The Sarkies Brothers and Their Hotel Empire
By Enzo SimAugust 2021 LEST WE FORGET
THE “GRAND TOUR of Asia” at the turn of the 20th century until World War II brought American and European travellers to the Far East, where the exotic landscapes and sceneries were waxed lyrical about in books like Bradshaw’s Through Routes to the Capitals of the World, and Overland Guide to India, Persia, and the Far East (1903).
The invention of steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 made travelling for leisure possible, albeit this was limited to the upper classes, and for travellers who could afford it.
Their arrival to Asia gave rise to the demand for lodging houses and hostelries in major townships, particularly those which were already connected by extensive commercial shipping lanes and railway networks. But over time, there would only be one hotel in any one location that discerning travellers considered a prime address fit for their accommodation.
These hotels are known today as the “Grand Dames of Asia”, and include the Oriental in Bangkok, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, the Le Royal in Phnom Penh, the Continental in Saigon, the Metropole in Hanoi and in Penang, the Eastern and Oriental (E&O).
The E&O was founded by the Sarkies brothers. Who were they and what brought them to Penang?
Humble Beginnings but Big Dreams
The Sarkies brothers were of Armenian descent, from the town of New Julfa on the outskirts of Isfahan, Iran. They received their higher education at the Armenian College in Calcutta, India before venturing into various trades in the Far East.1
Tigran, the second eldest of the Sarkies brothers, was the first to arrive to Penang where in 1882, he established the auctioneer and commercial agency, Sarkies and Company, at 7, Beach Street. Other Armenian merchant houses were also located on the street.
With his business acumen, the 21-year-old expanded into property investments, i.e. purchasing, selling and renting a number of real estates on the Island. Two years later and after major refurbishments, Tigran opened the Eastern Hotel on April 15, 1884 at 1A, Light Street.2 Its location fronting the Esplanade boasted a panoramic view of the Straits of Malacca, then a mere two-minute walk from the jetty.
Tigran was soon joined in Penang by 33-year-old Martin, the eldest of the brothers. The siblings properly formalised the hotel business in 1885, and the building on Farquhar Street where E&O sits today was acquired from Hotel de l’Europe after its owner decided to return to Britain.
Interestingly, the idea of establishing a truly high quality hotel in Penang is believed to have come from a meeting between the Sarkies brothers and the governor of the southern Thai province of Ranong, Khaw Sim Bee, in Bangkok in late 1883, where the siblings were on business.3 Khaw was also landlord for both of the Sarkies’ hotel properties.
The building on 10, Farquhar Street was transformed into the Oriental Hotel in 1885, following extensive renovations. This was managed by Tigran while Martin oversaw business operations at the Eastern Hotel. To fill the hotels’ various administrative roles, 24-year-old Aviet, fresh off the boat from the same institution his brothers attended in Calcutta, served as an assistant first at the Eastern Hotel in 1885 before being promoted to the managerial position a year later.
Tigran had grand visions for his hotels. Together with Martin and Aviet, who were each trained as an engineer and architect, the brothers designed the architecture of their hotels to reflect their Armenian roots. These included domes, minarets, cupolas, columns, verandahs and pillars on the E&O’s facade.
Perhaps taking advantage of the Sarkies’ success, the Khaws decided to raise the monthly rental fee of the Eastern Hotel, from 200 to 350 Spanish dollars. This was regarded as utterly unacceptable by the brothers, prompting them to renounce the Eastern in 1889.4
The Empire Expands to Singapore and Burma
With the eventual closing of the Eastern, Aviet and Martin commenced renovation by phases to the Oriental in 1887. Tigran departed to Singapore the same year, where leveraging the fortune and reputation the brothers had meticulously built through the branding of their hotels in Penang, he soon opened the Raffles Hotel.5
When the Oriental Hotel once again opened its doors to the public in August 1889, it was renamed the Eastern and Oriental, a name that remains to this day. By now, the E&O was dubbed “the most charming and comfortable public residence within an area of 1,500 miles,” in a Straits Times report.6
In 1890, the Sarkies opened a gentlemen’s clubroom, the Oriental Tiffin on Union Street, which was renamed in 1891 as the Oriental Tiffin and Billiard Rooms, and in 1895, reacquired the Eastern Hotel now rebranded as the Sea View Hotel. But its purchase was short-lived; it was sold off again in 1900.
In late 1890, an aging Martin returned to New Julfa, leaving Aviet solely in charge of the business in Penang. Martin remained a sleeping partner until his death in April 1912.
At this point, the youngest of the Sarkies brothers Arshak, entered the family business. Only 22, he had trained under Tigran in Singapore, familiarising himself with the ins-and-outs of hotel management. By 1892, the Sarkies brothers were once again looking to widen their chain of hotels, this time to Rangoon, Burma.
Aviet was to take a lead in this particular expansion. On his arrival in Rangoon in 1894, Aviet started the Railway Refreshment Rooms, the Sarkies Hotel and the Bodega & Billiard Saloon. Only in 1901 did he open the prestigious Strand Hotel at 92, Strand Road which continues today to be a luxury heritage hotel.
Back in Penang, Arshak headed the management of the E&O and in 1896, wed 19-year-old Mary Apcar of Calcutta. Together, they bore four children. Their eldest Haik was born at the E&O in April 1898, followed by Stella, Margaret and Ena. Business continued to flourish, and the Crag Hotel at Penang Hill was purchased in 1905 and branded as a honeymoon resort until 1920, when it was sold to the Federated Malay States Railways.
Tigran, who was by then stricken with cancer and cardiovascular disease, decided to retire from the Raffles in November 1910. He relocated to London for medical treatment and passed away there in February 1912.
From Rangoon, Aviet returned to Singapore to take over management of the Raffles before he too left Southeast Asia in 1918 for Paris. Afflicted with ill health, he drew his last breath in May 1923.
Considering the expanse of their hotel empire, Arshak eventually approached fellow Armenian Martyrose Arathoon, who was secretary-bookkeeper at the Raffles in 1905, to help with the management of the hotels. And so, Arathoon supervised operations at the Raffles, while Arshak based himself at the E&O.
Grand Plans for the E&O
Following the departure of his last elder brother Aviet from Penang, Arshak was finally able to realise his dreams for the E&O. The older siblings had thought Arshak’s ideas of a 300-seat dining hall, a ballroom, sea wall, a bar, a motor garage, 130 guest rooms with hot shower bathtubs, teak furniture, as well as the installation of fans and electric lights throughout the hotel to be too costly. These additions were now made and completed over the next few years.
By 1923, following the opening of the hotel’s new wing built on an adjacent site of Farquhar Street acquired from the Khaw's in November 1918, and which Arshak named the “Victory Annexe” in commemoration of the British’s victory in World War I, the E&O finally reached its peak to become a principal hotel in Penang.
Heads of state, literary giants and the glitterati flocked to a social and entertainment hub that the E&O now was. In fact, Rudyard Kipling, Karl May, David Marshall, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford all stayed at the E&O when visiting Penang.
Fall from Grace
But E&O’s growing fame was somewhat undermined by Arshak’s overtly charitable nature. He’d often allow food and room expenses of rubber planters and tin miners to collect only to be “forgotten” later on, during the collapse of rubber and tin prices in the 1920s. Arshak would also invite his friends to stay at the E&O for free.
Arshak’s final grand vision for the E&O came true in the building of a three-storey 68-room wing on the eastern side of the hotel in 1929, complete with an electric lift which was reportedly one of the first to be installed in Malaya.
But the E&O was showing signs of financial instability, and the once-glorious Victory Annexe was reduced to being a mere hostel for the Hainanese staff working the kitchens. The Great Depression that started in 1929 compounded its financial woes, and by early 1930 the hotel’s business had been halved.
Desperate and in search of a solution, Arshak whose health at 62 was steadily deteriorating, decided to take a loan from Indian Chettiar moneylenders. This ultimately proved a disaster. On learning what Arshak had done, Martyrose Arathoon, from his base at Singapore, forcefully took over the hotel’s accounts in June 1930.
But it was too late. The debt had mounted to a staggering 500,000 Straits dollars. Arshak passed away from liver failure at the Penang General Hospital on January 9, 1931. After declaring bankrupt in September the same year, Arathoon was forced to surrender the E&O.7
A Long-lasting Legacy
The Sarkies brothers were visionaries of their time. Their farsightedness nurtured a hotel empire that dotted Southeast Asia, when none was to be found at the time.
Although their chapter at the E&O came to an end with the demise of Arshak, the Sarkies’ progeny would go on to establish hotels or in some cases, acquire existing ones like the Adelphi in Singapore (purchased in 1903); Hotel Oranje in Surabaya, Indonesia (founded in 1910 by Lucas Martin Sarkies, son of Martin Sarkies); Hotel Kartika Wijaya, East Java, Indonesia (1891); and the Majestic in Calcutta (1911), all of which except the Adelphi and the Crag survive to this day as the Sarkies brothers’ enduring legacy.
Some Literary Giants who were Guests at the E&O
TOURISM IN ASIA began at the end of the 19th century, when passenger liners such as those of the Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) began commuting Western travellers, albeit in small numbers, to explore the natural and man-made wonders of the Far East.
In Southeast Asia, the bustling port cities of Penang, Saigon, Batavia and Manila thus began receiving these curious visitors, among whom were people like Graham Greene, Andre Malraux, Harry Franck and Norman Lewis, who were travelling to Asia with a literary purpose.
At a time when there were hardly any notable hotels in Penang, the Eastern and Oriental Hotel or E&O for short, stood out as one of the few principal hotels here. Naturally, it became the ideal choice of accommodation for discerning travellers to the Island.
One of the earliest guests to the E&O was Karl May, a prominent German author. He arrived in Penang in November 1899, with his Egyptian butler Omar Sejjid, after sailing for five days on board the Austrian steamship Vindobona from Colombo in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka).
According to May’s diary accounts, the E&O was then racially segregated, with one wing for locals and the other for Westerners. He also mentioned that he intentionally avoided the Westerners’ wing for fear of being called Tuan all the time, which he translated as “My Lord”, although “Sir” would have been a more accurate translation. Compared to the Westerners’ wing, he was more attracted to the much quieter verandahs of the locals’ wing, with canopies that sheltered guests from the tropical sun.
“At the front is the garden, then you enter the orientally-furnished ante-room, then the spacious, always cool living room, and behind that, you come to the corridor, where you find on one side the bathroom and on the other the toilets. Beyond this are well-tendered flowerbeds,” May wrote in his diary.1
And so it was here that he started working on his various travel stories set in the Far East, apart from his other colportage novels and stories for young readers which he came to be so highly-renowned for.2
The E&O welcomed yet another German literary figure before long. Hermann Hesse arrived in Penang in September 1911, with his 36-year-old Swiss artist friend, Hans Sturzenegger. They had come from India aboard the Norddeutscher Lloyd steamship, Prinz Eitel Friedrich. Having rekindled his interest in Buddhism, Hesse was in search of spiritual and religious inspiration.
After cloistering on a long-haul ship, Hesse recorded in his autobiography, Aus Indien (Out of the Indies), his delightedness upon entering the marble-tiled hallways of the hotel which he described as, “the most beautiful hotel that I came across in the East Indies”; and his room, a “splendid apartment” facing “the brown-green ocean that lapped against the wall, and in the reddish sand where big dignified trees stood in the evening.”
Hesse and Sturzenegger explored the narrow streets of George Town on rented rickshaws. He was reportedly astonished by the “never-ending, intense and noisy living there”, filled with Chinese craftsmen, Muslim traders, women with flashing eyes draped with gold jewellery that glittered in the light of street lanterns and Japanese prostitutes parading against the backdrop of high-pitched tones of Chinese street operas.
Hesse also visited the Crag Hotel on the temperate summit of Penang Hill. Before the funicular railway was constructed in 1923, the journey to the hotel required visitors to employ the sedan chair service manned by Indian coolies, whom he hired at the foot of the Hill next to the entrance of the Botanic Gardens. On reaching the Crag Hotel which was by then already acquired by the Sarkies brothers, he revelled in the cool climate of the Hill while sipping on the hotel’s cocktails which he remarked as rather expensive.3
At the end of his travels in Asia, Hesse would finish writing his acclaimed novel, Siddharta, to be subsequently published in 1922, while Sturzenegger went on to produce numerous artworks depicting the scenes and people that he came across during his sojourn with Hesse in Penang and Malaya.4
Then there was Noel Coward who was perhaps one of the most influential figures of 20th century theatrical drama plays to stay at the hotel. He was a creative force to be reckoned with, being all at once a playwright, director, actor, composer, singer and one of the highest earning writers of the time, with an annual income of 50,000 British pounds.
Coward visited Penang in 1929, when he was 30 years old, with his lifelong companion, Lord Amherst, after touring Shanghai, where he wrote the play Private Lives, and Singapore, where Amherst felt unwell for a fortnight.
After spotting Coward’s name on the hotel’s register by chance, The Straits Echo’s George Bilainkin who served as its editor from 1928 to 1931, interviewed the visiting personality. Bilainkin noted that both Coward and Amherst appeared identical in dressing. Both wore white silk tennis shirts paired with white trousers, and sported blue berets. Contrary to the trend of the time when initials were embroidered on the back of the collar, Coward had his embroidered in black on his shirt’s breast pocket instead. This was considered as rather vulgar back then.
A known natural history enthusiast, Coward’s itinerary of Penang included a visit to the Snake Temple, where he marvelled at the calmness of the snakes residing in the temple’s compound. At the Penang Zoo, he managed to subdue a Malayan tiger that had grown agitated by a visitor rattling its cage with a stick. Panicked onlookers fled the scene, who on returning, found Coward had calmed the beast, which was cheerfully rolling on its back with its paws in the air.
Coward was an incredibly private individual. He had once purposefully come down to the E&O’s dining hall an hour late for dinner, after encountering a fan earlier at the lobby who requested for a meeting to discuss a play. He was very much relieved to discover that she was gone by then!5
Other poets, playwrights, actors and novelists including Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford likewise found inspiration while sitting on the seafront verandahs of the E&O against the backdrop of gently lapping waves and the refreshing sea breeze wafting into the terrace.
- Wright, N. H. (2018), The Armenians in Penang, (pp. 20 – pp. 25), Penang: Entrepot Publishing
- Penang Gazette, April 15, 1884, (pp. 50)
- Lim, K. P. (2011), Life at Chakrabongse House: Khaw Sim Bee, (pp. 95 – pp. 111)
- The Straits Times, February 20, 1886, (pp. 13)
- Edwards, N., Keys, P. (2015) Singapore – A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, (pp. 34 – pp. 36)
- The Straits Times, August 2, 1889, (pp. 2 – pp. 3)
- Wright, N. H. (2003). Respected Citizens: The History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia, (pp. 13 – pp. 26), Amassia Publishing
- Khoo, S. N. (2006) More Than Merchants: A History of the German- Speaking Community in Penang 1800’s – 1940’s, Penang: Areca Books
- Bugmann, M. (2016) Savage to Saint: The Karl May Story, (pp. 32 – pp. 34
- Hesse, H. (1923) Aus Indien, Berlin: S. Filcher Verlag
- Mileck, J. (1977) Hermann Hesse: Biography and Bibliography, (pp. 23 – pp. 26), University of Berkeley Press
- Bilainkin, G. (1932), Hail Penang!, (pp.40 – pp.47), 2010 Reprinted Edition by Areca Books
is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards international relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.