By Gus Gomez
Singapore visitors are impressed by the marvelous architecture of the Raffles Hotel in this island nation located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.
An in-depth look at Singapore’s history also reveals a history of civic and commercial involvement by Armenian merchants who helped to develop this Asian hub in earlier times. This history is memorialized in part by the existence of Armenian Street in Singapore.
Some, guided by a spirit of travel and adventure, have come upon this jewel of knowledge entirely by chance, while others search for a better understanding of history.
The Republic of Singapore is a nation founded in the 1960s. It is, in fact, one large island in addition to several dozen smaller islets. Today, it is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Asia, with a population just over 5 million.
In modern times, Singapore served as a trading post with the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in the early 1800s. Singapore gained independence from Great Britain in 1963 along with Malaysia and became a sovereign nation in 1965.
Armenian Street in Singapore opened as Armenian Church Street sometime after the construction of the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. The street is tucked between Coleman Street and Stamford Road.
Today, the street features galleries, restaurants and other attractions adjacent to the Singapore Art Museum just east of the Singapore River and Fort Canning, famous for Raffles House and Fort Canning lighthouse.
The Armenian population in Singapore is described as a small community numbering about 100 individuals at their peak in the 1920s. They were among the earliest merchants to arrive when Singapore was established as a trading post by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.
The first Armenian settlers in Singapore were descendants of Armenian people who migrated from Persia. In the early 1800s, Armenian trading firms like Sarkies and Moses became more prominent in Singapore’s economy.
One merchant, Catchick Moses, co-founded the Straits Times. The newspaper went on to become the most prominent English language newspaper in Singapore.
Later, Agnes Joaquim cultivated a hybrid orchid flower which eventually became the national flower of Singapore. Her younger brother became a respected lawyer and served as president of Singapore’s town council.
In the 1880s, the Sarkies brothers founded the Raffles Hotel, now one of the most famous hotels in the world. Over the years, the grandest balls and banquets were hosted at Raffles, according to Australian author and historian Nadia H. Wright, who is of Armenian descent.
In total, about 830 Armenians lived in Singapore between 1820 and 2000, as noted in Wright’s book, “Respected Citizens: The History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia.” The Armenian community virtually disappeared by the 1970s. But the small Armenian diaspora’s contribution to business and cultural endeavors was significant.
As author Nadia H. Wright points out, every municipality has street names peculiar or unique to its history and culture. In Singapore, Armenian Street brings this point home, even as the city has transformed into a vibrant financial center in Asia.
Gus Gomez is a former mayor and councilman in Glendale and is now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. He recently visited Singapore and came upon Armenian Street while exploring the city.