As of 2017, there are only 40 Armenians living in Singapore. This humble number — which is more than double what was recorded during the earliest population census in 1824 — brings home the significant role the community has played in our nation’s development.
“The Armenians created some of Singapore’s most iconic symbols,” says Sandra Basmadjian, the woman who spearheaded efforts to establish Asia’s first Armenian Heritage Gallery, which opened in June 2018.
These symbols included Raffles Hotel, opened by Armenian brothers Martin and Tigran Sarkies in 1887; there’s also Vanda Miss Joaquim, the orchid nurtured by Agnes Joaquim in the 1890s, which was named Singapore’s national flower in 1981.
The Armenian Heritage Gallery is located on the grounds of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, which was built in 1835 for $5,000 Spanish dollars, largely collected from 12 Armenian families.
In the making for more than a decade, the gallery is a labour of love for Basmadjian and her Armenian husband Krikor. After returning from Japan in 2001, where he had been working as a banker, Krikor wanted to connect with fellow Armenians here so he could help preserve the community’s heritage. And the gallery, he imagined, would be key to this endeavour.
Together, the couple went through the church archives, sieving through minutes, books and other documents. “These materials were very old, so we had to be gentle when handling them,” Basmadjian remembers fondly.
“I had sneezing fits because of the dust flying around; my husband, who was perspiring profusely, had to often wipe his brow to ensure sweat didn’t fall on the papers.”
Such cherished memories became a powerful driving force for Basmadjian to see the project to fruition when Krikor passed on in 2015.
“It was important to me to help tell the story of the Armenians and how they have impacted Singapore,” says the soft-spoken 50-something, who worked in the financial services industry but now volunteers as a guide at the gallery.
Artefacts in the gallery were donated by the community both within and outside of Singapore. Some had been presented to the church to commemorate the passing of a loved one, a tradition among Armenians. Among them is Basmadjian’s own favourite, a donation vessel made of silver, with a thin, long handle to hold a velvet pouch for offerings.
Over the next few years, the exhibits will be updated and the nature of the display refreshed with interactive elements to attract younger visitors, Basmadjian lets on. It is a two-fold challenge: many items here have been damaged, lost or destroyed over the decades, while those from overseas bear little or no relevance to Singapore.
Meanwhile, a donation drive is underway for the construction of the Community Centre next to the gallery. To open in mid-2020, it can accommodate up to 80 people and is where weddings and other special celebrations can be held; members can also enjoy chess and Armenian language classes there.
Says Basmadjian: “Family is very important to the Armenians. We find every good reason to get together during festivals and public holidays. All this helps to strengthen ties not only within the community, but also ties between our and other communities.”
For more on trailblazing leaders, read our series on alphas here.