An active Armenian community in Hong Kong is making its mark across Asia
By Dan Halton and Laura L. Constantine
“Many Armenians are not aware of the fact that we have a very active and fast growing Armenian community in China,” says Henri Arslanian, co-founder and president of ChinaHay, the Armenian community of China and Hong Kong organization. A native born Canadian-Armenian financial services professional from Montreal, Arslanian is leading the charge behind an Armenian renaissance in Asia.
With more than 800 members, the Armenian community in China is the most prominent among Armenian communities in Asia with vary in size in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. These Armenians are connected to ChinaHay members by virtue of its mission to reach out to Armenians all across Asia.
ChinaHay’s diverse members hail from Armenia, Argentina, Canada, France, Russia, South Africa, and the United States. They represent diverse industries and include artists, banking and finance professionals, jewelers, manufacturers, traders, and others. Although most have come as part of a temporary work stint, some are choosing to settle in Asia permanently, marrying and raising families.
Despite their varied backgrounds and professions, they are bound by their cultural heritage and a shared sense of adventure that impelled them to travel thousands of miles in search of new and exciting opportunities, retracing a path paved by their ancestors centuries ago.
“What amazes me the most is the outsized impact that the Armenians have had,” says Arslanian. “Armenians played a disproportionately large role not just in Hong Kong, but in many cities from Yangon to Dhaka to Singapore where they were very prominent. That is very impressive and inspiring. Unfortunately, that is a part of our history that many are not aware of and those who are don’t celebrate enough.” Arslanian is intent on changing that.
Building on the Armenian Legacy
The Armenian presence in China dates to the early 13th century when the first Armenian colonies appeared in Guangzhou in the aftermath of the Mongol invasions of Armenia. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Armenian merchants established communities in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and even Tibet.
As trade increased, the stature and influence of Armenians in the region rose. They opened up successful businesses and earned the respect and admiration of their Chinese hosts. Armenian academic and linguist Hrachya Acharyan wrote: “China has always kept its doors closed to foreigners, especially Christians. But the Armenians were an exception and had absolute freedom.”
At the end of the 19th century, hundreds more Armenians continued to journey east in search of opportunity not only in Hong Kong, but Shanghai, Macau, Manchuria, and Harbin, where construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway began under Imperial Russia in 1898, attracting Armenian workers from Russia, Syunik, and Artsakh. Eventually nearly 400 families settled in Harbin.
Columbia University lecturer Khatchig Mouradian is one of the few scholars who have researched this little-known chapter of Armenian history in Asia. “Many of these Armenians coupled their personal success with a dedication to community life,” he wrote. “Despite conflicts, war, and foreign occupation that beset the history of China in the first half of the 20th century, they built a church [Harbin], community centers [Harbin and Shanghai], and established relief organizations, choirs, language schools, and women’s groups.”
These communities served as an important refuge for Armenians during the Genocide. “For several decades, hundreds of Genocide survivors called China home,” Mouradian also noted, “helping build communities that celebrated heritage and culture across the globe from the Armenian homeland.”
The formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 led to a mass exodus of Armenians from the country, with most migrating again mainly to the United States and Australia. Much of the Armenian presence was eradicated by Chairman Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Even the Armenian Church in Harbin was demolished.
With this in mind, ChinaHay has made the preservation of the early Armenian’s legacy a central part of its mission and to share with the world the remarkable history of Armenians in Asia. Working closely with other Armenian communities across Asia and with the Armenian government, the organization successfully saved a centuries-old Armenian church in Myanmar from destruction by an unscrupulous developer and is currently working with Sir Paul Catchik Chater’s descendent Liz Chater to restore a 200-year old church in Dhaka that was once the focal point of the historic Armenian mercantile community in Bangladesh. In so doing, the community is able to reconstruct the history, recount the family stories, and resurrect the influential role played by Armenians in the development of Asia.
“I believe that it is our moral duty to preserve and restore our Armenian heritage,” says Arslanian. “I think of the community leaders living in current day Myanmar, Singapore, or Bangladesh in the 18th or 19th century who spent much of energy and money building the churches and historical venues that we still have today. They probably hoped that there would be individuals who would continue their mission in the 21st century in the same way I hope that others will leverage and build upon the work we are undertaking today, for centuries to come.”
To help accomplish that goal, the Armenians of China act as a bridge between Armenia and China, fostering closer ties between the two cultures. Among several ongoing projects and initiatives, the organization promotes Armenian tourism, offers Armenian language courses, and recently launched a scholarship program, together with the American University of Armenia (AUA) to sponsor Chinese students to pursue their graduate studies in Armenia.
In 2013, the Jack and Julie Maxian Armenian Center in Hong Kong opened its doors, and has since partnered with the Gulbenkian Foundation to create an ongoing fellowship to support Armenian and Chinese academics researching Armenian history in China.
Cross Cultural Ties
Jack Maxian is a striking example of how diasporans in Asia manage to retain and express their Armenian identity while fully integrating into mainstream Asian society.
Maxian is a transplant from an earlier generation whose first trip to Asia was in 1976. A businessman from Beirut, Lebanon, which was in the throes of a civil war, he had been touring the Asian countries with associates from the Middle East and was especially impressed with Hong Kong. “I saw the possibilities to do business,” he recounted. “I wanted to live in a safe place and do business. I thought it would just be temporary until the war ended. I am still here.”
There are two good reasons. First, Maxian’s expertise in the textile industry made China and Hong Kong ideal for his purposes: “To manufacture textiles in the mainland and export them to Arab countries, while living in then-British governed Hong Kong society. It was the best of both worlds. Because Hong Kong is a place for those who want to make contact with China, this city is a first step for them,” explains Jack.
But the best reason for Jack to stay was falling in love with Julie, a native of Hong Kong and now his wife of 40 years. As it turned out, Julie became an invaluable asset to the business, accompanying him on his visits to the mainland and helping out at the office.
When asked about her perspective on Armenians, Julie Maxian observes: “What I see about Armenians is that they like to be together. Even though they come here, like Jack did, to invest in their future, they want to stay connected to their past, their heritage, just as my husband does. His heart is always leaning toward Armenia. That’s why we founded the Armenian Center, so all the Armenians can gather here, like a home away from home, enjoying their own food, speaking their own language.”
In reflecting on how they’ve managed to fuse the two cultures as a married couple, the Maxian’s noted some important shared values: “The Chinese and the Armenians have a respect for their parents and value the elderly, and both cultures are very old.”. Julie also playfully adds that “after 40 years, Jack has brainwashed me.”