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23.12.14

The Armenians of Singapore

Ric Gazarian
 
Singapore is an incredibly successful country on the southern tip of Malaysia. More than 5 million people are packed into this compact area. It is a veritable smorgasbord of ethnicities, languages, and religions. For instance, Singapore recognizes four languages: English, Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin. While 75 percent of the population is Chinese, with the remainder being mostly Malay and Indian, surprisingly a small Armenian community played an outsized role in this city-state. Singapore is the model of a successful free market economy, rated in 2013 as the second freest economy. It has a per capita income that ranks third in the world. To put that in perspective, one out of six citizens has a net worth of over a million dollars even while excluding property!
Marina Bay Sands, an iconic new addition to the Singapore skyline, is the most expensive building in the world at close to $5 billion. It was premiered in 2010, and 3 towers that comprise the complex stand at 55 floors with a platform known as the Sands SkyPark on top connecting the three towers. The Sands SkyPark includes an observation deck, restaurant, and an infinity pool (guests only!). The complex, which sits on reclaimed land, has more than 2,500 rooms and a casino. Remember to double down!
Adjacent to the Marina Bay Sands is Gardens By The Bay, which was created in 2012. Over 200 acres of green space are packed in the middle of the dense city-state of Singapore. Two giant greenhouses rise into the sky. The first is the Flower Dome, which is a giant, enclosed three-acre space containing seven unique gardens. The second is the Cloud Forest, which showcases a 115-foot tropical waterfall. As I strolled though the greenhouses, I spied the Sands SkyPark in the distance. I felt like I was in the flotilla in Battlestar Galactica, looking at a passing spaceship the SS SkyPark. The highlight of the garden is the Supertree Grove, a series of “trees” that rise to heights of 160 feet. At night these trees are lit up, and twice during the evening there is a light and music show.
A very dark period in Singapore history is the Japanese occupation during World War II. Singapore was a British colony at the time, and the British were quickly routed by the Japanese. Upon occupation, 3,000 civilians were marched directly from the city to Changi Prison. The prison was meant to hold 600 criminals, but the Japanese managed to squeeze in 5 times more including children. Nearby the prison, 50,000 POWs, mostly British and Australian, were held. Today, a museum memorializes these victims and survivors, and includes a replica of a chapel that was built by the POWs in 1944 using rudimentary tools.
Singapore is a great city to walk and explore. If need be, simply jump on the MRT, its unbelievably efficient and expansive subway system. One fun neighborhood to get lost in is Chinatown. A new addition to the skyline is the 2007 Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The four-story temple is said to host a tooth of Buddha Shakyamuni. This vibrant and colorful temple is well worth the visit.
A special place to visit is the oldest remaining church in Singapore. This modest, white church was consecrated in 1836. The church happens to be the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator located on Armenian Street. It was established for the benefit of a small Armenian community, which at its height in the 1880’s reached approximately 100 families. Armenians had established a preliminary foothold in Asia, including in India, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They played influential roles as traders and merchants in the region. The last Armenian parish priest left in the 1930’s. By the 1950’s, most of the Armenian community had slipped away, many immigrating to Australia. Today, the church is a national monument.
Despite representing a small fraction of the Singapore community, the Armenians played a significant role in Singapore. In 1845, Catchick Movessian co-founded the Singapore Straits Times. Today, this paper is the highest-selling paper in Singapore. A quartet of brothers from Isfahan, Iran, also made an impact. The Sarkies brothers over a 45-year period founded or managed 6 hotels in Southeast Asia. Their properties were considered the most prestigious hotels in the region. Most well known is the legendary Raffles Hotel founded in 1887 in Singapore. While rates start at $500, you might consider quaffing a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar. Both the drink and the bar are iconic landmarks in Singapore. Agnes Joaquim, a horticulture enthusiast, unveiled her flower at a competition there, and won the $12 prize in 1899. The Vanda Miss Joaquim was later designated Singapore’s national flower.
So, as you stroll down the streets of the ultra-modern metropolis, remember the impact this small community of Armenians had on this nation-state.

"The Armenian Weekly," December 18, 2014

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