Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Armenians of Penang

When you visits the heritage enclave of Georgetown, Penang, you will not miss Armenian Street (Lebuh Armenian). You will wonder why the street is named after the Armenians, the people of Armenia, a country bounded by Georgia on the North, Azerbaijan on the East, Iran on the South and Turkey on the West.

Another road named in honour of the Armenians is Aratoon Road, named after Arathoon Anthony, who brought his family to Penang in 1819, becoming a trader and planter and later founded the firm A.A. Anthony and Company in 1840.

According to studies conducted by Nadia Wright, the Armenians in Penang played a far greater role in the economic, social and civic life of the settlement than their actual numbers suggests. According to Ms Wright, these Armenians had not come from Armenia itself, 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 Francis Light occupied Penang in 1786, Armenian traders were calling in on their way from India to Melaka (Malacca) and Batavia (Jakarta). By 1807, there were enough Armenian traders to justify the naming of Armenian Lane, which later became Armenian Street.

The Church of St George the Illuminator on Bishop Street was established by Armenian merchant and philanthropist Catchatour Galastaun in 1824. Priests were sent from Persia to minister to the needs of the small Armenian community until late 1880s. The church was demolished around 1906.

The well-known George Town Dispensary was established by another Armenian, Dr. Thaddeus Avetoom, who set up practice on Beach Street (Lebuh Pantai). He served as a Municipal Commissioner, Justice of the Peace and President of the "Pinang" section of the British Medical Association in the 1880s.

Tigran Sarkies 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. 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 - in 1889. The Sarkies Brothers also ran the Sea View Hotel, the Oriental Tiffin and Billiard Rooms and, from 1905 until 1920, the Crag Hotel (Penang Hill). Most of their senior staff was Armenian, thus boosting the Armenian population.

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 (Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) and Western Road (Jalan Utama) cemeteries. A totally modernisede E & O hotel remains a tribute to its Armenian founders, while the stock broking firm of A. A. Anthony perpetuates the Anthony name.

Armenia prides itself on being the first nation to formally adopt Christianity (Armenian Apostolic), early 4th century. Despite periods of autonomy, over the centuries Armenia came under the sway of various empires including the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Persian and Ottoman. It was incorporated into Russia in 1828 and the Soviet Union in 1920. In 1991, Armenia attained independence from the Soviet Union.

(Nadia Wright, born in New Zealand to an Armenian mother, has researched the Armenian communities in Malaysia and Singapore for her book, Respectable Merchants: The History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia)


muteaudio said...

Dear Sir,
Thanks for this entry. Selama ini saya agak jahil tentang cerita disebalik nama Armenian Street walaupun keluarga saya tidak jauh di Acheen Street.

Mungkin lepas ini boleh ditulis entry tentang Lebuh Yahudi.

Unknown said...

Terima kasih.

Cerita mengenai Yahudi Pulau Pinang sudahpun ditulis sebelum ini. Ia berkaitan tanah perkuburan Yahudi di Jalan Zainal Abidin, dulu Jalan Jahudi.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,
It is a very interesting topic for me. My parents in law are now living in George Town, I 've visited Penang for many times. In Penang Museum, us Japanese also are introduced as old residents in Penang colonial era from all over the world at that time. So I am very interested in the modern history of Penang island, including Armenian people, especially Sarkies brothers, founders of E&O.

Leela D said...

This is very interesting, thank you. Am a former resident of Penang I often wall around the cemeteries and around Armenian Street, and during my recent visit Nov.1012 I found it even more exciting. I am doing a short blog on Amenian Street the surrounding area.


Leela Devi Panikar said...

A former resident of Penang I often visit Penang and this last time Nov 2012 I found Armenian Street even more interesting. I am about to do a blog and found your information most useful. Thank you.


Leela Devi Panikar said...

A former resident of Penang I often visit Penang and this last time Nov 2012 I found Armenian Street even more interesting. I am about to do a blog and found your information most useful. Thank You.