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Band of brothers While researching a book, Andreas Augustin unearthed Raffles Hotel’s original plans that had been lost for over a century. Soon after, in 1987, it was listed as a protected building. The author tells the story of the Hotel’s armenian founders, the Sarkies brothers, through the eyes of youngest sibling, Arshak

“The camel does not see its own hump” Armenian saying


brothers The Sarkies brothers were, from 1880 to 1930, the most famous hoteliers in Asia. Martin Sarkies (seated) is surrounded by the younger-generation: Joe Constantine (left); his brother Arshak; and Martyrose Arathoon, a Sarkies partner. The Armenian brothers developed a new mixture of Asian-European hospitality hitherto unknown in South-East Asia, and for almost five decades, they built, opened and ran hotels that have become legends in their own right.



A Raffles Hotel Singapore advert from 1915

One more. One more turn! The music had stopped, but a small, bald, red-faced man

The Sarkies family belonged to the first wave of

reeled across the dance floor, his eyes hypnotically fixed on

Armenian economic refugees to Asia. Arshak Sarkies

a broad tumbler, which he had balanced on his forehead.

recalled the story; his brothers had told it more than once.

Hadn’t he realised that the band had gone for a break? Now he paused, took the glass from his head and emptied the stengha


in one go. He smiled at the

charming ladies sitting at his table.

Some Sarkies were in Singapore just after the time of Stamford Raffles. Soon, two thirds of all Armenian trading houses in Singapore were owned by Aristarchus and Aratoon Sarkies. And in 1869, the year the Suez

He sat down, leaned back and closed his eyes. Only a few tables were occupied.

Canal opened, engineer Martin Sarkies had put down roots in Penang.

The dance, Arshak Sarkies knew only too well, was over. He stepped out onto the terrace of the Eastern and Oriental

Martin and his brothers Aviet and Tigran established the Eastern Hotel on the Esplanade. The following year,

Hotel. His hotel. A mild breeze blew along the Penang shore and lanterns twinkled in Georgetown harbour, the oldest of all British settlements in the Straits of Malacca. It had been one

เสียงดนตรีจบลงไปแล้ว แต่อาร์ชัค ซาร์คีสยังคงพยายามเลี้ยงแก้ว ไว้บนหน้าผาก ไม่นาน เขาก็หยุด แล้วเดินออกสู่ระเบียงโรงแรม อีสเทินส์แอนด์โอเรียนเต็ล โรงแรมของเขาที่ตั้งอยู่ริมฝั่งปีนัง

hell of a party. [1] A stengha is a drink made from a half measure of whisky and soda, served over ice. It was a popular drink in the early 20th century in areas of the British Empire in Asia. The term derives from the Malay word for ‘half’.



Raffles Hotel today

they took over the Oriental next door. It stood on a plot of land facing the sea; the brothers combined the two establishments and created the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (E&O), which now boasted an expansive 842-foot seafront. Business was good... too good. The landlord, a greedy trader, immediately doubled the lease. Angrily, the Sarkies brothers began eying Singapore. They opened a small tiffin room on Raffles Place, and on Beach Road they came upon the former hotel of a certain Dr Emmerson – at that time

a billiard room with English tables, a good bar and a tiffin

the Raffles Institution school’s boarding house. A beautiful

room which provided fine cuisine. On the upper floors,

broad white bungalow right on the shore with impressive

clean spacious rooms had good beds and mosquito nets.

pillars at the front, the property commanded an unrivalled

By now the Penang landlord had got the hint and agreed to renegotiate the lease. The Eastern and Oriental thrived.

view of shipping activities and the harbour. The landlord, Syed Mohamed Bin Ahmed Al Sagoff,

Soon after, the Sarkies opened the Crag Hotel on Penang

PHOTOGRAPHY BY Orland Punzalan

showed a keen interest in the Armenian brothers’ ambitious plans. Their idea was to add two wings and create 48 bedrooms. He agreed to every proposed extension and gave the green light for a long-term lease. On 1 December 1887, Raffles Hotel was born. Tigran Sarkies had been instrumental in setting it up. The

ครอบครัวซาร์คีส์เป็นชาวอาร์เมเนียนรุ่นแรกที่อพยพสู่เอเชีย มาร์ติน ซาร์คีส ได้ร่วมกับน้องชาย คือเอเวียตและไทแกรน ก่อ ตั้งโรงแรมอีสเทินส์ ปีต่อมา ก็รวบกิจการโรงแรมโอเรียลเต็ลที่อยู่ ติดกันแล้วเปิดเป็นโรงแรมอีสเทินส์แอนด์โอเรียลเต็ล กิจการ โรงแรมเป็นไปด้วยดี กระทั่งเจ้าของที่ขึ้นค่าเช่าเป็นเท่าตัว พี่น้องซาร์คีส์จึงย้ายไปเปิดโรงแรมในแถบราฟเฟิลส์ โดย ดัดแปลงขึ้นจากหอพักนักเรียนของโรงเรียน

cornerstones on the ground floor were


HISTORY The Strand Hotel in Yangon circa 1905, and in the modern day (below)

Hill, a cool retreat from the heat of the plains, and the Seaview Hotel in Singapore. In 1901, Aviet and Tigran opened the Strand in Rangoon (Yangon). Combined purchasing, corporate advertising and common standards: the Sarkies were now running the first Asian hotel chain. The Sarkies were not trained hoteliers; they were businessmen with big hearts and high standards. There was a distinct lack of good accommodation in Asia for travellers arriving after an exhausting voyage from Europe or America. Having spent weeks in narrow, uncomfortable cabins, they often had to rent an equally uncomfortable room. Overpriced guesthouses were run by innkeepers who felt their duty was done if they offered a room away from rats, beggars and thieves and from the dirt and dust of the bed linen. Asian guesthouses rarely offered sheets at all. A mosquito net was often the only luxury and doors were rarely equipped with a lock.

ในวันที่ 1 ธันวาคม ปีพ.ศ. 2430 โรงแรมราฟเฟิลส์เริ่มเปิดให้ บริการ ถึงตอนนั้น เจ้าของที่ดินที่ปีนังจึงยอมเจรจาลดค่าเช่าลง โรงแรมอีสเทินส์แอนด์โอเรียนเต็ลจึงยังคงเปิดให้บริการต่อไป

The Sarkies adored luxury: tablecloths of the finest Bohemian linen; silver cutlery; white Carrara marble. At night every guest sported black tie. Tigran Sarkies, who ran Raffles successfully until his premature death in 1912, had brought the first caviar to the colony. The brothers accommodated the King of Siam; governors were regulars. Once they hosted Cyril, the Grand Duke of Russia; Raffles Hotel’s French chef >>


พี่น้องซาร์คีสได้รับเกียรติต้อนรับกษัตริย์แห่งสยามประเทศ และท่านดยุคแห่งรัซเซีย หนังสือพิมพ์สเฟียร์แห่งกรุง ลอนดอนเรียกโรงแรมราฟเฟิลส์ว่า ซาวอยแห่งตะวันออก กระนั้น โรงแรมราฟเฟิลส์ไม่มีกระทั่งน้ำ�ประปาจนกระทั่งปี พ.ศ. 2453 ในขณะที่ซาวอยมีน้ำ�ประปาร้อนเย็นสำ�หรับ ห้องพักทุกห้องตั้งแต่ปีพ.ศ. 2432

photo from: (top)

street. In Europe, monograms were embroidered onto

HISTORY The Eastern & Oriental Hotel Penang, pictured in 1885

puzzled the Duke with his über-sophisticated

destination. Hong Kong, Singapore, Penang, Colombo –

compositions. The press wrote: “it was the best food ever

the great harbours of the British Empire. The world was

put on a table in these latitudes.”

travelling again.

The dining room could seat 500 people. Raffles was the

In 1923, the Handbook to the Seaports of the Far

only hotel in the entire Straits settlements with its own

East noted that, “No hotelkeepers in the East are more

government post- and telegraph-office, its own bakery

famous than Messrs Sarkies brothers, pioneers in their

which supplied Singapore’s finest households, and its own

line of business in the towns where they have established

cold storage plant. By 1910, they had telephones in every

themselves so well.”

room. A garage contained 13 fine limousines. The London Sphere flatteringly called Raffles “the Savoy

People loved to stay at Sarkies hotels. Some of them stayed for months and couldn’t pay in the end. Numerous

of the East”. But in all fairness, the Savoy had hot and

clients ran up enormous debts and never came back to

cold running water in every room by 1889. Raffles had no

settle them. The Sarkies waved the accounts of customers

running water until 1910. It did however have running

in need. A fellow Armenian, stranded, hoping for a ships’

boys, to bring the water. In the bathrooms there were clay

passage, could count on the help of a Sarkies brother.

receptacles of enormous size; guests could ladle themselves with water. Once a clumsy fellow got stuck in a clay pot, trying to take a bath, and staff had to smash it to get him out. In 1911, the Sarkies brothers built the largest ballroom in eastern & oriental hotel

the East, right in front of Raffles Hotel. Guests danced all night long… foreign guests only as locals were not allowed. The effect of the Great War was a catastrophe. The war itself rarely touched Penang, but the E&O suffered great losses in business during that time. In 1920, it picked up again slowly. And then the travellers came, like a storm. More than 50,000 guests checked in to Raffles each year

ผู้คนรักที่จะพักที่โรงแรมของตระกูลซาร์คีส์ ทว่าแขกหลายต่อ หลายคนเป็นหนี้ที่ผัดผ่อนมานับครั้งไม่ถ้วน และไม่ได้กลับมา ชำ�ระใช้คืนอีกเลยก็มี เมื่อไทแกรน มาร์ตินและเอเวียตเสียชีวิตลง ก็เหลือเพียงอาร์ชัคที่คอยดูแลกิจการโรงแรม ทว่าเขาไม่ใช่นัก โรงแรม ไม่แม้กระทั่งเป็นนักธุรกิจ อาร์ชัคถอนหายใจเฮือกใหญ่ ไม่มีครั้งใดเลยโรงแรมจะว่างเปล่าเพียงนี้ เหล่าบรรดาบริษัท ต่างพากันเรียกร้องให้เขาชำ�ระหนี้ พรุ่งนี้เขาต้องเข้าพบผู้จัดการ ธนาคารอีกครั้งเพื่อจัดการเรื่องเงินกู้และค่าใช้จ่ายรายเดือน ต่างๆ บางทีแล้ว เขาควรจะกลับไปเต้นรำ�กับเสียงเพลงอีกครั้ง

– it seemed the Americans had discovered Singapore as a



The Eastern & Oriental Hotel Penang today

“Arshak, Arshak,” his brother Martin said all the time, “stay away from the horses.” The races were just one of

The Sarkies in time

Arshak’s expensive hobbies. A friend of the fairer sex, he had

1884-5 Eastern & Oriental Hotel opens for business

enjoyed life’s pleasures to the max. A glass of whisky and

in Penang, Malaysia

soda was his trademark.

1887 1 December: Raffles Hotel Singapore opens

One by one, Arshak’s brothers died. Tigran and Martin, both in 1912; Aviet in 1923. They left him to deal with all the hotels. But Arshak was an entertainer, not a hotelier – or at least not a businessman. Arhsak took a deep breath. It was 1931. The giant

1891 Arshak Sarkies (inset) joins the enterprise of his brothers

1901 The Strand Hotel in Rangoon (Yangon) opens for business

1910 One of Martins’ five children, Lucas

complex of the Eastern & Oriental was half empty behind

Martin, founds hotel Oranje (now the

him. Never had a New Year’s Ball been so poorly booked.

Majapahit Hotel) in Surabaya, Indonesia

Had he been too hasty in building the vast extension? The

1931 9 January: Arshak Sarkies dies in Penang

rubber slump had killed so many businesses – as had the

1931 10 June: Singapore businessman Tang Men

New York stock exchange crash two years before. The younger Sarkies brother had rarely visited Raffles

Jim files a bankruptcy case against Raffles Hotel for $35,236.87 (Straits dollars) worth of food supplies. The

Hotel of late. It was a tiresome journey and he had no

Sarkies brothers’ liabilities had totalled $3.5 million,

time to answer all the requests… those many vendors and

owed to 195 creditors. Arshak’s family had to leave

suppliers who demanded payment. Tomorrow he would

their suite at the E&O hotel. Raffles Hotel Ltd was put

see his Georgetown Chartered Bank manager again. The

in charge. Although the Sarkies tale had came to an

repayment of the loan for the extension, the interest, the

end, the story of the hotels involved, gladly, did not.

monthly bills...

Raffles Singapore, the E&O in Penang and the Strand

Arshak returned to the ballroom. Maybe he could have one more turn on the dance floor. Just one more turn.


Rangoon have all survived under different owners.

The Sarkies Brothers  

Fah Thai Airways Magazine published this article on the Sarkies brothers, eminent hoteliers in South East Asia, who founded the E&O Penang,...

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