In a letter to his brother Krikor, who had arrived in Boston in 1914, Rev. Asadoor Z. Yeghoyan wrote from Kharpert, “Krikor you traveled all around the world, now you know by experience that the world is round, take care so you will not fall off it.” The reverend’s words were not true, yet they were prophetic. At that point, Krikor had not traveled around the world—he had left the Ottoman Empire and crossed the Atlantic for the United States. However, Krikor returned to his home town shortly thereafter and was caught in the maelstrom of World War I. He survived the Armenian Genocide with the help of Kurds from Dersim and eventually arrived in the Caucasus. Yet conflict in the region kept pushing him eastward, until he reached China. In 1919, he finally arrived in the U.S. via Japan, with help from Diana Apkar, the honorary consul in Japan of the first Republic of Armenia. At that point, he had indeed traveled around the world. In this article, I present a brief history of the several thousand Armenians who, like Krikor, escaped the genocide and found safe haven in China.
Armenians in China (1880s-1950s)
Hundreds of Armenians, primarily from Russia, journeyed eastward to China in the late 19th century in search of opportunity, anchoring themselves in major cities, as well as in Harbin, a town that rose to prominence with the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway.
Initially, Armenian railroad workers and merchants formed the core of the community in Harbin. Their numbers were small—no more than a few dozen. A larger number of Armenians lived in Manzhouli (Manchuli), which had risen to prominence in the early 20th century also thanks to railway projects. A group photograph of the Armenian community in Manzhouli (circa 1919) depicting around 150 men, women, and children, complete with the Armenian tricolor, stands as testament to the size of the Armenian community in the city.
A few thousand Armenians, including Yeghoyan, arrived in the region escaping genocide in Ottoman Turkey and turmoil in the Caucasus. Often, those who followed this path hoped to get to the United States. American missionary Ernest Yarrow encountered some 200 Armenian refugees in Vladivostok in late 1918, most of whom “have friends in America and are hoping in some way or other to get there.” Yet most stayed in East Asia for years, even decades, helping build communities that thrived, despite conflicts, war, and foreign occupation.
Many of these Armenians coupled their personal success with a dedication to community life, helping develop small but vibrant communities. Despite conflicts, war, and foreign occupation that beset the history of China in the first half of the 20th century, Armenians built a church (Harbin), community centers (Harbin and Shanghai), and established relief organizations, choirs, and women’s groups. In the years following the 1949 Chinese revolution, Armenians fled the country (like most Christians in China) mainly in two directions: Soviet Armenia and the Americas.
Garabed Meltickian was a survivor of the genocide who joined the stream of Armenian refugees traversing the Caucasus and Siberia all the way to China. Originally from Maden, Diyarbakir, Meltickian was conscripted into the Ottoman military in 1914 and dispatched to Erzincan. In 1915, he was among 120 Armenian soldiers who were handcuffed and taken away to be killed. He miraculously survived the carnage, was given shelter by Kurds, saved by advancing Russian troops, fought with Armenian forces in Kars, and after their withdrawal from the city, went to Tiflis, from there to Siberia, and finally arrived in Manchuria.
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