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The Armenians

The Armenians belong to the Caucasians race and came to Singapore as early as 1800s. They have been migrants throughout the century partly because they have been overrun by other great powers and partly, because Armenia is not a very rich country which was why they went to other countries to make a living.


Who are they?
The Armenians belong to the Caucasians race. According to legend, a man by the name of Haik, during the building of the Tower of Babel (where men banded together to build the tower so that they could reach heaven) collected a group of good and moral men, like himself, and marched north to the land of Armenia and settled there.

Where do they come from?
The Armenians came from Armenia, a mountainous country located in the east of Turkey. It is between two seas, the Black and Caspian Sea. Biblical archaeological findings reveal that Noah’s ark rested on Mount Ararat that is in the land of Armenia. In 1605, they were invaded by the Persians and the survivors were forcibly taken to Isfahan in Persia (now known as Iran). It was from there that the Armenians began to migrate to South and South East Asia.

When did they come to Singapore?
The Armenians came to Singapore from as early as 1800s. Wherever Armenians went, the first thing they did, no matter how few they were, they would build a church. In 1821, two years after the founding of Singapore, the Armenians had a chapel behind the old John Little’s in Raffles Square. And in 1835 they built the first church at Coleman Street, the oldest church in Singapore.

Why do they come to Singapore?
The Armenians have been migrants throughout the centuries partly because they have been overrun by other great powers and partly, because Armenia is not a very rich country; it is very mountainous and rocky. Therefore, they went to other countries to make a living.

Their main livelihood and trade in Singapore
The Armenians who came to Singapore were merchants and traders.

Unique culture and customs
The Armenians are steeped in their eastern orthodox faith. However, unlike their Christians counterparts in Singapore, the Armenians held on to some very unique customs and practices. For example, the Armenians do not place much emphasis on the birth of Christ which is celebrated by Christians on 25 December of the western calendar. Instead, the Armenians held a religious service on 6 January to commemorate the Feast of the Epiphany, that is the baptism of Christ. The event is also known as the blessing of water. Like the Bible Presbyterians denomination in Singapore, the Armenians do not believe in cremating the dead but in burial instead. The biblical argument is that since man is created from dust, from dust shall he return to earth. Another unique feature about the Armenians is in their wedding ceremonies. Although the Armenians followed the custom just like other wedded couples in other churches by placing the ring, the Armenians have a special service where they put a cord round the neck of the groom to signify the physical and spiritual unity of the husband and wife.

Who's who in the Armenian community
The early Armenian merchants conducted their business in their offices or godowns located in or near Commercial Square. Catchik Moses, who arrived in Singapore in 1829 was a co-founder of the Straits Times, today’s leading English newspaper. The Sarkies brothers of the Arathoon family owned the world-famous Raffles Hotel and the Sea View Hotel. Then there was Agnes Joaquim, a horticulturist who bred Singapore's national flower – the Vanda Miss Joaquim – a hybrid orchid which was named after her in 1893. It was designated Singapore's national flower in 1981. There was the Martin family who owned acres of land in Tanglin Road and interestingly, the road St Martin’s Drive, is named after the Martin’s family. Last but not least, other prominent Armenians included the Edgar Brothers who were well-known traders in the import and export of textiles.

Their future
The number of Armenians living in Singapore has dwindled, almost to the point of being negligible. While most have passed on in life, others have migrated to other parts of the world. However, the Oral History Centre was fortunate to have met and interviewed, Mrs Jon Metes, who is perhaps the only surviving Persian Armenian residing in Singapore. Today, most people do not even know that there once exists an Armenian community in Singapore. However, as the Armenian Church stands today, the building reminds and educates Singaporeans on the values, traditions and cultures of the Armenian community, albeit a small community that has made significant contribution to Singapore's history and progress.

 

Information extracted from the Oral History Interviews of:

Mr Mackie Martin
Accession No 291 Reel 19


Mr Arshak Catchatoor Galstaun
Accession No 170 Reel 17


Mr Sidney Martin Helps
Accession No 289 Reel 07


Mr and Mrs Jon Metes
Accession No 2657 Reel 12