Below the reader will find a REVIEW and SUMMARY from the Armenian Mirror Spectator
ARTS | MARCH 30, 2012 1:14 PM
By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
Although the subtitle is a bit of a misnomer, since this book is not entirely about the Armenian community in China, the volume is, nevertheless, in the main, a collection of stories and vignettes that chronicles one of the more exotic communities of the Armenian Diaspora.
Certainly, it is true that members of the Armenian community have been flung far and wide — merchants and traders to India, immigrants to Europe, Canada and the United States — but the relatively small group of people who chose to move to Harbin in northern China and later Shanghai make up that unusual band of refugees the author calls the “two-percenters.”
In his introduction, he defines them in the following way: “A two-percenter is a person who leaves his home, his fortune and sometimes even his country to create a better life during times of trouble…. Even in times of war, famine and chaos, the vast majority of any community will stay where they are and try to survive in familiar surroundings. Not a two-percenter. The two-percenters will continue to move on, even into the most exotic or difficult settings…. The two-percenters in these stories gathered first in Harbin and then in Shanghai. In each city they formed a population of two percenters.” Amongst these two-percenters was a small community of Armenians, who, fleeing the ravages of World War I and persecution by the Ottoman Empire, found their way to China. It was the Armenian Relief Society that set up the houses in Shanghai that eventually became known as the Armenian Social Club. Its purpose was twofold: first, it helped refugees get settled in their new surroundings, but it then served as a meeting place for like-minded people to gather and swap stories.
Shanghai, in the first three decades of the 20th century, was a destination not only for especially adventurous Armenians, but also for Jews, Iranians, the French and the English. The city was a heady mix of businesses, hotels, restaurants and other institutions that served this cosmopolitan community. Even today, visitors to 21st-century Shanghai can be treated to a glimpse of the fading, old French quarter with its still-attractive, moderate-sized buildings (in contrast to the mad skyscraper building boom) and tree-lined streets. One of the main threads in Sergoyan’s account is the story of his parents, George Sarkisian and his wife. George was born in Baku in 1912, just two years before the onset of World War I. His grandfather, wary of the international upheavals and threat to the Armenian community, instructed his son, Levon, to immigrate to China. In 1917, at the age of 5, George, with his father, his mother and two siblings made the arduous journey to Harbin in northern China, stopping for a short time in Irkutsk on the way. Levon, unhappily gambled away the $30,000 his father had given him and when they arrived in their new home, they were entirely destitute. In the meantime, what remained of the family back in Baku was massacred by the Turks and the Kurds. George would never see these relatives again.
Unfazed, Levon scraped together enough money to open a small restaurant in Harbin, but the family remained very poor and Leon suffered from deep depression. Harbin was then a small village and important mainly as a stop on the Chinese Eastern Railway, which was an extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Most of the inhabitants of Harbin were either Chinese or Russian, but there were approximately 150 Armenian families living there as well. There were also Americans, British and French and once the Russian Revolution got underway, there was a heavy influx of White Russians and others who opposed the Bolsheviks. By the 1930s, an identifiable Jewish community had also formed, encompassing those fleeing from Soviet anti-Semitism and also Hitler’s racist policies in Germany.
Sergoyan describes the Harbin of the first two decades of the 20th century in the following manner: “In many ways, Harbin preceded Shanghai as a haven for refugees who were moving from Europe and Russia and quickly became more European in architecture and style than any other Chinese city. Harbin neighborhoods were reminiscent of European Russia, with wide tree-lined boulevards, European style mansions and art decor.” The residents of this international community were apt to be fluent in many languages, including Russian, Chinese, English and French. In 1927, when George was 15, he managed to pass himself off as Jewish for a time and found a job in a Jewish barbershop. Although his Armenian identity was finally exposed, the Jewish owner had come to value him so much that he kept him on. In 1933, George’s father died, and he moved with his mother and sister, first to the city of Dairen, and finally in 1937 to Shanghai, where he lived until 1949, the year of the Communist Revolution. It was in Shanghai that he met his future wife, Nadia, and for some time he earned his living in the immensely-popular casinos.
At the time, China was undergoing enormous upheavals. Occupied in part by the Japanese, there arose a growing conflict between the Communists and the Nationalists, led by Chang Kai Shek.
Although Sergoyan mentions them only in passing, there were a number of Armenians who thrived even under Japanese occupation. There was Mamikon Kardashian who owned a popular nightclub, Kavkas that catered first to Russians and Armenians in Shanghai, and after World War II to American soldiers. And there was Yervand Hamamdjian, an import/export businessman, who traveled to Egypt for artifacts and was the treasurer of the Armenian Social Club. Finally, there was another Armenian, nicknamed Shiska, who was a fixer and go-between for many financial transactions.
Sergoyan includes interesting stories of other individuals such as Rev. Assoghig Ghazarian, who came to Harbin to preside over the Armeno-GregorianChurch. He came from Jerusalem and took over the Harbin church in 1937 when he was 27. He would come to Shanghai regularly to preside over services there and he and George became friends. Much later in life, he moved to Los Angeles where he served as archbishop of the ArmenianApostolicChurch.
In 1940, George met Nadia Oganjanov, whose family was originally from Kars. They were introduced through the Armenian Social Club and shared an interest in amateur theatricals. They married, and when World War II ended in 1945, George found work with the American military, who hired him as an interpreter thanks to his mastery of many languages. Eventually, after many vicissitudes and a stay in the Philippines, the couple reached Chicago where George was immediately able to get a job with Montgomery Ward. They thrived in Chicago where they made investments in real estate, ran several businesses, bought several homes and lived comfortably. They retired to SeattleWashington in 1986.
In addition to tracing the story of this single couple, his parents, Sergoyan has also included chapters of background history on events in Europe, China and Russia. As he says in his introduction, he has relied on friends and family for the stories he tells in this book. One only wishes there had been more detailed memories and documentation, particularly of the lives of the Armenians in Harbin and Shanghai. The reader has to supply what is missing and can only imagine the rich and complex lives these refugees lived as they endured and survived through wars, civil wars and the effort to establish themselves in a country where the language and customs were totally foreign. A handful of photographs enliven the text.
The author holds degrees in aeronautical and mechanical engineering and has worked in the aerospace industry for 40 years. For the past 20 years, Sergoyan has been a Boeing senior engineer in Seattle. The book is available on Amazon.com and on Kindle. Bookstores and libraries may order the book wholesale through Baker & Taylor and Ingram.
How It All Began:
E.G. Sergoyan – Jan, 2012
I have been asked by friends, family and acquaintances how I came to write “The Gathering Place” and why I chose to write it as a collection of stories. There are two significant moments years apart that I can remember which motivated me.
After I graduated in engineering, it was the era of the manned mission to the Moon. I had an opportunity to work on several manned space projects in California, where the space industry was very active in the 1970’s. My mother and father, George and Nadine had a restaurant in Bellflower California and were preparing to retire. After the Space Shuttle was launched and the manned moon landings were complete, the aerospace industry in California was allowed to diminish. So I decided to move to Seattle to work for an aerospace company that specialized in building small rocket engines that controlled deep space satellites used for robotic exploration and communication. After my father retired, he moved with Nadine and his daughter and granddaughter to Washington, bought a home in Kirkland and we all visited regularly with the family.
Almost immediately the family began to notice that George had become more and more remote after retirement. His whole life had been consumed by his work. Since his teen years, he had been either working for others or running a business. He began to have mood swings. He spent hours staring out the kitchen window of his home at the apple trees growing in his yard. Then he would suddenly burst into a rage over something he saw on television or some unrelated event. Everything seemed to upset him. Even the grandchildren would ask, “Why is Pabik always so sad?” Today he might be diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder.
Nadine showed no signs of depression and even did volunteer work at the local hospital. She seemed always happy and optimistic. She took great joy in her grandchildren.
Despite the bouts of depression, George would become quite lively at the dinner table where he and his stories about China were the center of attention. When he rose to tell one of his stories, he would tolerate no interruptions.
One of the significant events that shaped “The Gathering Place” occurred at a Christmas party at our home. Nadine was singing Christmas carols with the grandchildren and the table was set for dinner. George was sitting in the living room which could be viewed from the dining room. He was again focused on the garden out the window and deep in thought.
My mother interrupted her time with the children and came to me with a small gift wrapped package.
“You need to open this now”, she said. “I made this for you special.”
At first I complained that we were opening gifts after dinner and the kids would get upset.
“No, no – this is just for you. You open it now,” She insisted.
I took the Christmas gift and tore off the wrapping. The gift was two small framed pictures. The first was a formal family portrait and the other was a candid photograph of a group of people in a café setting.
I looked at the family portrait and recognized that it was taken many years ago, perhaps sometime in the 1920’s. There were five subjects. Seated in the center was an older gray haired man with a mustache and goatee in formal dress, looking very serious. He had dark eyes and white hair – bald on top. Also seated in front was a matron dark haired with delicate features and sad eyes. She looked very small. Behind the matron was standing a young teenager in a suit. He was slender with dark wavy hair and the beginnings of a mustache. Behind the seated man was a young girl in her early teens with a bow in her dark hair and her hands affectionately on the old man’s shoulder and arm. In the front between the matron and the old man was a very young boy – about 8 years or so in what looked like a school uniform.
I glanced at my mother and back to the portrait and said, “I don’t think I know these people, Mom.” She smiled and didn’t say anything. So I looked at the picture again.
“Wait a minute. Is this my uncle, Varak?” I asked pointing to the tall teenager. I had met him in Chicago when he first immigrated to America and could see some features of the man I met in the boy in the picture.
My mother nodded.
“So this must be my grandmother when she was younger,” I pointed to the matron in the portrait.
“Yes, Nadine said, that is your grandfather and grandmother. He died many years ago. The girl is your Aunt Varva who you never met, and that is your Uncle Varak.”
“And who is the young boy,” I asked as I stared at the picture. My mother did not respond and I glanced up at her.
“That is your father when he was a boy,” she answered.
The second photograph, which unfortunately I have subsequently lost, was a candid group photo of people at a party circa 1941. The only two people I recognized in the group were my father and mother in their youth just before they married. I was told that the photograph was taken at the Armenian Social Club in Shanghai. A side note – I have since acquired a picture of the Social Club exterior which is at the top of the Commentary. But the people in this picture do not include my family.
I realized then that my father had not spoken of his family or how they had migrated across all of Asia and settled in the Orient. I knew my mother’s family well, and had met the extended family over the years. But there was a deep tragedy associated with my father’s family that he did not want to share. I became determined then to interview him and get as much information as possible.
I finally had an opportunity to audio tape many of the stories my father had told to family and friends about his life in Asia. It helped to form a deep bond between us. We became good friends and I came to realize that he was one of the most interesting people that I had ever met. After both parents died in 1991, I decided to transcribe the tapes and began the long process of doing research and corroboration.
I had interviewed a number of people who experienced the same migration across Asia. Many of the stories that came from those interviews seem to center on this place in Old Shanghai, the Armenian Social Club. Interviews with people who had visited the club added details to the stories, corroborated many of the events, or provided additional insight on the immigrant experience in the Orient between the two World Wars, a subject that has had little attention in modern history.
These are a description of cultural heritage and personal history about a migration in the Orient made by some extraordinary, reliant people. The stories may help to personalize and stimulate interest in the most turbulent period in recent history.