Singapore was founded by Brit Sir Stamford Raffles, in 1819 as a trading port. Armenian merchants, who traced their roots from Julfa soon followed, with 16 accounted for in the 1824 census. At the heart of the Armenian community is St. Gregory the Illuminator Church, built in 1835. It is the oldest church in Singapore.
Today, that church is a Singaporean national landmark and serves as a hub for the approximately 80 Armenians who make their home in this gleaming, bustling, cosmopolitan city-state. The parish is comprised of two types of Armenians: those who race their roots to the founding families who settled in Singapore in the 19th century; and the more recent arrivals, mostly from the Republic of Armenia.
Not only is the church used to celebrate Armenian Christmas, Easter, and Armenian Independence Day but also it is the channel by which to introduce Singaporeans and tourists to the Armen-ian role in Singapore’s economic success story. Over 100 public events are held each year on church premises.
An Armenian Museum in Asia
With this disproportionately big impact a point of curiosity, the Armenian Heritage Gallery was opened on the grounds of the church in 2018. It is the first of its kind in Asia and follows the migration of Armenians from Persia, first over to India, then throughout Southeast Asia.
“As a multi-ethnic society, Singapore is promoting diversity and cooperation internally and the Armenians are part of that discussion,” said Pierre Hennes, a trustee of the the church, who arrived in Singapore in 2003.
Located adjacent to the Singapore Armenian Church, the gallery offers a comprehensive, interactive learning experience that explores the journey and achievements of the Armenian communities in Singapore and Asia from the early days of settlement through to the present day.
In addition to the museum, it features a library and a small gift shop, as well as rare artifacts, books, photos, and other historical items collected from the various community archives in Singapore, Asia, Armenia and worldwide. It is also a destination on the Singapore Government’s Heritage Trail.
The Armenian Heritage Gallery is a collaboration between the Singapore Armenian Community and Armenian communities worldwide, and enjoys support under the National Heritage Board’s Heritage Project Grant.
A Hub for Global Armenians
To understand the mindset of the new Armenian Diaspora of Singapore is to follow the journeys of two Armenians whose lives intersected through the St. Gregory Church. One left his native Armenia to expand his horizons while the other took his international upbringing in the opposite direction by focusing on Armenia.
Gevorg Sargysan is another trustee overseeing the church, and a proud member of the wider community of Singapore representing a new generation of Armenians. A prodigy, he was born in Yerevan to a musical family during the waning days of the Soviet Union.
Today, he is the conductor of the Chinese Girls’ School String Ensemble in Singapore, the single non-Asian among 24 young performers.
He and his violinist wife Ani Umedyan, an accomplished and admired musician in her own right, were content with their lives in Armenia but, as Sargysan tells it, “Armenians are very global people, so we don’t really see Armenia as the only place we can live to pursue our music. So when my wife was offered a teaching position in Singapore, the idea of moving to a very global community intrigued us.”
Contrasting the homogeneous makeup of Armenia’s population to that of Singapore, Sargsyan says, “In Armenia, we aren’t regularly exposed to different cultures and people whereas Singapore is a melting pot of nationalities and colors—and that is a good thing. We enjoy having friends from all walks of life and places like India to Japan—even Argentina.” He also agrees that, with frequent visits to Armenia and involvement on the church board, he still has a connection to his homeland and Armenian identity—perhaps the best of all worlds for Armenians of the global age.
The same perspective describes Sargysan’s fellow trustee member Peter Hennes. Half German and half Armenian, he has lived, studied, and traveled all over the world, from the Caucasus and Iran to the United States and Russia. After arriving in Singapore 16 years ago, he co-founded Upstream Ventures, a venture capital fund. Impressed by the Armenian movers and shakers who preceded him, Hennes became active in the Armenian community while building his company.
In 2011, Hennes capitalized on his success and experience in Singapore and directed his energies to Armenia with “a successful example of a transfer of knowledge from Singapore to Armenia.” Granatus Ventures, based in Yerevan, is investing in the future of Armenia by providing capital to promising local businesses. For example, it is one of the supporters of GG Taxi (the Uber of Armenia). Hennes has decided to spend more of his time in Armenia to ensure the success of his venture. So, despite years of pushing east, Hennes is finally pointing his compass back to his ancestral land.
Banner photos courtesy of St. Gregory The Illuminator Church