Henri Arslanian’s maternal grandfather was a terrified three-year-old when he rolled himself inside a carpet to hide from the Turkish soldiers approaching his orphanage.
It was the early summer of 1915, and the trembling Armenian child had already witnessed the death of his mother and one-year-old sister. They had been abandoned, naked, at the side of the road to die of typhoid during one of the Turkish Ottoman empire’s infamous death marches; human convoys forced by the Turks into the blistering heat of the Syrian desert with no food or water. Young Hagop Djoukhadjian had survived by eating grass and drinking from muddy puddles. He had no wish to see any more Turkish soldiers.
“Every Armenian you meet will have a similar story. Many crossed the border into Syria and many went all over the world,” says Arslanian, a lawyer and banker who was born in Montreal, Canada, but lives and works in Hong Kong as a financial technology entrepreneur. He is also the first president of the Armenian Community of China. The mass extermination of the Armenian population in the Anatolia region of eastern Turkey still resonates in Hong Kong, 101 years later. And last month, the Armenian people were thrust into the international spotlight when the German parliament passed a controversial resolution condemning the 1.5 million deaths that occurred in 1915-16 as genocide.
The news caused a major diplomatic rift with Turkey, but, says Arslanian, it was “very important to Armenians. The Germans placed their morality above all else.”
ARSLANIAN IS ONE OF about 100 Armenians living in Hong Kong, a new generation of professionals and entrepreneurs belonging to a diaspora in China that dates back to the 15th century.
Armenians operated private trading factories in Guangzhou from the 18th century alongside the great trading powers of the West. It was an Armenian, Hovhannes Ghazarian, from Macau, who first translated the Bible into Chinese, in 1822. Others, notably Sir Catchick Paul Chater, played a leading role in the early commercial development of Hong Kong. Some of the wealthier Armenians fleeing the atrocities in 1915 headed east by rail via Vladivostok to China. There was an active Armenian club in Shanghai in the 1930s and the community in Harbin, in northeastern China, built a fine church that stood until 1966.
Every April 24, the Armenians of Hong Kong and 200 or so in southern China gather to commemorate compatriots lost in the genocide, even though many have never lived in Armenia, a nation a little smaller than Taiwan and surrounded by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. Some have not even visited.
“It is very close to the hearts of all Armenians because every Armenian has a family member who was killed then,” says Arslanian, whose father belonged to a family of wealthy merchants from the town of Aintab (now Gaziantep), near the Syrian border, who were forced to abandon their ancestral home in 1915. Their house is now a hotel.
“My father’s side of the family had been there for centuries; there are many Armenian churches still there. The church is the bastion of our culture,” he says.
Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in AD301, in its ancestral homeland, in what is now Anatolian Turkey. Extending from the shadow of Mount Ararat in the east to the Mediterranean ports in the west, the ancient state of Armenia was the source of a great Levantine diaspora. Armenian merchants were respected throughout the Middle East, south to India and east along the silk road to China.
From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Armenia gradually came under the rule of the Ottoman empire, but by the early 20th century the empire was in serious decline. A fervent nationalist government formed by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), in 1908, sought to make Turkey great again, to borrow modern parlance. The radical Young Turks entered the first world war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary and the Turkish Muslim religious authorities issued a fatwa (religious decree) for jihad against all infidels;, except their allies like most ultranationalist organisations, the CUP sought a scapegoat for the nation’s woes.
“It is a bit like the situation with Mr Trump; we were the minority who could be blamed for the problems of a once-mighty empire,” Arslanian says.
The so-called godfather of the Armenians in Hong Kong is retired businessman Jack Maxian, who founded an Armenian community centre in November 2013 and also traces his roots back to Aintab. Like Arslanian, he welcomed the symbolic announcement from Germany.
“I was so happy when I first heard the news – an Armenian friend of mine in Beirut messaged me to say ‘great news’,” he says.
Maxian’s parents were both orphaned by the genocide. He grew up in Aleppo, in Syria, and was educated at an Armenian boarding school in Cyprus. He moved his family to Beirut, but when civil war broke out in Lebanon, the family escaped, arriving in Hong Kong in 1975. Maxian prospered in the garment industry, sourcing clothing for the state-owned department stores of Iraq.
“My father was a poor man who was never educated. He had to learn Armenian from his children,” he says.
He founded the Jack & Julie Maxian Hong Kong Armenian Centre after sitting down with some of the city’s young Armenians to discuss establishing a meeting place. The centre, on the 11th floor of an industrial building near Telford Gardens, in Kowloon Bay, was opened by the catholicos (leader) of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Tastefully decorated with a wall sculpture of Mount Ararat, the centre is used to “celebrate Armenian traditions like singing, dancing and cooking”. It is where the annual commemoration of the genocide is held.
Like those of Maxian and Arslanian, many expatriate Armenian families have not lived in their homeland for four or five generations but are passionate about maintaining their traditions, language and culture. Arslanian and his wife married in Armenia and he speaks in Armenian to his six-week-old daughter, who was born in Hong Kong, every night before she goes to sleep.
His father’s family escaped from Aintab unscathed. His great-grandfather was a respected doctor who became a colonel in the Ottoman army and was tipped off by the governor about the carnage being planned by the Young Turk government in the spring of 1915. The family left everything behind and headed for Aleppo. They escaped with their lives but most of Arslanian’s mother’s family – young Hagop, from the town of Elbistan, being an exception – was wiped out.
When he emerged from the carpet in which he had been hiding, Hagop’s fellow orphans had all disappeared.
THE YOUNG BOY WAS extremely fortunate to survive the death marches. The Armenian Genocide Museum, in Yerevan, the capital of the Armenian republic, estimates 500,000 children were killed during the period and countless more, like Maxian’s parents, were orphaned. Few of the death marches were documented, but 180km east of Elbistan, in the town of Harput (now Elazig), the American consul Leslie Davis compiled a harrowing account of one human convoy, which left the town under armed guard on July 1, 1915.
“Day 52-9. Naked, without food or water. Women bent double from shame. Hundreds die beneath hot sun. Forced to pay for water. Money hidden in hair, mouth, genitals. Day 60. 300 remain from 18,000. Day 64. Men and the sick burned to death. Day 70. 150 arrive in Aleppo.”
It is more than 225km from Elbistan to Aleppo, across scorching desert, but somehow little Hagop evaded soldiers and survived starvation and thirst, and made it to one of the many makeshift orphanages set up on the outskirts of the city, where his father found him.
The horrors of those death marches are captured with brutal honesty in photographs taken by a German army officer, who disobeyed orders to stifle news of the Armenian massacres. Lieutenant Armin T. Wegner took the photos in April 1915, the month the deportations began in Elbistan, and he smuggled them out of Turkey. They are evocative of images of the Nazi holocaust three decades later. Corpses of children lay naked by the roadside; emaciated refugees with hollow eyes exude the unmistakable aura of death. These images help to explain why Armenians want the genocide to be universally acknowledged.
Maxian’s nephew, Raffi Maxian, is committed to the cause.
“This is a long fight,” he says. “We want Turkey to accept this was genocide. It means a lot and, as an Armenian, it is my duty to do my share – we all fight but I am not a fanatic.”
Turkish authorities, though, stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the events as genocide and even the British government and US President Barack Obama skirt the issue, carefully avoiding the “g” word for fear of upsetting important allies in the unstable Middle East.
“The denial still worries me,” says Arslanian, who emphasises he holds no grudge against the Turkish people, many of whom he counts as long-standing friends.
Turkey disputes the extent of the death toll and insists it was an unfortunate consequence of civil war, when some Christian Armenians formed alliances with Russian forces invading Turkey’s eastern border. The Turks feared the Armenians would exploit the conflict to seek to establish an independent Armenian state, which did not exist at the time. To paraphrase the Turkish government, it was a fact of war and Muslims, too, also suffered great losses.
“It was not a tragedy but a crime – the worst crime of all,” leading human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson wrote in “An Inconvenient Genocide”, his comprehensive legal analysis of the case, in 2009.
It was certainly headline news at the time, not least in Hong Kong. The China Mail of October 8, 1915 ran the headline “The massacre of Armenians – Evidence of German Complicity” above a report of a heated debate in Britain’s House of Lords. It stated: “The whole Armenian population of Trebizond [now Trabzon, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast] being taken to the sea in boats and drowned … possibly 800,000 people had been destroyed.” It quoted consular officials describing events in Turkey as a “hideous crime”.
The reports would have been of acute interest to Chater, then Hong Kong’s most famous Armenian citizen and one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the territory’s history. He had arrived from Calcutta, India, in 1864 as an 18-year-old orphan and left an indelible mark on the city he loved. Chater had a hand in almost every business and institution of the late 19th century, including the (then Royal) Hong Kong Jockey Club, Hongkong Land and Hongkong Electric. He was one of the first two non-official members of the Executive Council and was knighted in 1902. He is commemorated in landmarks such as Chater House and Chater Garden in the city’s Central district and Catchick Street in Kennedy Town. In his obituary on May 28, 1926, the South China Morning Postwrote: “A biography of Paul Chater would be a history of Hong Kong.”
He had come to live with his elder sister, Anna, who had married into the Jordan family, a wealthy Armenian clan from Madras (now Chennai), India. Chater’s niece, Mary, married into the Manuk family from Calcutta and another Armenian family, the Apcars, ran a successful shipping line, trading between Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Xiamen and Penang. There are about a dozen Armenian graves in Hong Kong Cemetery, in Happy Valley, some distinguishable by the distinctive Armenian script chiselled into the gravestones.
It is often said Armenians are passionate about two things: making money and their beloved homeland, so it would be interesting to learn how Chater and the other influential Armenian merchants in Hong Kong responded to the terrible news in 1915. One of Chater’s distant relations, Liz Chater, has undertaken extensive research into the great man and has published a comprehensive website on his life, but she says, “This particular area is not something I have been able to research fully.”
British travel writer Philip Marsden thoroughly researched the Armenian diaspora for his book The Crossing Place – A Journey Among the Armenians”. He travelled to Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Armenia to try to understand the people and their attitude to the genocide.
“Everything I learned about the Armenians only served to deepen the mystery, to make them more surprising, more enigmatic,” he writes.
Meeting the young Armenians of modern China, it is clear what he means. While current events dictate the genocide dominates any story about the Armenian diaspora, Marsden discovered their real story, like Chater’s and that of Arslanian’s grandfather, is one of survival.
Djoukhadjian and his father eventually set up a leather-works business in Aleppo. In the 1970s, Djoukhadjian moved his family to Canada. He rarely talked about the genocide but he suffered nightmares about the deaths of his mother and baby sister until he died, at the age of 70.
At the Jack & Julie Maxian Hong Kong Armenian Centre, a framed copy of some prose written by the American-Armenian author William Saroyan can be found, which seems to capture the nature of the Armenian people: “Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without food or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”
Sure enough, when Maxian came to Hong Kong in 1975, there were only two Armenians in the city. Now, nearly 100 meet in his community centre.
“It’s an Armenian thing,” shrugs his nephew, Raffi. “It’s in our blood.”