Armenia’s difficult physical conditions saw enterprising merchants move abroad from the 19th century, many landing in Asia, including a few in Singapore. The community here numbered merely around 100 families at its peak, but the people left a a disproportionate imprint on Singaporean culture and heritage. Here are a few of the contributions the Armenian diaspora made.
Early Armenian traders tended to conduct business in their offices located near the centre of Singapore — there’s still an Armenian Street, where the Peranakan Museum is located. Martin and Tigran Sarkies opened the legendary Raffles Hotel in 1887; more than a century later, Raffles remains an iconic Singapore landmark and drinking a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar remains on a must-do list of many a traveller. The grand dame of Singapore hotels has hosted writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham and was gazetted as a national monument in 1987.
Not too far away and still in the civic district, the Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator on Hill Street, founded in 1835, is the oldest church building in Singapore. Wherever the faithful Armenians went, one of the first things they did would be to build churches and Singapore was no exception; this church was established with most of the funds coming from only 12 Armenian families. Today, the Armenian Church is a sanctuary in the city’s bustling centre, and its garden holds tombstones, but not the actual graves, of well-known Armenians. Armenian services are rarely held but the church hosts other orthodox services.
One of the tombstones you’ll see in the church is that of Agnes Joaquim, an Armenian horticulturist who bred Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, a hybrid orchid named after her in 1893. It was designated Singapore’s national flower in 1981, which makes Singapore the only country to have a hybrid as her national flower. The flower blooms throughout the year and features prominently in hotels and Singapore landmarks, in particular during national events.
The newspaper many Singaporeans read daily also has an Armenian provenance. Armenian Catchick Moses founded and launched the Straits Times in 1845 as an eight-page weekly, published at 7 Commercial Square using a hand-operated press. It has witnessed Singapore’s development from capital of the Straits Settlements to today’s thriving financial centre, underwent a temporary metamorphosis into The Shonan Times and The Syonan Shimbun during the Japanese occupation, and now comes online as well.
Today, modern Singapore and modern Armenia do not have much in common, perhaps other than the fact that they are relatively small states in terms of land area and population. Nonetheless, the influence of the small Armenian diaspora in Singapore’s early years cannot be ignored and remains an intriguing legacy in the city state.
By Fen Chia
Last updated on 15th November, 2014.