BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Chances are you have never heard of Penang. If it were not for the cruise that we were going to take in Southeast Asia, I would not have known much about it, either.
Penang is a port in Malaysia which became a British possession in 1786. The British control over Penang brought immigrants and traders from all over the world, and became a bustling cosmopolitan port, where many types of trade developed, from retail to exporting of spice, textile and gold.
Believe it or not, Armenians were among the first ethnic immigrants and traders to seek opportunities in exotic lands, arriving in Penang by 1786, as confirmed by Dr. Nadia Wright, a researcher on this topic.
Dr. Wright, a retired school teacher who had been born in New Zealand, began her research about Armenians in Southeast Asia in 1985 when her husband was stationed in Singapore. Her mother was Armenian from Egypt and her father from New Zealand (not Armenian). The fervor of her Armenian heritage led her into extensive fact-finding research of Armenians in that part of the world, which culminated in a book called Respected Citizens.
Our own William Saroyan says, “For when two of them [Armenians] meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” This saying came true with the Armenians in Penang.
Dr. Wright tells us, “By 1807, there were enough Armenian traders in Penang to justify the naming of Armenian Lane, which later became Armenian Street. About 15 years later, in 1824, the Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator on Bishop Street was established by an Armenian merchant and philanthropist Catchatour Galastaun.” Sadly, around 1906, the church was demolished to make way for new developments.
Knowing about the Armenian legacy in Penang, I could barely contain my enthusiasm to visit there. As soon as our ship docked in its port on Sunday, February 5th, I was ready to explore.
As we exited the ship, we got “held-up” by two pirates (sorta) — I mean, we were dodged to pose for a souvenir picture with a guy and a woman, dressed as pirates. After the “holdup,” we proceeded to the terminal, where many privately owned companies offered city tours. We bypassed them because I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
Outside the terminal, an elderly taxi driver approached us. He agreed to take us around the town for a fixed rate. First on our agenda was the E&O (Eastern & Oriental) Hotel.
Dr. Wright has commented about the hotel as, “Penang would not be Penang without the E&O Hotel and its flamboyant Armenian founders, the Sarkies brothers, in the late 1800’s.”
Our taxi driver, Umar, told us that the E&O Hotel had the best buffet lunch in town. “I will give you a little tour of the town and then take you to the hotel for lunch,” he said.
Umar first took us to a Hindu temple and then to a Buddhist temple, where we saw the iconic and enormous 33 meter in length, the reclining or sleeping Buddha.
We then drove through an affluent neighborhood, where streets were squeaky clean with manicured side lawns and freshly painted direction lines. The sprawling homes were walled and fenced, but we could still see the hidden luxurious homes.
We arrived at the E&O Hotel around noon, just in time for the buffet lunch. The newly restored hotel was a testimony to the vibrant past of Penang. The sensation of stepping into the grandeur of yesteryear was intoxicating. Unlike the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, built by the same Sarkies brothers, which bars non-hotel-guests from entering the lobby, at E&O, we could freely explore every part of the hotel.
Wandering through corridors and staircases of the hotel gave us great pleasure. The huge circular lobby and spacious corridors leading to different sections of the hotel had shining white marble floors, a reminder of the exquisite life of colonial times.
The E&O boasts one of the longest seafronts of any hotel in the world. As we drifted outside to watch the scenery, the undulating palm trees on the beach took my breath away. Everything looked so beautiful, it made me feel like I was dreaming.
Back inside, we discovered the legendary “Sarkies Corner,” which is a coffee shop from colonial times. All the decor and the furnishings seemed to be frozen in time.
In the corridor leading to the restaurant where the buffet was served, we saw, in vintage oval frames on the wall, individual portraits of the three Sarkies brothers. All the brothers had thick mustaches reminiscent of the era. Beneath the pictures sat a half-round console mahogany table. The simple setup looked familiar, as if they were pictures of our great grandfathers, hung in my grandma’s parlor. A few steps further down, a sign noted the names of the suites which were under the brothers’ names, Arshak, Tigran and Martin.
We arrived just as the restaurant was opening for the buffet lunch. Everything looked so fresh. There was an array of hot dishes, cold cuts and desserts. There were already many people inside the restaurant, and, not noticing any open seats, we decided to go outside and have our lunch on the patio by the beach.
When ready to pay, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that senior citizens paid only half price, which meant for us a delicious buffet lunch at this exquisite hotel was only $10 each.
After lunch, we stepped into the courtyard to find our taxi driver, Umar, waiting for us. We snapped a few more pictures, as if wanting to take a piece of history back home with us.
Now it was time to explore the Armenian street, or Lebuh Armenian as it is called. Umar took us through colonial quarters with narrow streets lined with two-story buildings that have turned into businesses. The neighborhood is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and very well preserved with its original architecture and colonial charm.
On Armenian street, I saw two homes side-by-side which had turned into lodgings. One was called Armenian House and the other Armenian Suite. I entered the Armenian Suite and met the proprietor, a young Malay woman in her forties with a welcoming smile. I told her that I am Armenian and asked about the name of the lodging. She said, “Many people inquire about the name of the hotel. We chose the name because it is located on Armenian street.” To me, it sounded strange to have two hotels side by side with Armenian as part of their name.
Next, Umar took us to another hotel just around the corner, and the name of that hotel was “Armenia Street Heritage Hotel,” a newly built five-story building. So there were three hotels in very close proximity with Armenia as part of their names.
As it was a few days into the Chinese New Year, red paper lanterns festively decked the Armenia Street. I snapped a few more pictures, and then met Umar to continue our sightseeing.
Before going back to the ship, we stopped to visit two more homes built by wealthy Chinese merchants around the turn of the last century. Both were awe inspiring.
I had not expected to see such an amazing city with eclectic neighborhoods and a thriving economy. Penang has been transformed from a colonial port to a vibrant city filled with high-rise buildings. The juxtaposition of well-preserved colonial neighborhoods and soaring skyscrapers was stunning.
Today, about one million people live on the island, and Penang has become a technology hub for Southeast Asia, often referred to as Silicon Island.
I was so delighted to discover a rich Armenian legacy, much of it thanks to the Sarkies brothers. Speaking of the Sarkies brothers’ reputation, there is a joke passed down into the history.
It is said at a celebratory lunch at the E&O hotel in 1893, just about a decade after the opening of the main hotel in Penang, Sir Frank Swettenham, who was the Resident General in Malaysia, was telling of the soaring reputation of the Sarkies brothers and related this story: “A little boy was asked by his teacher in Perak who the Sakais were, and he replied that they were people who kept hotels.” (The Sakais are actually one of the indigenous races of Malaysia, where Perak is a state.)
In my next column, I’m planning to tell more stories about Armenians in Southeast Asia. I welcome any feedback and information. Contact: [email protected]