The Kardashian connection

A younger Madam Loretta Sarkies (fourth from left in the front row) is seen in this picture taken with members of the Armenian community here in the 1950s, with a priest who was making a rare visit to Singapore. Her younger sister Jessica is to her r
A younger Madam Loretta Sarkies (fourth from left in the front row) is seen in this picture taken with members of the Armenian community here in the 1950s, with a priest who was making a rare visit to Singapore. Her younger sister Jessica is to her right.PHOTO: COURTESY OF LORETTA SARKIES

Reality-TV star Kim Kardashian, who is half-Armenian, got in touch with her roots earlier this year when she visited the country. These are facets of the Armenian heritage:

1. Armenia was the first state in history to declare itself Christian, in AD301. This was brave as it was sandwiched between territories less welcoming to Christians, that is, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Turkey.

Great ancient powers such as the Persians, Mongols, Ottomans and Russians conquered chunks of it, such that independent Armenia today is one-tenth its original size.

Also, after the victors of World War II redrew its borders, its national symbol, Mount Ararat, became part of Turkey, so Armenians can see it only from afar.

2. In the late 19th century, the Ottomans began driving Armenians, who they saw as supporters of Russia, into the Syrian desert, without food and water.

The average Armenian today reads widely, usually has at least a bachelor's degree and speaks at least three languages.

Armenians have since alleged that, in 1915, this purge resulted in the Ottomans' slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians, making it the first genocide of the 20th century. But the Turkish government contends that Armenians have inflated the death toll and disregarded the many Muslim Turks also killed in the purge.

  • Small community, big impact

  • Armenians have been in Singapore since 1824 and now number between 80 and 100. The community has made an impact in various ways:

    1845

    Merchant Catchick Moses buys a printing press off his cash-strapped countryman Martyrose Apcar and establishes The Straits Times.

    1880s

    Avid gardener Agnes Joaquim crosses two orchids to produce the Vanda Miss Joaquim. In 1981, the hybrid is named Singapore's national flower.

    1887

    Merchant Tigran Sarkies opens Raffles Hotel and, with his brother Aviet, makes it Singapore's finest hotel.

    1923

    Sarkies Road in Bukit Timah is named after Mrs Regina Sarkies, who owns a mansion there. Galistan Avenue is named after Emile Galistan of the Singapore Improvement Trust, and St Martin's Drive after the charitable family of Michael Sarkies Martin.

    1933

    The last resident Armenian priest leaves Singapore. The church is maintained by volunteers from the ever-dwindling community. 

    1973

    The Armenian Church is declared a national monument.

    2004-present

    New arrivals raise the number of Armenians to between 80 and 100. The most prominent Armenian here today is venture capitalist Pierre Hennes.

That trauma has led most Armenians to live outside Armenia. There are now three million Armenians in their motherland, with nine million in the United States, and about 40,000 in Australia.

3. Wherever the Armenians go, they build a church. Curiously, they do not go to church regularly, if at all, believing that prayer is a private act. The last resident Armenian priest here left in 1933.

4. Armenians are skilled artisans and have long been trusted traders and brokers, able to bridge Europe and Asia because they spoke English and French, and were willing to work first and be paid later. The average Armenian today reads widely, usually has at least a bachelor's degree and speaks at least three languages.

5. If someone offers you orange juice from Armenia, decline. This is because Armenia's arid soil is not suitable for oranges, but produces bounteous pomegranates, apricots and cornelian fruit, a type of cherry. Its excellent spring water is also good for making beer and wine.

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