How Armenia shaped the Southeast Asian skyline

The Jakarta Globe presents the story of Armenians, who opened a chain of hotels in Southeast Asia. The article reads:

As long as there has been cross-border trade there have been expats. Be they Chinese from poor coastal villages in search of a better life, or unskilled laborers from India dragooned by colonial overlords; soldiers of fortune from the Japan or sons of the British Empire brought up on boys’ own tales of pomp and riches, people have bid farewell to their own shores and traveled in search of a brave new world.

Expats come and expats go, but their legacy varies. Jakarta’s historic Old Town is a testament to centuries of Dutch colonialism, India’s tea plantations legacy to Europeans love of tea. And the Chinese influence lives on in boardrooms of some of the wealthiest conglomerates in the region.

And then we have the Armenians. As trade opened up the East and brought yet more opportunities for the opportunistic, others followed in the footsteps of the hardy pioneers, including people from an often overlooked nation sitting at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Little remains of the Armenian presence in Southeast Asia beyond the odd church, road name and hotel. But what hotels?

Tigran Sarkies was his name, a precocious 23-year-old, and in 1882 he was working as an auctioneer in Georgetown, Penang. He must have tired of banging the gavel because a couple of years later he opened the Eastern Hotel and two years after he launched the Oriental Hotel with his brother, Martin. 

Another brother, Aviet, was brought in to manage the Eastern, while Tigran and Martin extended the Oriental, which they reopened in 1889 — renamed as the Eastern & Oriental, or E&O as it was know by generations of planters and officials during those colonial times.

In just a few short years the name Sarkies became so synonymous with hotels that Sir Frank Swettenham, who has more than left his own imprint on the peninsula, first related an oft-told joke.

“A little boy at school was asked by his teacher who the Sakais [indigenous Malay peoples] were, and he replied they were people who kept hotels!”

In 1891 a fourth brother, Arshak, arrived on the scene and his industry led to the constant reinvention of the E&O until it acquired its moniker of the premier hotel east of Suez. Quite a character was Arshak who could often be seen waltzing round the ballroom of his hotel with a whiskey soda on his head. 

Buoyed by the early success of the island-based hotel, Tigran and Martin looked into opening a hotel in Singapore. A suitable premise was found on the corner of Beach Rd. and Bras Brasah Rd.

The bungalow had been a boarding house for students at the Raffles Institution and needed little renovation. By December 1887, Tigran opened Raffles with the guarantee of “great care and attention the comfort of boarders and visitors.” 

Again the brothers had backed a winner. Extensions in 1889 increased the capacity but the demand was still outstripping supply. 

Martin returned to Persia in 1890, leaving Tigran to oversee the construction of Palm Court Wing in 1894, which brought the total numbers of rooms to 75.

Another wing was opened in November 1899, which led the somewhat stuffy Straits Times to gush “palatial building with excellent ventilation, and the vast airy dining room would make Raffles one of the largest and handsomest hotels in the East.”

Now, with 100 suites, Raffles also was the only hotel in the area lit by electricity and with a 10,000 gallon water tank!

The last tiger to be killed in Singapore was taken out in the Bar & Billiard Room. I’m not sure what the patrons’ reaction was to having their game interrupted by a great cat taking refuge under their feet.

As was common in many buildings at that time, the bar was raised off the ground to prevent flooding and the tiger had hidden in the recess. Given the popularity of tiger hunting, no doubt a few of the worthies would have been disappointed they hadn’t pulled the trigger.

Today it is peaceful and makes for a nice stroll, taking in Chinese temples and a house used by Dr. Sun Yat Sen as he plotted to overthrow the Chinese government but in the past has been the scene for disturbances between various secret societies.

Further south in Singapore stands the Armenian Church, the oldest in the country. Today it is surrounded by high rises, while a busy road provides a non-stop symphony of sounds; hardly the place of relaxation and contemplation. 

The neatly manicured gardens have a handful of tombstones, many featuring the name Sarkie. It is tempting to try and lose yourself in the moment and imagine Martin and Tigran taking time out from running a hostelry and seeking solace within the walls of the small church, but the 21st century is just too close, as is a busy intersection and a bus stop.

Closer to home Lucas, son of Martin, eschewed the Sarkies successful practice of setting up in the wake of the British colonials and headed south east, to Surabaya, a city famous on the maritime maps of the day but also home to a fair-sized Armenian community. 

He opened the Oranje Hotel in 1910, named after the Dutch colonials in the East Indies. That the Sarkies had opened a hotel was enough to tempt people to visit the hot and sweaty town in East Java. 

Charlie Chaplin, a familiar figure on the screen and at Raffles attended the opening ceremonies of a refurbishment in 1936.

The Japanese arrived with the invasion of Java and used the hotel as a barracks, changing the name to Hotel Yamoto. 

The Indonesians declared their independence after the war on Aug. 17 but that didn’t stop the Anglo Dutch Country Section Office moving into the hotel, room number 33 to be precise. On Sept. 19 at 6 a.m. the officials raised the Dutch flag atop the hotel. 

The Surabayans, angered by this arrogance, attacked the hotel, climbed on to the roof and pulled down the symbol of oppression. They tore off the blue band on the flag leaving just the red and white, merah putih, the colors of the independent Indonesia.

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