The Armenians are a small ethnic community who established themselves in Singapore, with no more than 100 Armenians ever living here at any given time.1 Vestiges of the importance of this community can be seen in the presence of place-names such as Armenian Street and the adjoining Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator. Allusions to the Armenian community in Singapore are also found in Singapore’s national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim, and in the establishment of institutions such as the Raffles Hotel.2
The Armenians originated from the region known as Armenia, which included what is now the northeastern part of Turkey and the Republic of Armenia. Armenia is the first country to adopt Christianity as a national religion in 301 CE. A national church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, was founded when Christianity became the state religion. Many regard the institution as the custodian of Armenian national identity.3 Being on a major trade route, Armenians had been traded their products far and wide for a long time, eventually developing diasporic trading communities across Asia and Europe.4
Armenians in Southeast Asia
The Armenians who settled in Southeast Asia hailed originally from Julfa in eastern Armenia. The city was razed to the ground in the early 1600s by the invading Persian Shah Abbas, who had thousands of Armenians resettled outside Isfahan in Persia to stimulate trade within his domains. The Armenians in Isfahan grew very successful, but Shah Abbas’s successors were less welcoming than he was. By the end of the 17th century, many had begun to leave, seeking new homes in India, with some travelling further to Southeast Asia.5 Armenian merchant communities established themselves in Southeast Asian locations such as the Malay Peninsula (particularly Malacca and Penang), Singapore, Java and Burma.6
Armenians in Singapore
After Stamford Raffles founded Singapore as a trading port in 1819, there was a wave of Armenians moving to Singapore from Malacca, Penang, Java, Madras and Calcutta in the 1820s and 1830s.7 There were 16 Armenians in Singapore by 1824, and the population had grown to 35 by 1833.8 Most of the Armenians who settled in Singapore during this time were traders. The first Armenian to trade in Singapore was Aristarkies Sarkies, who started his business in 1820 and traded as Sarkies & Company.9
Other Armenian traders who moved to Singapore during this period were Mackertich M. Moses, who traded as an individual from the 1820s to 1839 and started M. & G. Moses (1839–45) with his brother Galastaun; Andrew Apcar and Simon Stephens, who established Apcar & Stephens (circa 1826–45); and Isaiah and Gregory Zechariah, who founded G. & I. Zechariah (1828–43).10
Unlike their European counterparts, Armenian traders sought to make Singapore their permanent home. Hence they brought their families to the island, unlike the Chinese and Arab tradesmen in Singapore who constituted mainly menfolk. In the 1830s and 1840s, prominent Armenian families owned considerable properties in Singapore. By the 1830s, the community had also expanded sufficiently that plans were made to establish a church. In March 1836, the Church of St Gregory the Illuminator was consecrated.11
There were 80 Armenians recorded in the 1881 census.12 By the 1880s, more of them had gone beyond trading as they engaged in other occupations such as legal practice, photography and work in the hotel industry.13 The 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Turks saw local Armenians setting up the Armenian Relief Fund, with more than $8,000 out of the total raised by fewer than 80 Armenians.14 The 1931 census showed 81 Armenians, the highest recorded on a local census.15 However, the Great Depression of the 1930s dealt a blow to many Armenian businesses both locally and abroad. Armenians who were British subjects were interned during World War II, although some escaped internment as they were labelled neutral.16
After the war, some of the Armenians who had been interned left for England or Australia upon release, and there were also fewer Armenian businesses in Singapore. The 1947 census was the last to include Armenians as a distinct group, the number of Armenians being too small to be statistically significant.17
Although the early Armenians came as traders, once established in Singapore, they took on diverse occupations. Armenians made their mark in industries such as hospitality, jewellery and law. Notable Armenians include Catchick Moses, a co-founder of the English newspaper The Straits Times; Agnes Joaquim, who bred Singapore’s national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim (Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim), and after whom the flower was named;18 the Sarkies brothers – Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak – who established the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Penang as well as the Raffles Hotel and Sea View Hotel in Singapore.19
Some key landmarks of the Armenians include the Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator, which was built in 1835 and gazetted as a national monument on 28 June 1973.20 Several streets are also named after the community, such as Armenian Street, Galistan Avenue, Sarkies Road and St Martin’s Drive. Other streets associated with Armenian but since expunged include Armenian Lane off Armenian Street, and Narcis Road.21
1. Nadia H. Wright, Respected Citizens: The History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia (Middlepark: Amassia Publishing, 2003), 44 (Call no. RSING 305.891992 WRI); Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 355–60. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
2. Wright, Respected Citizens, 81; “A Vanishing Tribe: The Armenians in Singapore,” in Singapore Days of Old (Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine Pub., 1992), 142. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
3. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 1 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002), 566. (Call no. R q031 NEW)
4. Wright, Respected Citizens, 4.
5. Wright, Respected Citizens, 6; Margaret Sarkissian, “Armenians in South-East Asia,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 3, nos. 2–3 (1987): 1–33. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
6. Sarkissian, “Armenians in South-East Asia,” 1–33
7. Wright, Respected Citizens, 43, 54.
8. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 355–6.
9. Wright, Respected Citizens, 43, 93–94.
10. Wright, Respected Citizens, 95–97.
11. Wright, Respected Citizens, 45–46, 54, 65, 83–84; “Vanishing Tribe,” 142.
12. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 358.
13. Wright, Respected Citizens, 49.
14. Wright, Respected Citizens, 76–77.
15. C. A. Vlieland, British Malaya (the Colony of the Straits Settlements and the Malay States under British Protection, Namely the Federated States of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang and the States of Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Trengganu, Perlis and Brunei): A Report on the 1931 census and on Certain Problems of Vital Statistics ([s.n.: n.p.], 1932), 200 (Call no. RRARE 304.6095951 FED-[JSB]; microfilm NL3005); Wright, Respected Citizens, 44.
16. Wright, Respected Citizens, 51–52.
17. Wright, Respected Citizens, 52–53.
18. Wright, Respected Citizens, 71–72, 145, 263–5; “Vanishing Tribe,” 142.
19. Wright, Respected Citizens, 30; Nadia Wright, “The Armenians of Singapore: An Historical Perspective,” Armenian Weekly (6 January 2015).
20. The Preservation of Monuments Order, 1973, Sp. S 228.1973, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 1973, 377. (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS)
21. Wright, Respected Citizens, 81.
The information in this article is valid as of 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.