THE Armenians in Penang played a far greater role in the economic, social and civic life of the settlement than their actual numbers would suggest. These Armenians had not come from Armenia itself, located in the southern Caucasus, but were descendants of Armenians taken forcibly to Persia by Shah Abbas in the early 1600s. When conditions in Persia later became less attractive for them, a significant number resettled in India or the Dutch East Indies. Soon after Sir Francis Light founded Penang in 1786, Armenian traders were calling in on their way from India to Malacca and Batavia. In 1802, a local magistrate commented on their obvious numbers; by 1807, there were enough Armenian traders to justify the naming of Armenian Lane, which later became Armenian Street, which still exists today.
Although many of these traders were transient, returning to live in India, a small Armenian community developed. In any given year, there were no more than 25 Armenians living in Penang. From 1802 to 1956, the total number who ever lived in Penang was probably under 175. Yet Armenians made their presence felt. From the early years, they served on Grand Juries - in 1827, accounting for three of the 14 Grand Jurors - and were members of the Committee of Assessors; they also served as Justices of the Peace, officials of the Penang Exchange, the Penang Club and the Penang Racing Club.
An early leading merchant and philanthropist was Catchatour Galastaun who was responsible for the establishment of the Church of St Gregory the Illuminator on Bishop Street in 1824. Armenians were devout Christians, Armenia having adopted Christianity in 301CE (Common Era, equivalent to the previously used AD). Priests were sent from Persia to minister to the needs of this small community until the late 1880s.
Ironically, soon after the church opened, the numbers of Armenians began to diminish as Singapore lured away prospective settlers. By 1825, they numbered only 13 out of Penang's population of 30,595. Indeed, from then on, it would be more accurate to speak of Armenians in the community rather than an Armenian community. Yet the press continued to refer to such a community even in the early 20th century.
After 1840, few Armenian families remained in Penang apart from the Anthonys. It was claimed that ''No history of Penang in the last 100 years could be considered complete without mention being made of the Anthony family.'' Arathoon Anthony brought his family to Penang in 1819, becoming a trader and planter. Three of his sons - Anthony, Satoor and Johannes - became leading civic figures.
Anthony, who founded the firm A.A. Anthony and Company in 1840, his wife Mariamjan Ter Stephen, and their 12 children accounted for most of the Armenians in Penang.
Their son Joseph expanded A.A. Anthony and diversified into steamship and insurance agency work, auctioneering, share broking, and tin and rubber representation. He also co-founded the stock broking firm of Anthony and Anderson.
For many years, Joseph was the Acting Vice Consul for Portugal and a Justice of the Peace and was keen on the turf. His obituary described him as ''one of Penang's best known and most highly respected citizens ... the doyen of Penang men.''
He had married Isabel Hogan and their first child, Anthony Stephen, became renowned as Penang's most prominent sportsman. He married Lisa Apcar and their son Thomas was the last Anthony to join the firm. After Isabel's premature death, Joseph married Regina Gregory.
Of Anthony Stephen's other sons, Gregory became a successful lawyer, while Seth made his name in the Penang Racing Club and the Penang Club. ''There was no member of the community better known than he'' said the press when he died in 1895.
There were other Armenians also making their mark at this time. In the 1880s, Dr Thaddeus Avetoom set up practice in Penang and established the George Town Dispensary on Beach Street. He served as a Municipal Commissioner, Justice of the Peace and President of the ''Pinang'' section of the British Medical Association.
Another newcomer was Tigran Sarkies who set up as an auctioneer in 1882. He soon ventured into the hotel business, opening the Eastern Hotel on Light Street in 1884. In 1886, he and his brother Martin, calling themselves Sarkies Brothers, established the Oriental Hotel on Farquhar Street.
The Sarkies brothers - Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak
Younger brother Aviet joined them and managed the Eastern. Meanwhile, Tigran and Martin extended and refurbished the Oriental. Renaming it the Eastern and Oriental - the now-renowned E&O on Farquhar Street - they opened to an enthusiastic reception in 1889.
In 1891, their youngest brother Arshak came to Penang and was put in charge of the E&O, initiating the many extensions and improvements that transformed it into the leading hotel on the island.
Lavish extensions in 1928, coinciding with a downturn in clientele, financial mismanagement, and unforeseen capital outlays, led to the hotel being put into the hands of receivers in 1931. Arshak did not live to see that sad day, having died in January. The press lauded his philanthropic spirit and his interest in racing, describing him as, ''one of the most popular figures in Malaya.''
The Sarkies Brothers also ran the Sea View Hotel, the Oriental Tiffin and Billiard Rooms and, from 1905 until 1920, the Crag Hotel. Most of their senior staff was Armenian, thus boosting the Armenian population.
Today, little attests to the Armenian presence on Penang. St Gregory's was demolished around 1906, and a commemorative monument was erected in its place - but even this was demolished in the 1930s. The Armenians buried in the church graveyard were re-interred in a combined grave in the Western Road Cemetery.
Armenian Street and Aratoon Road remind you that Armenians once lived in Penang, as do the few tombstones engraved in Armenian script which lie in the Northam Road and Western Road cemeteries. A totally modernised E&O hotel remains a tribute to its Armenian founders, while the stock broking firm of A.A. Anthony perpetuates the Anthony name.
n Born in New Zealand to an Armenian mother, Nadia Wright's interests in Armenians in South-East Asia was aroused when she and her family lived in Singapore in the mid 1980s. She has researched the Armenian communities in Malaysia and Singapore for her soon-to-be published book, Respectable Merchants: The History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia. A graduate of New Zealand's Otago University and the National University of Singapore, she currently teaches at Taylor's College in Melbourne.
Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.
Notes: STF -: Continuing the focus on minorities in Malaysian history, NADIA WRIGHT recounts the disproportionately large role the small community of Armenians played in the commercial and social life of 19th century Penang.
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