozyan was erected in Singapore’s Armenian Church grounds.

  6. avatar Zaven S. Ayanian, M.D. // January 6, 2015 at 10:24 pm // Reply

    I both enjoyed and found this of great interest.

  7. Great writer and great article, whose reference I used when writing my own paper on the topic.

  8. avatar Hilda Aghamalian // January 11, 2015 at 12:26 am // Reply

    Very interesting. Thank you for the information. A question: would you by any chance have some background information regarding the Strand Hotel in Rangoon which my uncle, Pete Aratoon, owned? My father and uncle (pete) were cousins to A C Galstaun.

    • A little early background. Aviet Sarkies opened Sarkies Hotel in Yangon (Rangoon) in 1893, but in 1898 announced plans for a new hotel. Financed by British interests, this 43-roomed three storeyed hotel was leased by Sarkies Brothers and opened as the Strand in 1901. With its first class accommodation, dining and tiffin rooms, billiards rooms and palm lounge, the enterprise proved very successful. Aviet Sarkies managed the hotel for the next 9 years. When he returned to Singapore to manage Raffles, other Armenians including his nephew Sarkies Johannes ran the hotel. In 1915 compatriot Joe Constantine was appointed manager, retaining the post until Sarkies Brothers sold the Strand in 1923.

  9. Thanks for all of the great information and the great article!

  10. avatar John Minassian // January 16, 2015 at 9:39 pm // Reply

    Dear Dr. Wright,
    I live in the USA and am originally from Iran. A friend sent me this article written by you.
    My sister and I spotted our mother’s uncle in the group picture. His name was Minas Grigor Ohan. He was originally from Isfahan, Iran and was a well known merchant in the area, but his residence was in Indonesia.
    He is the first gentleman on the left on the row before last.
    Do you have any specific information about him?
    My mother, who was his niece, traveled to Indonesia in 1947 after her uncle was deceased a few years earlier. She went there after she was informed by, I think, the Surabaya Armenian church that her uncle had left some objects of value for her and his sisters living in Iran.
    We were young children then and may have forgotten some of my mother’s stories after she returned from her very difficult trip.
    Could you possibly have more specific information about our great uncle to share with us?
    We enjoyed your article.
    Thank you very much.

    JM

    • Dear Jim:
      I have only a few details. The man in the photograph went by the name of Minas Ohan Gregory in Singapore. He was born in 1883 in Persia and arrived in Singapore around 1912, finding work as an assistant at Raffles Hotel. From 1920-1926 he managed the hotel’s Cafe and Confectionery as well as the Raffles’ Motor Garage. In 1922 he had married Helen Sarkies Peters. In the early 1930s the couple settled in Surabaya, but soon afterwards, divorced. Helen re-married and settled in the USA. Minas was killed on 1 November 1942 during the Japanese occupation of Surabaya.

  11. avatar John Minassian // January 18, 2015 at 1:54 am // Reply

    Thank you Doctor Nadia Wright for answering my question. By-the-way my first name is John, not Jim. I was actually named after my uncle John-John who was sent to India to go to school in Darjeeling in care of his uncle Minas, because his father was killed one night by an unknown gunman, and his mother (my grandmother could not afford the cost of his education. He died shortly after his arrival due to blood poisoning after injuring his toe while exercising, that caused gangrene infection. He was 18 years of age.

  12. avatar Doreen Galistan // January 31, 2015 at 6:25 am // Reply

    My husband’s father Ivan Angus Galistan was Light House Keeper at Raffles Light House for most of his life. I would love to find out more about the early Galistan family for my grandchildren who are 16 & 13 years and we now live in Australia.

    • Information on the Galistan family appears in my book, ‘Respected Citizens:the history of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia’. Ivan’s grandfather, Mackertich Galistan who was born on Java, was a talented musician and composed the music for the state anthem of Johore.

  13. My visit to Singapore back in the early 90’s brought me mixed feelings. When I discovered a tourist brochure that listed the Armenian Church which was located on the same street as the American embassy, I immediately caught a taxi and visited. There was a big “cleanout” going on and large garbage bins were sitting on the balcony of the residence with lots of Armenian things like books, paintings and a large framed quote by William Saroyan, the one where he says that wherever Armenians live they create a new Armenia. All of that was being thrown out. There just aren’t enough Armenians left in that part of the world to maintain such an Armenian presence because of immigration and assimilation.
    In the impressive wax museum on Santosa Island, they had the chronology of Singapore’s history all done with wax figures. One of the first wax figures was labelled “The Armenian Lady” who created the flower. In my mind it is truly encouraging to see the openness and acceptance the locals have to the Armenian input to their history. It does however make one wonder what the Armenians are doing around the world building churches and institutions, only to leave it the locals once they disappear from the scene centuries later. I wonder who will be using all the multi-million dollar Armenian churches and other institutions in Los Angeles and other Armenian diasporan communities 150 years from now.

  14. avatar Agnes Lawrence // February 1, 2015 at 4:56 am // Reply

    Dear Nadia
    Thanks for the history on Armenians I truly enjoyed your in depth information on them V interesting indeed, Agnes

  15. avatar Doreen Galistan // March 27, 2015 at 6:22 am // Reply

    Thanks Nanda for the information on my father in law. Any idea of my father in law’sother’s name and was she an Armenian as well. I will be looking for the book you mentioned but was wondering if I could buy it in Sydney or do I have to order it on line.

  16. avatar Doreen Galistan // March 27, 2015 at 8:03 am // Reply

    My husband is Ivan Valentine Galistan and his mother was Gertude Galistan nee Pereira from seramban in Malaysia.

  17. Hello Dr. Wright,

    I will be visiting Singapore during April 13-19th 2015 and am very interested in the history of Armenians in the country of Singapore. Any points of interest or historical sites to see you can give me would be very much appreciated.

    Thank you.

    –Shant

    • Hello Shant:

      The main sights relating to the Armenians are St Gregory’s Church with its parsonage and the Garden of Memories; Armenian Street with its view over the church grounds; the tombstones in the wall in Fort Canning Park; Stamford House and of course Raffles Hotel.
      I hope you enjoy your visit: Singapore has so much to offer visitors.

  18. Hello Doreen:
    Mackertich Galistan married a lady from the Dutch East Indies: she was not Armenian. The cheapest way to buy the book is online.

  19. avatar Andrew Martin // July 26, 2015 at 6:08 pm // Reply

    Hello a recent find whilst doing research on my family some Armenians were incarcerated by the Japanese occupation during WW2 in Changi. Including my own family.Look for information on the Changi quilts,some well known Armenian names on the quilts. One is in Australia the other is in UK.

  20. I stumbled across this interesting thread whilst researching. In 1964 I was a schoolboy at RAF Tengah School, Singapore. A primary school for the children of British and Commonwealth Military families. My mother was also a teacher at the school. I remember a Mr.Arathoon who taught at the school. Oddly, I can even recall that he drove a Borgward car – a German type, that ceased production in the early sixties. Any insight or further information would be most helpful, to preserving memories of this formative time in my upbringing. Sincerely, Bill.

  21. avatar Anthony Van Dyk // November 4, 2015 at 2:08 am // Reply

    Mr. Ashak Galstaun was well known to my parents Peter and Rose Van Dyk and
    was best man at their wedding in 1939 in Singapore. My mother was a Persian Armenian (Armenian name Wartirtir David) with her mother Gatoun Galstaun- no relation to Ashak. I met Helen Metes in 1984 ( A distant Armenian relative)
    and her American Husband. My first vIsit to Singapore after leaving in 1947 ( Was born K.K hospital Singapore 1946).

  22. May 10.2016: Nadia: It’s heartening to see your work still being appreciated. I never did get any response from the Armenian group to which I had sent your book. However my Library did buy a copy.
    I’ve remained in touch with Alan Seth in NZ and my father’s cousin, Ian, in England. Just a few days ago, I finally got some more information about Samuel Seth. A Thomas Seth, age 21, arrived in British Guiana on the Chapman which sailed from Canton in 1861 and is listed as an Interpreter. That tallies with what I’d been told, that he was sent by the British as an Interpreter before the Court on behalf of the Chinese newcomers. He had worked in that capacity in Hong Kong and was known for his mastery of Chinese dialects. Ian has him born in Madras on his father’s birth certificate. That’s where Samuel’s grandparents lived. So I think he’s the first born of Seth Avid Seth, father of Arathoon, who went to Singapore and then Canton as a trader in the 1840s. He was 11 years older than Arathoon. His father must have been visiting his parents in Madras at the time of his birth. And he was truly imbedded in the Chinese business community and accepted as one of them, since he dressed like them and worked amongst them.

  23. avatar nadia wright // July 2, 2016 at 7:08 pm // Reply

    Hello again Joy: It’s good to hear that the mystery of Samuel has been solved. Thanks for making those details known.

  24. Dear Nadia ! what a wonderful and interesting history. I enjoyed it sentence to sentence of it because I am also a remaining if the New Julfa community of the past.
    My great uncle Minas Gregory Ohan was among the Armenian of Singapore who at the end went to Indonesia and become a big merchant and was killed during the war. Please send us more of your researches of the New Sulfa’s Armenians in eastern countries. Thank you

  25. avatar nadia wright // June 26, 2017 at 7:32 pm // Reply

    Dear Lorik:
    Thank you for your kind comments. I wonder if your great uncle was the Minas Ohan who married Helen Peters?
    krs
    Nadia

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