05 August 2013, 13:54
1827 |

Beauty and the Flower

This story has it all – a rich merchant, his beautiful and well-educated daughter and, naturally, an exotic flower. The setting is the tropical island of the Lion, located between Asia and Oceania, and the main characters are Armenian immigrants.

Good things come in small packages
Small countries are a special case: Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Brunei, Kuwait, Singapore; sometimes their quest for perfection leads to the most outstanding results.
Singapore is a small country, and by small I mean tiny. The widest part of the island nation is less than 42 kilometers across, about the distance from Santa Monica to East Los Angeles, or from Yerevan to Khor Virab. Bearing its diminutive physical size in mind, little Singapore is also a wealthy and extremely tidy land, functioning as precisely as a Swiss watch. Where else in the world could an otherwise law-abiding citizen get a $700 fine for chewing gum in public? Which other country could afford to set the tax on imported cars so high that only one in ten citizens could afford one? These and other strictures do not reflect contempt for the citizens. On the contrary, as a result of a seemingly endless list of prohibitions, the country is in an ideal ecological condition, completely free of traffic jams and garbage dumps, with common flies listed as an endangered species. Along with flies, the country is free from crime and national turmoil. Ninety percent of the population is Muslim, descendants of settlers from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The local Muslims are politically conciliatory and, alongside Koreans and Europeans, are putting into action long-held dreams of friendship between nations. This kind of friendship is alive and well among the people of the four ethnic regions, each with its own culture. The Indians of Singapore live in Little India – a tiny district, more closely resembling scenes from Indian soap operas than reality. The air is full of the scent of sandalwood, and visitors can taste the local delicacy known as thali, buy garlands of jasmine for women’s hair and chewing betel nuts for men. In some ways, the well-maintained “dollhouses” and clean streets, free of both cows and beggars, look more like England than India. 
Even the Muslim quarters with its primary attraction – the rather rustic buildings of the Mosque (they say the first immigrants were so poor that they used any building materials they could get hold of, including recycled glass bottles, which indeed decorate the mosque), look like an old European town. It is a recent phenomena that the Singaporeans can afford to show off artificial islands, luxurious six-star hotels and $20 million laser shows. The main feature that sets Chinatown apart from its clean and pristine neighbors are the traditional Chinese medicine shops (which may feature a remedy made of dried dog’s penis or bat guano) and the huge Chinese Temple. The central street is covered with a Plexiglas roof and is air-conditioned. It is done not just for comfort, but also to preserve the historic buildings, which are the largest surviving antiquities of modern Singapore.
In fact, the local understanding of the term “antiquity” is a relative notion, since the oldest of the preserved historic buildings, the Armenian Apostolic Church of Sourb Grikor Lusavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator), was built in 1835.

Armenians all around… 
Singapore indeed has it all, even its own Little Armenia. Today it exists in a modest state: it is represented by just two buildings, a newspaper, a small cemetery, and by the national symbol of Singapore. The story of the national symbol I will leave for later. First, a description of the more substantial objects. 
The attitude of local residents toward old churches lacks the appropriate respect, at least for Western eyes. The non-Islamic modern islanders are not especially religious, and their idols seem to be the lesser gods of consumption and business. They might easily put a nightclub in a Catholic temple without considering the religious implications. The same pragmatic atheists, for some reason, have preserved the Armenian Church on Hill Street. The white neoclassical building resembling a cross when viewed from above and three miniature U.S. White Houses from the sides, today stands vacant. It is neither a museum nor a functioning church. It’s been little more than a tourist attraction for more than 75 years. The last service in this temple was held in the late 1930's. In fact, even the priest in the 1930's was imported from overseas, as if he were an opera diva or a film star. 
The history behind the Armenian Apostolic Church speaks to the spirit of Singaporean cosmopolitism. When the first Armenian immigrants arrived in Singapore and decided to build a church, they soon realized that they were lacking the financial resources to do so. They sought help from the Armenian communities in the neighboring countries of India and Java, and the funds were collected in short order. A famous architect from Ireland, George Coleman, was invited to design the church. In spite of his lack of familiarity with Armenian architectural traditions, by the time of the Singapore commission he had already built the Parliament House and St. Andrew’s Cathedral on the island, which were well-known to the local elite. The neoclassical colonial building of the church with its minimalist interiors and hollow archways is considered Coleman’s masterpiece. The church bears very little resemblance to anything intrinsically Armenian in its design; it lacks a stone revetment on the facade, and frescoes in the interiors. The only spot of color is the red carpet between the pews. The Armenian Apostolic Church of Sourb Grikor Lusavorich, which was the first building with electricity in Singapore, is surrounded by a well-maintained tropical park with a small cemetery that was added after the time of construction. The graves were relocated to this site in the 1960s from a cemetery at Fort Canning, which was then transformed into a gorgeous park. The little Armenian cemetery adjacent to the church is the final resting place of distinguished Singaporean Armenians of the 19th and 20th centuries. Four Sarkis brothers, the famous Agnes Joaquim, and Khachik Moses, an entrepreneur and the co-founder of one of the largest business newspapers of the country, Straits Times, all have found their rest here. Notably, the Straits Times is the only local newspaper to join the international giants, the Wall Street Journal and the Herald Tribune, with daily delivery to the luxurious hotels of Singapore.

For the fortunate few
Not surprisingly, the most famous five-star hotel in Singapore was built by Armenians. When I was taken there to admire the old lace-like building and heard its history, I was not surprised.
The Raffles Hotel, named after the founding father of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, is not just a hotel. Nowadays, the contemporary Russian el ites check in at the Raf f les, dissatisfied with the accommodations at the Ritz. Apparently the Ritz is no longer grand enough to suit their inf lated needs. In the book 1000 Things to Do Before You Die, well-known throughout Singapore, the authors urge readers to “Visit the Raffles Hotel”. Raffles is a legend, a dream. Built in 1887 by the Sarkis brothers from Isfahan - Martin, Tigran, Avet, and Arshak, - the hotel has its own theatre, tropical garden, museum, and a world-famous restaurant. The brothers spared no expense for their Singapore project – even the marble was brought here from the Italian region of Carrara. The thought that the hotel’s floors and Michelangelo’s statues are made of the same stuff compensates for any inconveniences. Leaving the superlatives for others, I will simply say: the hotel is gorgeous.
Until 1930 Asians were not allowed there. Distinguished guests of the hotel include the Queen of England, Elisabeth II, Eva Ga rdne r, a nd Rudyard Kipling. For Kipling, who was known for his sense of colonial supremacy, the local regulations governing the conduct of the native-born residents were particularly welcome. The anti-colonial agitation started after the last of the brothers, Arshak, passed away in 1931. Even after changes in policies and rules, the constituency of Raffles did not change meaningfully; it just added Asian princes and prime ministers to its guest book, and thus continued to hold its special status. During World War II the Japanese occupied Singapore. As the apocryphal story goes, the Japanese allowed the hotel guests to finish their waltz and then they occupied the hotel after asking the guests to vacate the premises. Forty-five years later the hotel was pronounced a national landmark, and the Sarkis brothers received the title of Honorary Citizens of Singapore.

The pink gold of Singapore
In the Armenian cemetery Agnes Joaquim rests next to the Sarkis brothers. Joaquim was a prominent Armenian who is practically the symbol of Singapore, or at the very least one of its two symbols.
Singapore has two symbols – one feminine and one masculine. These symbols are always depicted together, like a couple in love. They are most commonly represented as a lion and an orchid, or occasionally a lion-headed mermaid and a flower. The original name of the country – “Singha Pura” translates from the Sanskrit as the City of the Lion. Legend would have it that the first “tourist”, an Indian prince with his retinue who arrived here from neighboring Java, spotted a lion behind some bushes. The lion immediately entered into folklore, and later into the name of the country. Having the tail of a mermaid, which turns him into an odd sort of a hybrid symbol, it represents the fishing villages that were the only inhabited communities on the island before the 19th century. The second national symbol, the orchid, is also a hybrid. However, in comparison to Singapore’s version of the king of beasts, the queen of flowers is a much more natural hybrid.
Singapore is a commonly accepted orchid mecca. The array of orchid types is numbered in the thousands, with dozens of new kinds of orchids created through hybridization every year. The large Botanical Garden includes a small VIP garden with special orchids named after famous individuals. For instance, “Margaret Thatcher” has an exquisite shape, intensely purple color, and spiraling petals, making the flower resemble the antlers of a spiral-horned antelope. The “iron lady” grows in an equally regal surrounding in the botanical garden’s hothouse. We can also find the glamorous “Ricky Martin”, the refined ruby-colored “Japanese Emperor Akihito”, and the dark-pink “President of the Republic of Namibia”.
In fact, using orchids as tribute flowers is far from the most extravagant idea related to this flower family. In Africa, for example, orchids are used in local cuisine, their petals are added into traditional sauces. Turks also eat orchids; the roots are ground into a sort of flour and used in the preparation of ice-cream, which has an exquisite taste and is considered as a means to enhance sexual potency. Who might be stimulated by what means, I dare not ask. However, my experience is that the local residents are mostly stimulated by money. The most expensive orchid was recently sold for $120,000; an ideal contender for the right to be called a national symbol! Anyone could guess that orchids, beautiful, native, and luxurious, were destined to become the national flower of Singapore. The only thing that remained to be decided was which one was the most worthy type.
A daughter of a rich Armenian merchant, Agnes Joaquim, loved flowers. Orchids of many colors and sizes grew in her garden – red, purple, magenta, white, and creamy with freckles, some small, and some as large as melons. Once, as she admired her orchids, she noticed a new flower, one she had never seen before. The unknown natural hybrid had a gourmet coloration – something between strawberries with cream and cream without strawberries. It was tall and had a perfect shape. Miss Joaquim immediately took the flower to her friend, the first director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the best regional orchid expert, Mr. H.N. Ridley. He carefully examined the strawberry-creamy flower, confirmed that this was an unknown type of an orchid, and registered it under his own name. However, being a true gentleman, he made sure that the new orchid was named after the young lady who discovered it – Vanda Miss Joaquim. The year was 1893. In 1981, as the Singaporean government sought a national symbol, it chose this orchid out of thousands of known types. Vanda Miss Joaquim was an ideal choice, a flawless native hybrid, the perfect orchid.
One can now buy this flower in its natural form or gold-plated. A gold orchid is not a metaphor; it’s a top seller at local jewelers. A real flower is dipped in a 24-carat gold-saturated solution and in the process of hydrolysis is covered by a thin layer of gold dust. Each pair of earrings, brooch, and pendant created with this technology is unique , just like the real orchid sealed inside. The jewelers thereby avoid the problem of copies turning a masterpiece into an article of mass production. This popular souvenir is carried by tourists to all corners of the world and is delivered not to a single Armenian merchant’s daughter, but to thousands of women.

Yerevan Magazine, Winter, N3, 2008

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