Proud of the legendary Sarkies name

Madam Loretta Sarkies, 74, lives in an HDB flat in Pasir Ris, surrounded by family mementos and antiques left by her grandmother. Her father ran the Happy World Cabaret here in the 1940s, and her grand-uncle Tigran Sarkies founded Raffles Hotel with
Madam Loretta Sarkies, 74, lives in an HDB flat in Pasir Ris, surrounded by family mementos and antiques left by her grandmother. Her father ran the Happy World Cabaret here in the 1940s, and her grand-uncle Tigran Sarkies founded Raffles Hotel with his younger brother Aviet.ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Her grand-uncles founded Raffles Hotel, contributing to the Armenian legacy here

Madam Loretta Sarkies has led a fuller life than most people. Twice married and a mother of three, the 74-year-old is the eldest daughter of Mr James Arathoon Sarkies, who ran the Happy World Cabaret here in the 1940s, and his French-Spanish wife Mae Didier.

Theirs was "a very well-to-do" family, Madam Sarkies says, with a family mansion at 8 Da Silva Lane - now a row of terraced houses in Upper Serangoon - and, as her father put it, "a spare house" called Sentosa in Stevens Road.

She remembers that when she was a child, her car-crazy father owned at least five cars, including a Buick, a Chevrolet, a Chrysler and a De Soto.

"I still remember 7799 was the number plate of his Ford, and 8648 the number plate of the black Morris Minor he bought my mother after she passed her driving test," she recalls. On her 16th birthday, he screened movies in their garden for her friends and let off firecrackers for good luck.

"My parents told me from the time I was young that I was an Armenian, not Eurasian, and that I was from the family that established the finest hotels in South-east Asia at that time," Madam Sarkies tells The Straits Times.

Her family's roots go back to 1884, when grand-uncle Tigran Sarkies arrived here. Three years later, he founded Raffles Hotel with younger brother Aviet. Their brothers Martin and Arshak did likewise with the landmarks Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Penang and The Strand in Myanmar.

Armenians have settled in Singapore since the early 1820s, with nine recorded in Singapore's first census in 1824.

These early settlers were not from Armenia but the trading town of New Julfa in Persia, what is now Iran. Persian king Shah Abbas I had founded New Julfa in 1604 by driving 25,000 Armenian artisans and traders to the site to boost the Persian economy.

In Singapore, the early community of nine swelled to an all-time high of about 400 in the late 1800s, before dwindling to almost zero during World War II.

In the 1980s, there were about 30 Armenians here, although it would have been hard to tell as they were often mistaken for Arabs, Eurasians, Indians, Italians and Pashtuns. During the 2008 global financial crisis, young people from Armenia started settling here for work or studies.

Madam Sarkies recalls that as she was growing up, her father used to tell her she looked a lot like his "very beautiful" mother, Madam Regina Carapiet.

In 1901, Madam Carapiet had married divorcee Arathoon Sarkies, a cousin of the hoteliers. He had no role in Raffles Hotel, but set up his own company and ran the nearby Adelphi Hotel instead.

A twice-married father of five, he trusted his son-in-law and business partner Basil Johannes too much.

Both went bankrupt, in 1908 and 1929. In 1932, after a judge barred him from ever doing business here, Mr Arathoon Sarkies jumped into the sea off Tanjung Pinang and died.

Madam Sarkies recalls: "My dad, who was his only son, never liked to speak about it. But according to him, my grandfather preferred to die because he couldn't live without money." Her grandmother, she adds, died six months later from grief, having "starved herself to death".

Madam Sarkies says her father, an alumnus of Raffles Institution, was well-known as a "tuan besar" (Malay for big boss). Her parents' 1940 wedding was a prominent story in The Straits Times.

History repeated itself in the 1970s when her father was guarantor for a friend's debt. When the friend absconded, he was forced to sell 8 Da Silva Lane.

At that time, Madam Sarkies and her sister Jessica had married and moved out.

Their parents moved into a three-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh with their two adopted daughters, Ruby and Susan. Mr James Sarkies died in 1977, and his wife later remarried and died.

Madam Sarkies married Dutch-Eurasian civil servant Simon Aroozoo, and had three daughters - Brigitte, Carol and Debra.

She drummed it early into her girls that they are half-Armenian.

After her husband died of brain cancer in 1991, she married Mr Michael Tan, with whom she ran an employment agency in Orchard Road. They closed it down when he fell ill.

He lived long enough to see her, at age 60, finish as first runner-up and Glamour Queen in the 2001 Mrs Senior Singapore pageant.

Madam Sarkies now lives alone in an HDB flat in Pasir Ris, surrounded by family mementos and antiques left by her grandmother.

For about two years after her sister Jessica died in 2012, she was the last person here named Sarkies who is directly related to the Raffles Hotel founders.

Then her youngest daughter Debra Aroozoo, a 49-year-old office manager, decided to act on a suggestion by a visiting Armenian priest to change her surname to Sarkies to keep it alive.

Twice-married like her mother, Debra has three sons and a daughter aged between 14 and 24. With her mother's blessings, she went ahead with the name change.

Earlier this year, Debra and her children all became Sarkies, and the fabled name will live on.

Madam Sarkies, who calls herself an optimist, vows: "I will never change my name even if I should get married again, as I am proud of how well-known it is in Singapore."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2015, with the headline 'Proud of the legendary Sarkies name'. Print Edition | Subscribe