The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Travel -

he word ‘her­itage’ is so of­ten ap­pended to ho­tels to­day that the word it­self is be­com­ing de­based. There are a se­lect few prop­er­ties in Asia how­ever, for which the term un­doubt­edly fits – ho­tels in busi­ness for a cen­tury and more, dat­ing back to the very be­gin­nings of tourism in the re­gion.

A mea­sure of this list is that Hong Kong’s Penin­sula doesn’t make it - a rel­a­tive new­comer at a mere 85 years old. The true grand dames in­clude Bangkok’s Man­darin Ori­en­tal, the Sof­i­tel Leg­end Metropole Hanoi and the Taj Ma­hal Palace in Mum­bai. Also mak­ing the list are no less than four ho­tels – the Raf­fles in Sin­ga­pore, the Eastern & Ori­en­tal in Pe­nang, the Strand in Yan­gon and the Ma­japahit in Surabaya – built by the same re­mark­able fam­ily.

That fam­ily are the Sarkies, from Is­fa­han in Per­sia – mod­ern-day Iran – who came to Asia in the lat­ter part of the 19th-cen­tury. Eth­ni­cally, the Sarkies were Ar­me­ni­ans, their fore­bears brought to Is­fa­han by Shah Ab­bas the Great in the late 16th-cen­tury. In the style of the day, on be­com­ing shah in 1588, he bru­tally set about re­in­forc­ing his rule by re­plac­ing swathes of the hi­er­ar­chy with cap­tured Ge­or­gians, Cir­cas­sians and Ar­me­ni­ans. Many of the lat­ter were set­tled in New Julfa, a sub­urb of Is­fa­han, among them the fam­ily that later be­came the Sarkies.

Soon af­ter this, in the se­cond half of the 17th-cen­tury, West­ern fam­i­lies of means be­gan send­ing their young men – and some chap­er­oned young women – on what be­came known as the Grand Tour. This was a lengthy cir­cuit of Europe’s artis­tic and cul­tural high­lights, of­ten in­clud­ing classes in lan­guages and the arts, as a way to un­der­pin the ed­u­cated elite’s cul­tural hege­mony.

It was also the be­gin­ning of tourism: the first time that travel on any scale was planned and un­der­taken for the pur­pose of en­light­en­ment about the world be­yond. It was la­bo­ri­ous, costly and not a lit­tle dan­ger­ous but as the years passed, roads im­proved, and lodg­ing houses and inns were up­graded un­til, in the early 19th-

cen­tury, the first ho­tels as the West­ern world knows them (the Guin­ness Book of World Records recog­nises the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, founded in 705 AD in Ya­manashi, Ja­pan, as the old­est ho­tel any­where), be­gan to ap­pear.

In the se­cond half of the 19th-cen­tury, Thomas Cook founded the world’s first travel agency. With Europe more widely ac­ces­si­ble, the now-fa­mil­iar search for the less beaten path be­gan. The aris­toc­racy started look­ing fur­ther afield and Asia held ob­vi­ous ap­peal. There were mil­len­nia of his­tory to dis­cover, and scarcely known jun­gles and moun­tains for the more ad­ven­tur­ous to ex­plore (and slap their names on).

Even us­ing new-fan­gled steamships and rail­ways, ‘tak­ing pas­sage’ to Asia, took weeks. Once there, the avail­able lodg­ings suited lo­cal habits and di­ets, not those of pam­pered Western­ers. An­other Ar­me­nian fam­ily, the Ma­zloumi­ans, are said to have founded what be­came the fa­mous Baron Ho­tel in Aleppo in 1870 af­ter

notic­ing how un­com­fort­able Euro­pean trav­ellers were in car­a­vanserai, the re­gion’s tra­di­tional lodg­ing houses. The scene was set for four Sarkies broth­ers – Mar­tin, Ti­gran, Aviet and Ar­shak – to make their mark.

Mar­tin was the first brother to visit in Asia, reach­ing Pe­nang in 1869, the year the Suez Canal opened, while serv­ing as an en­gi­neer on a steamer. He liked the place and pre­sum­ably spread the word as his brother Ti­gran soon ar­rived and put down roots, es­tab­lish­ing an auc­tion house. He was soon dab­bling in other busi­nesses and this in­cluded re­fur­bish­ing an ex­ist­ing house at one of the city’s most pres­ti­gious ad­dresses, 1A Light Street. Turn­ing it into the Eastern Ho­tel, it opened its doors on April 15, 1884.

Ti­gran took out an ad­ver­tise­ment in The Straits Times for the oc­ca­sion, an­nounc­ing it was ‘open to re­ceive board­ers’ and that the premises would be found to be ‘airy and com­modi­ous’. Guests were also as­sured that: ‘Wines, Spir­its etc etc of the best brands ob­tain­able at all hours.’

As a bon vi­vant, Ti­gran knew what he was talk­ing about. He drove one of the set­tle­ment’s first-ever cars and was a snappy dresser, fond of jew­ellery. As he rev­eled in the high life, Mar­tin and then Aviet joined him in Pe­nang, adding a more prac­ti­cal bent to the skillset. Soon


the broth­ers were ready for more and took over an­other small ho­tel, re­nam­ing it the Ori­en­tal.

Both ho­tels did well but they were un­able to ex­pand the Eastern as they wanted and so, in 1889, they closed it, adding its name to the sign­board of the Ori­en­tal and so ar­riv­ing at the name that many to­day shorten sim­ply to the E&O.

By then, Ti­gran had al­ready skipped onto Sin­ga­pore where in 1887 he opened the Raf­fles, a much larger ho­tel, while Aviet moved to Yan­gon. In 1892, he opened the Sarkies Ho­tel and then, in 1901, took over the Strand.

Mean­while the youngest brother Ar­shak, had joined the busi­ness, re­plac­ing Mar­tin who had re­turned to Per­sia to be­come a sleep­ing part­ner. Af­ter serv­ing an ap­pren­tice­ship un­der Ti­gran, at the Raf­fles, by 1894 he was man­ag­ing the E&O at the ten­der age of 26.

An­other prop­erty was added to the em­pire in 1905, when the Sarkies took over the Crag, sat ma­jes­ti­cally atop a ridge of Pe­nang Hill, from a pair of fel­low Ar­me­nian hote­liers. This was a de­lib­er­ate de­par­ture from pre­vi­ous ven­tures: out of town and far from the port. Pe­nang was blighted by malaria and small­pox at the time and the Sarkies mar­keted it as a health re­sort with its cooler moun­tain air, as well as a hon­ey­mooner’s spot.

Be­yond hav­ing the vi­sion to de­velop ho­tels in the first place, the Sarkies also seem to have made con­sum­mate hosts. Ar­shak, es­pe­cially, en­joyed the E&O’S sta­tus as the hub of high so­ci­ety and of­ten led the par­ty­ing from the front.

In her book, ‘The E&O Ho­tel’, Ilsa Sharp writes of a cul­tural trait the Sarkies were said to have: “the sort of flamboyance and open, ex­trav­a­gant warmth that one as­so­ciates with Rus­sians, or even Ital­ians. The Ar­me­ni­ans love en­ter­tain­ing, good com­pany, song and dance, the arts, food and wine . . . th­ese char­ac­ter­is­tics have made them su­perb hote­liers.”

The broth­ers’ suc­cess soon drew their younger cousins to the re­gion. Arathoon Sarkies man­aged Sin­ga­pore’s Adel­phi Ho­tel for five years from 1903, while Lu­cas Mar­tin Sarkies set­tled in East Java. There he built an­other of the Sarkies last­ing lega­cies, the Ho­tel Oranje, now known as the Ma­japahit, in Surabaya in 1910.

The ho­tel was very much in the Sarkies tra­di­tion: a top-of-the-line res­i­dence in a key com­mer­cial port, but Lu­cas Mar­tin also built a fam­ily villa in Batu as an es­cape from the teem­ing city. To­day, much ex­tended, that too has be­come a ho­tel, the Kar­tika Wi­jaya, while not far away, on the main road and rail link back to Surabaya, sits the pe­cu­liar-look­ing Ni­a­gara.

The Ni­a­gara’s ori­gins are said to lie with the Sarkies, though its ex­te­rior is de­cep­tively or­di­nary. In fact it was a land­mark struc­ture for its time in Asia, tow­er­ing to an un­heard-of five sto­ries. To­day it is sadly ne­glected with only its low­est floors in use and its frontage hor­ri­bly


marred by an enor­mous pi­geon loft (blame a pre­vi­ous owner’s pas­sion), but the mar­ble in­lays, and ex­trav­a­gant light fit­tings and fur­ni­ture speak of for­mer op­u­lence.

While the 1920s were in many ways a hey­day for Ar­shak at the E&O, en­ter­tain­ing the cream of so­ci­ety from around the globe, else­where the em­pire was slip­ping from the Sarkies’ grasp. Mar­tin and Ti­gran were al­ready dead and Aviet passed away in 1923. The Crag was sold in 1920 and The Strand fol­lowed in 1925. In 1931, Ar­shak too died, per­haps not en­tirely bad tim­ing as just months later, bankruptcy cases were filed and the Sin­ga­pore and Pe­nang ho­tels were lost for good.

The Ma­japahit re­mained in the fam­ily un­til 1969. That was time enough for it to play, in late 1945, an in­spi­ra­tional part in the in­de­pen­dence of In­done­sia when the blue stripe was torn from the flag of the for­mer Dutch colonists to make the merah putih – the red and white flag of the sep­a­ratists – which was run up the ho­tel’s flag­pole.

To­day, though the Sarkies are no longer own­ers, their name lives on in all of the ho­tels. At The Strand you can sit in the Sarkies bar, per­haps sip­ping the whisky soda beloved of Ar­shak; the E&O has a Sarkies Cor­ner café


and even does a set of four mugs bear­ing the dis­tinc­tive mous­taches of the four broth­ers; the Raf­fles (prior to cur­rent ren­o­va­tions) had a Sarkies Suite and the Ma­japahit has a Sarkies Restau­rant.

Per­haps the most be­guil­ing ves­tige of all though is the Crag it­self. It hasn’t been a ho­tel for more than 60 years and the build­ing has been shut­tered since the 1960s. It has had brief re­births as a set in the film In­do­chine and for the more re­cent Bri­tish TV drama In­dian Sum­mers sup­pos­edly set in the In­dian hill sta­tion of Shimla.

Thanks to lo­cal plan­ning laws, the site re­mains se­cluded and the views as com­mand­ing as ever. There has been per­sis­tent talk of in­ter­est from a big name (ru­moured to be Aman group) in lux­ury ho­tels known from their ded­i­ca­tion to cul­tural preser­va­tion. With surely few sites any­where as freighted with his­tory, it would seem fit­ting if one day this Sarkies prop­erty was once again wel­com­ing dis­cern­ing trav­ellers ea­ger to en­joy the cooler climes of Pe­nang Hill from an his­toric van­tage point. Af­ter all, you just can’t buy this kind of her­itage.

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