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 term is becoming debased. There are a select few properties in Asia however, that befit the label – 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)