The Sarkies brothers - Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak who came from Isfahan in Persia, became the foremost hoteliers of the East, their enterprises in Penang and Singapore dominating the hospitality trade in the Straits Settlements for nearly fifty years.
It was 23-year-old Tigran who took the first step into the hotel industry, seeing it as more profitable than his fledgling auctioneering business. Taking over the lease of a large compound house at 1A Light Street, he named it the Eastern Hotel, announcing on 15 April 1884 that the hotel was open to receive boarders.
Tigran was joined by his older brother Martin, and calling themselves Sarkies Brothers, the pair acquired Hotel de l’Europe which was situated on the seafront in Farquar Street, and renamed it the Oriental Hotel. Tigran managed the Oriental while Martin was responsible for the Eastern. Younger brother Aviet was persuaded to join them and was soon made manager of the Eastern Hotel.
By August 1889, the extended and entirely renovated Oriental Hotel was ready for the public. The brothers gave up the Eastern, but not wanting to lose the goodwill and familiarity of its name, decided to rename the Oriental, the Eastern and Oriental Hotel - which soon became shortened to the E. & O.
When Martin retired to Isfahan in late 1890, youngest brother Arshak joined the E. & O., having gained valuable work experience at Raffles under Tigran’s watchful eye. Soon each brother took responsibility for a different hotel. Tigran remained in charge of Raffles, while Aviet opened the Sarkies Hotel in Rangoon, leaving Arshak in control of the E. & O. Apart from short breaks in Singapore or abroad, Arshak ran the hotel until his death in 1931.
Within a decade of opening the Eastern Hotel, the brothers’ reputation had been made. Speaking at a celebratory lunch at the E. & O. in 1893, Sir Frank Swettenham first told the joke which was to pass into history: ‘A little boy was asked by his teacher in Perak who the Sakais were, and replied that they were people who kept hotels.’ (The Sakais are one of the indigenous races of Malaysia.)
Raffles Hotel, Singapore
With experience gained from running their hotels in Penang, Tigran and Martin Sarkies investigated the possibility of opening a new hotel in Singapore. They found a large bungalow on the corners of Beach and Bras Basah Roads, fronting the seashore, yet quite close to the commercial centre of town.
Previously the boarding house for boys at the nearby Raffles Institution, the bungalow needed only a few alterations and repairs before Tigran announced the opening of his new hotel which he called Raffles, in December 1887. His initial advertisement highlighted the factors that would make Raffles such a success: the promise of ‘great care and attention to the comfort of boarders and visitors’.
Hotel extensions in 1889 soon proved insufficient, so the brothers opened a new two-storey Palm Court Wing in December 1894, offering thirty well-furnished suites, bringing the hotel’s total to seventy-five. Sarkies Brothers were rewarded for their efforts as members of royal and aristocratic families and other dignitaries began to patronise Raffles.
But the Straits Times remained scathing of Singapore’s hotels, declaring that Singapore lacked a well-designed, convenient hotel offering quality accommodation. Presumably Tigran heeded this criticism for he announced extensive, grandiose renovations in 1897. These plans finally won over the Straits Times which concluded that the ‘palatial building with excellent ventilation, and the vast airy dining room’ would make Raffles ‘one of the largest and handsomest hotels in the East’.
The new wing was opened on 18 November 1899. The old central block had been replaced by a magnificent Renaissance style three-storey block featuring a huge T-shaped dining room as the centrepiece. Boasting a Carrara marble floor, it seated 500 and occupied the whole of the ground floor, while its roof, crowned by a skylight gave the room an awesome air space. The two upper floors each contained fifteen suites, plus a large reading room and two drawing rooms. Two suites were set aside for Tigran and his family. A wide, richly decorated verandah surrounded the building, protecting the rooms from sunlight and rain while the new billiard room and bar were sensibly housed in a separate block.
The hotel now offered 100 suites, all with furniture suited to the climate, as well as electric lighting - making Raffles the only hotel in the Straits lit by electricity. Not only did the hotel have its own steam engine to generate electricity, but a 10,000-gallon tank ensured a steady water supply.
A special inauguration dinner for 200 guests was held in the dining room where electric light was used for the first time. The Straits Times representative who went along after the grand opening to see what things were like on an ordinary night, was most impressed, especially by the blazing lights as he approached the hotel from the sea front. Indeed, his only complaint was that the drawing rooms were unsuitable for flirting - due to a lack of screens, anyone who walked along the passageways could look in. Tigran should have sought the advice of a lady, he admonished.
Tigran was quick to respond, assuring the writer that when the drawing rooms were finished, they would give every facility for flirtation.
Ecstatic reviews of dinners dotted the press for the next three decades. Among early successes was the 1900 New Year’s Eve dinner. Lauded as the best banquet yet offered by a hotel in Singapore, it was claimed that half the town turned up for the dinner and the rest came in later to dance.
However, travellers were once more complaining of the dearth of quality accommodation, strongly feeling that a first rate hotel under European management was urgently needed. Perhaps such comments encouraged Arathoon Sarkies and Eleazar Johannes to acquire the Adelphi Hotel in 1903, and the new owners of the Hotel de l’Europe to construct a modern hotel in 1904 (poaching Charlie Chaytor from Raffles to manage it).
These entrepreneurial Armenians in charge of Singapore’s three leading hotels kept one another on their toes. An intense advertising war ensued as each tried to outdo the other vying for patronage for their special dinners, race dinners, coronation dinners and musical dinners. They wooed the diverse expatriate communities with lavish menus accompanied by musical delights to celebrate the birthdays of Kaiser Wilhelm, Queen Wilhelmina, King Edward and Queen Alexandra.
In November 1910, having guided Raffles for twenty-three years, a sick Tigran sailed for England. Of some consolation would have been the Pinang Gazette’s glowing praise of his achievement - 'Raffles is more than a hostelry, it is an institution – the hotel has made Singapore famous to the tourist and an abode of pleasure to the resident.'
Respected Citizens: the History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia