Magazine Winter 2008 Beauty and the Flower

24 November 2008, 15:53
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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.

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