WHAT has celebrity Kim Kardashian got to do with Armenian Street? Well, for a start, she’s surely the most famous Armenian and the only one that young people can identify with although she lives in the United States.
She is a fourth generation Armenian and while her mother is English, she speaks strongly of her ethnic origins although she was born and raised in Los Angeles. Kardashian is a massive reality TV show star and more recently made global news for being pregnant with rapper Kanye West’s child.
Armenia is a landlocked country surrounded by Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Georgia, but the Armenian diaspora are now spread all over Europe, Australia and the US.
During the early days of Penang, there was a significant number of Armenian businessmen and traders who made Penang their home.
Most of these Armenians were brought in from India and many settled in Penang, Malacca, Yangon, Singapore and Batavia, the old Jakarta.
But more importantly, they helped to make Penang grand. High on the list has to be the Sarkies Brothers — Martin, Togram and Arshak — who set up the E & O Hotel and the Raffles in Singapore. Certainly, these hotels remain among the grandest in the region.
The brothers also ran the Sea View Hotel in Tanjung Bungah and for a while the Crag Hotel in Penang Hill, according to reports.
The other famous Armenian included trader and planter Arathoon Anthony — in which Aratoon Road, off Burmah Road, is named after. He later founded the stock broking firm of A.A. Anthony and Co.
The Anthonys, according to reports, were among the Armenian diaspora that settled in Shiraz in Persia, now modern Iran, and then in Mumbai and in Kolkata before coming to Penang.
The well-known George Town Dispensary, opposite Komtar in Penang Road, was set up by Dr Thaddeus Avetoom, who is said to have set up practice in Beach Street.
Those keen to find out more about these respected Armenians can read the work by Nadia Wright who has researched the communities in Malaysia and Singapore.
Ilsa Sharp wrote: “The Sarkies of the E & O shared with their fellow Armenians a cultural trait: the sort of flamboyance and open extravagant often associated with Russians, or even Italians. The Armenians love entertaining, good company, song and dance, the arts, food and wine — even in hostile climes, they always try to plant their beloved grapevines, as they also did in Penang, at the church rectory.”
The local Hokkiens calls Armenian Street pun thau kong hang as there was a Tua Peh Kong kongsi-house in the street and is said to be also known as the Kian Tek Tong secret society where they kept their gods. Some older Penangites call the street phah tang keh or striking copper street as there was once Malay braziers’ shops there.
In fact, Armenian Street was once known as Malay Lane because it was an early Malay settlement.
According to Khoo Salma, there were powerful Malay chiefs at Armenian Street such as Syed Mohamed Alatas and Che Long — who forged an alliance with the Red Flag secret society.
Khoo Tian Poh, the Red Flag head, even gave his daughter to Syed Mohamed to be his second wife.
Today, Armenian Street has regained its shine — thanks to the work of Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic with his beautiful murals there and in Muntri Street, Weld Quay, Penang Road, Ah Quee Street and Cannon Street.
Armenian Street is part of the heritage trail and has now become a must-stop for visitors, who want to catch a glimpse of the state’s history and the wall paintings.