Behind Asia’s heritage hotels, there is a Sarkies
Four of the region’s grand dames – the Raffles in Singapore, the E&O in Penang, the Strand in Yangon and the Majapahit in Surabaya – are built by the family
The word “heritage” is so often appended to hotels today that the word itself it is becoming debased. There are a select few properties in Asia however, that befits the term – hotels in business for a century and more, dating back to the beginnings of tourism in the region.
A measure of this list is that the Peninsula in Hong Kong 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 one family, the Sarkies.
The Sarkies came to Asia from Isfahan in Persia – modern-day Iran – in the latter part of the 19th-century. Ethnically speaking, they 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 reinforced his rule by brutally 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 Sarkies family.
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. 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 705AD 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.
Even using newfangled 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. He liked the place and presumably spread the word as his brother Tigran soon arrived and put down roots, establishing an auctioneer. 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.
Soon the brothers – with Aviet having joined Martin and Tigran in Penang – 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.
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. 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, 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.
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.
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 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 a historic vantage point.
(The full version of this article is published in the April issue of The Peak magazine, available at selected bookstores)