The word “heritage” is so often appended to hotels today that the word itself it is becoming debased. There are a select few properties in Asia however, that befits the term — hotels in business for a century and more, dating back to the beginnings of tourism in the region. No less than four hotels — the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the Eastern & Oriental in Penang, the Strand in Yangon and Hotel Majapahit in Surabaya — built by one family, the Sarkies brothers.
The Sarkies brothers — Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak — were among the first wave of Armenian-Persian refugees fleeing the tyranny and persecution of the Turkish and Russian empires. They came from Isfahan in Persia — modern-day Iran — a long line of Persian merchants, who for centuries had prospered via the ancient trading route known as the Silk Road.
By the 1860s, the Silk Road was in decline and, with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Sarkies were forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Martin Sarkies, then an engineer, moved to Penang in Malaysia, where Tigran eventually joined him after spending several years trading in Java, Indonesia.
In Europe, Thomas Cook founded the world’s first travel agency in 1872. With Europe more widely accessible, the now-familiar search for the less beaten path began.
But even using newfangled steamships and railways, ‘taking passage’ to Asia, took weeks. Once there, the available lodgings suited local habits and diets, not those of pampered Westerners. Another Armenian family, the Mazloumians, are said to have founded what became the famous Baron Hotel in Aleppo in 1870 after noticing how uncomfortable European travellers were in caravanserai, the region’s traditional lodging houses — caravanaserai would later inspired Adrian Zecha to build The Serai in the 90s and his latest hotel brand Azerai in 2017. The scene was set for four Sarkies brothers — Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak — to make their mark.
Tigran was keen to exploit the new world of hospitality, perceiving it as potentially more profitable than his trading and auctioning enterprises. He was soon dabbling in other businesses and, with with brother Martin, this included refurbishing an existing house at one of the city’s most prestigious addresses, 1A Light Street. Turning it into the Eastern Hotel, it opened its doors on April 15, 1884 in downtown Penang. When a third brother, Aviet, arrived a year later, the brothers opened their second hotel in Penang, the Oriental.
Both hotels did well but they were unable to expand the Eastern as they wanted and so, in 1889, they closed it, adding its name to the signboard of the Oriental and so arriving at the name that many today shorten simply to the E&O, managed by the youngest brother, Arshak. By then, Tigran had already skipped onto Singapore, while Aviet moved to Yangon, Burma — modern-day Myanmar.
In September 1887, a short article in the local press announced the intention of the Sarkies Brothers, proprietors of the Eastern & Oriental in Penang, to open a hotel in Singapore and name it after Singapore’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles. With their keen sense of location, the brothers rented a ten-room boarding house on the beach at the corner of Beach and Bras Basah Roads owned by the Arab trader, Mohamed Alsagoff. On 1 December 1887, Raffles Hotel opened to the public as a 10-room hotel.
In 1892, the brothers expanded their business, opening Raffles Tiffin Rooms in May. Martin, the eldest brother, retired from the business and returned to Isfahan, Persia. Tigran was placed in charge of the Raffless Hotel operations; and Aviet was stationed in Burma where he guided the opening of the Strand Hotel.
Tigran opened a new two-storey Palm Court Wing in December 1894, offering thirty well-furnished suites, bringing the hotel’s total to seventy-five. And on 18 November 1899, Raffles Hotel’s familiar Main Building was completed and opened with great fanfare. This marked the beginning of the Hotel’s heyday. The elegant neo Renaissance architecture and grand spaces reflected comfort and style. 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 Singapore 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 and fans was used for the first time. The Hotel also boasted Singapore’s first French chef!
Raffles has since been franchised and expanded to multiple locations globally, and is now managed by Accor.
When Aviet first came to Yangon he spotted an ideal location directly opposite the main jetty on the banks of the Yangon River. Unfortunately, the site was not available, and he was forced to secure premises within the town. This first enterprise in Burma was the smallest and least successful of all the Sarkies hotels. Ten years later the original riverside site finally became available, and Aviet, who was said to be the most retiring of the brothers, opened the superb Strand Hotel in 1901 — a grand establishment that survives to this day as one of Yangon’s most enduring landmarks.
Aviet died in Paris in 1923, and The Strand was soon put on the market. It was sold to Yangon restaurateur Peter Bugalar Aratoon and his cousin Ae Amovsie in 1925. During the Japanese occupation of Burma in World War II, the hotel was used to quarter Japanese troops. In the following year, 1942, the Strand’s ownership was transferred to the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Soon after, for the first time since the hotel’s establishment, the Burmese people became an important part of the hotel’s clientele. After Burma achieved independence in 1948, the hotel was neglected by postcolonial governments.
The Strand has been restored to its 1920s glory by Adrian Zecha and felow partner Bernard Pe-Win and was reopened as part of Aman in 1989. Its management was later transferred to GHM, another Adrian Zecha’s hotel management venture, in 1999 until its termination in 2013 . The Strand is now an independent hotel.
The brothers’ success soon drew their younger cousin, Arathoon Sarkies, to the region. Arathoon, together with fellow Armenians Eleazar Johannes, acquired Singapore’s Adelphi Hotel in 1903 from Manasseh Meyer, a key figure in the early Jewish community in Singapore. Originally opened in 1863, the Adelphi Hotel building was converted into a grand 100-bedroom hotel, complete with a dining hall that seated 400. Adelphi Hotel stood alongside Raffles Hotel, Hotel de L’Europe and Hotel de La Paix as one of the Big Three hotels in Singapore. Things ran smoothly for Adelphi Hotel until it collapsed in 1908 — Arathoon was declared a bankrupt.
After he was discharged from bankruptcy in 1910, he swore off the hotel trade and went into the rubber plantation business. He ran a 385ha plantation on one of the Indonesia’s Riau Islands before he became bankrupt again in 1929. He died in 1932.
The Adelphi Hotel — which had been sold to another company — closed in 1973. The venerable Adelphi Hotel building was demolished seven years later to make way for a less-impressive ten-storey office and retail complex. Sarkies Road in Bukit Timah was named after Mrs Regina Sarkies, Mr Arathoon Sarkies’ wife, in 1923.
The original site of The Crag was first utilised as a private residence. By the early 1850s, it was used as a sanatorium. The idea to go into the hotel business came about in 1885, when the Sarkies brothers met the Khaw family, who had their hands in various enterprises all the way between Penang and Bangkok. Meanwhile, up in Penng Hill, a Scotsman by the name of Captain J. Kerr had leased a plot of land and erected his bungalow named The Crag.
The Crag was finally added to the brothers’ hotel empire in 1905, when the Sarkies took over the Crag, sat majestically atop a ridge of Penang Hill, from a pair of fellow Armenian hoteliers. This was a deliberate departure from previous ventures: out of town and far from the port. Penang was blighted by malaria and smallpox at the time and the Sarkies marketed it as a health resort with its cooler mountain air, as well as a honeymooner’s spot.
Although it was still managed by the Sarkies brothers, by 1925 The Crag was handed over to the Federated Malay States Railway. Most of the hotel was completely rebuilt in 1930 and it continued operating until the Second World War, when it was requisitioned by the Japanese Army of occupation. The Crag hotel re-opened in 1947, but was not as popular as it had been and finally closed its doors in 1954.
There have been several attempts to interest an overseas hotel chain to redevelop the Crag Hotel site. Aman is said to be one of the leading hotel operators to carry out the refurbishment and development plan, but nothing has materialised to date.
Sea View Hotel
The Sea View Hotel was opened in 1906 as the Oriental Tiffin & Billiard Rooms, during the hotel boom years of the early 20th century. Unlike most of the early hotels that were located in town or its vicinity, Sea View Hotel was set up in Tanjong Katong, what was then considered the countryside. The Sea View Hotel was originally a large colonial bungalow situated on the sea front, and surrounded by a grove of coconut trees. It was known for its idyllic surroundings and seaside location.
Similar with Adelphi Hotel, the building that housed Sea View Hotel was also owned by Manasseh Meyer. The hotel was leased to several people over the years, including Eleazar Johannes, from 1912–1923, and the Sarkies brothers, from 1923 to 1931.
When Eleazar Johannes took over in 1912, he added improvements such as the installation of electric lighting and fans. In 1913, a bungalow was converted into an annex known as Grove Bungalow for additional accommodation — by then, Sea View Hotel had also been using the nearby Grove Hotel as an annex.
If Raffles was the city slicker, then Sea View Hotel was the country mouse, with a seawater swimming pool, tennis, golf and the occasional cabaret. The 1936 edition of Willis’ Singapore Guide — the TripAdvisor of its day — described it as “one of the city’s three leading hotels”.
Alas, the good times were not to last. After passing out of the Sarkies brothers’ control, the hotel was crippled by a three-month strike in 1963 from its 160 workers over a wage dispute. The hotel closed in 1964, and thereafter its furniture was auctioned. It was demolished and a new hotel of the same name arose about 1.5km to the east, but that closed in 2003 to be replaced by a condominium called — why not stick with a catchy moniker? — The Sea View.
In Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, Lucas Martin Sarkies, also the Sarkies brothers’ cousin, built another of the Sarkies lasting legacies, the Oranje Hotel. He commissioned noted architect Regent Alfred John Bidwell to create a Dutch colonial art nouveau hotel with a budget of 500,000 guilders. Bidwell also designed Kuala Lumpur’s Sultan Abdul Samad Building and the brothers’ earlier hotel, Raffles Hotel.
In 1936 the front of the hotel was extended, using an Art Deco architectural style. The new facade included the addition of the Dutch “Van Dorp” stationery shop and the “Hoen Kwee” cake and ice cream shop.
In the midst of World War II, the hotel was occupied by the Japanese and used as a military barrack and temporary prison camp for Dutch women and children who were to be relocated to other camps in Central Java. “Yamato Hoteru” or “Hotel Yamato” was the name of the hotel from 1942 to 1945.
The hotel was the site of the famous “Hotel Yamato Incident” on 19 September 1945 when pro-nationalist Indonesian youth revolutionaries tore away the blue portion of the Dutch flag flown above the hotel to change it to the red-and-white Indonesian flag in the lead-up to the Battle of Surabaya. Following this incident, the hotel was renamed the Hotel Merdeka (Independence Hotel).
In 1946 Lucas Martin brothers returned to manage the hotel and renamed it the L. M. S. Hotel after his initial name. In 1969, Mantrust Holdings Co. bought the hotel and renamed it Hotel Majapahit, after the historic kingdom of Majapahit.
The hotel was restored in 1994 by Harry Susilo, a prominent Indonesian businessman, at a cost of $51 million. It reopened on 19 January 1996 as the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Majapahit Surabaya, managed by the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. Hotel Majapahit is now managed by Accor.
Lucas Martin also built a family villa in Batu as an escape from the teeming city. Today, much extended, that too has become a hotel, the Kartika Wijaya. The Kartika Wijaya building, also known as Jambe Dawe building, is a historical building from the Dutch Colonial era. First established in 1891, this building function as a resort villa for Lucas Martin’ family, built in traditional European architectural style. The function changes following its further development, once into a residential, then into a Japanese army basecamp, an armory, an Indonesian army base and soup kitchen, a Dutch army base, a military hospital, and eventualy as a hotel.
Lucas Martin died in Malang, near Batu, Indonesia in 1946.
Up and downs
By the 1900s, the Sarkies brothers had become Asia’s leading hoteliers. Their enterprises dominated where others failed or feared to tread. They introduced the concept of fine dining to their hotels, even importing caviar from the Caspian Sea. Their establishments became symbols of the British Empire, and their influence on the hotels of Asia has resonated down the ensuing 100 years.
In 1910, the Sarkies were at the peak of their success. They had captured a highly visible and profitable corner of the tourism market. After 23 years running Raffles, a sick and weary Tigran retired to England where he died in 1912, aged 51. With Tigran’s death, Aviet was now the senior partner in the family firm.
Arshak, the youngest of the four Sarkies brothers, was gregarious and generous to a fault. He loved gambling and women and was supportive of friends who fell on hard times. In his later days at the E&O in Penang, it was said that Arshak ran the hotel more for the pleasure of entertaining his friends than to make money. After the great stock-market crash of 1929, he was forced to tear up a multitude of outstanding accounts from guests, patrons and friends, knowing that he would never be able to recover the money. The stress took its toll and he died in 1931, aged 62.
Four months after his death, Raffles Hotel was taken to court due to a mountain of outstanding debts. It was soon discovered that the Sarkies brothers’ firm had liabilities totalling US$3.5 million. It was the biggest bankruptcy the Colony had ever known. Nevertheless, the legacy of the Sarkies brothers as visionary hoteliers remains intact and undisputed to this day. The Strand, Raffles and the E&O still rank today among the greatest hotels in Asia.
This Hoteliers series documented some of the innovators who laid the groundwork for modern-day hospitality industry. More stories will be gradually added.
Hoteliers: Sarkies Brothers
The legacy of the Sarkies brothers as visionary hoteliers remains intact and undisputed to this day.
Hoteliers: César Ritz
In the history of modern hospitality and hotel management, no-one has equalled César Ritz. From unpromising beginnings…
Hoteliers: Adrian Zecha
Over 40 years, Adrian Zecha have founded a series of hotel management companies and developed over 100 ultra luxury…
Hoteliers: Airways & Railways
Belmond, Fairmont, InterContinental, and Le Méridien have the same intriguing origin story: they were airline and…
Hoteliers: (Steve Rubell) + Ian Schrager
Ian Schrager and Steve Rubells pioneered the concept of the boutique hotel and has gone on to open legendary clubs and…