Historical Communities: Armenians in Singapore

Written by The Hayk Team on .

Early Years: Prior to Singapore's colonization in 1819, this fairly small island of 692 square kilometers was home to indigenous people only. Immediately after its colonization, Armenians were amongst the traders and merchants who began making way for Singapore. The Armenians coming to Singapore were originally from Persia (now Iran): either born there or having very close ancestral lines that could be traced there. They came from New Julfa—the Armenian epicenter in Persia—as well as Calcutta, Madras, Penang, and Java, where they had migrated to for business, schooling, or to find better lives. An 1823 census showed 16 Armenians in Singapore, with the number jumping to 25 in 1827, and then to 44 by 1834. Unlike the many other immigrants, the majority of Armenians came to Singapore with their families and with the intention to stay for long periods of time.

Images

St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Singapore
St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Singapore. Image courtesy of Sengkang.

Inside view of St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Singapore
Inside view of St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Singapore. Image courtesy of Sengkang.

By 1836 the need for a church in the community led to the building of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church in Singapore. In 1849 the community had its own Armenian language newspaper, Usumnaser (The Scholar), thanks to Gregory David Galastaun. The paper printed fortnightly and distributed both locally as well as abroad, covered life in Singapore and included literary articles. By this time Armenians were no longer mere traders, but had ventured into numerous businesses including photography, hospitality, insurance, mechanics, and law. In 1887, two Armenians, Tigran and Martin Sarkies, from Penang, Malaysia, opened the Raffles Hotel. With already much experience as hoteliers in Penang, Tigran Sarkies forged ahead with Raffles over the years, eventually making it one of the most successful hotels of the time.

By the turn of the century the number of Armenians was about 88 (Wright 49) and in 1921 the number had gone up to 100 (Wright 51). In 1917 an AGBU (Armenian General Benevolent Union) branch was established in Singapore to serve the community and gather support for Armenians abroad; Singapore AGBU collected and donated generously over the years to the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. The 1920s and early 1930s would prove to be the apex of the Armenian community in terms of numbers. With the onset of WWII and the Japanese takeover of Singapore, many Armenians escaped the country or died as prisoners.

After WWII the Armenian community was much smaller, and although a wave of immigrants arrived from the Dutch East Indies (what is today known as Indonesia) arrived, they did not stay beyond the 1950s. By 1970 the number of Armenians had diminished to only 30, with only half of those being full Armenians. By the 1980s the Armenian community was nearly non-existent and what remained was not a united community. Ironically however, three significant events occurred in the Armenian community during these years: the first was in 1981 when the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid was selected as Singapore's national flower, later that same year the first baptism was held in the St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church since the 1960s, and in 1986 the church celebrated its 150th anniversary with much fanfare coming from the local media.

Today: The Armenian population has dwindled to nearly non-existence over the last few decades, with no descendents from original immigrants remaining. The small number of Armenians in Singapore today are mainly business executives on temporary stay in the country through their international companies. Although the Armenian community in Singapore has all but vanished, remnants of the past do remain. The Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator still stands today with its doors open to visitors and has become a national historical treasure. Behind the church is the Garden of Memories, where lay a few dozen tombstones belonging to Armenians who died in Singapore. Additionally, some street names signifying the yesteryears of the Armenian community and its influential residents remain: Armenian Street, St. Martin Drive named after the Martin family, Galistan Avenue named after Emile Galistan, and Sarkies Road named after Regina Sarkies.



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