Tracing the Last of Burma’s Once Influential Armenians

By Alice Foster 23 November 2013

RANGOON — A hand-drawn map showed the way to the colonial teak house that my Armenian grandmother’s family left behind when the Japanese captured Rangoon in 1942.

My relatives are thought to have hidden jewels in the well before fleeing the family home that was reportedly turned into a brothel during the Japanese occupation.

Last month, more than 70 years later, I took up the map drawn by my great-uncle from memory and returned to the house down by the railway lines near Lanmadaw station in Rangoon.

The street names have changed and a high-ranking government official has taken up residence in the large house, which was confiscated by the military sometime after the 1962 coup that marked the beginning of nearly a half century of authoritarian rule.

A decade ago the house was tightly guarded and photographs were prohibited, but now the restrictions have eased.

The official’s sister and a maid gingerly let me into the locked garden, but not the house because the government official, said to be a director for education, was out. Looking at my black and white family photographs, his sister said: “I’m amazed. There are still people very much interested in this old house.”

The maid, standing by the overgrown well, said the previous occupants did not eat beef inside the house because they were superstitious. Some people have said it is haunted.

But she said: “I have never had any experience of ghosts.”

My late grandmother, Norma Gregory, grew up in Rangoon and lived with her mother and father, who was a barrister, together with three older brothers and several dogs.

The Gregorys were among a number of Armenians who had professions and commercial interests in Burma under British rule but fled before the Japanese captured Rangoon during World War II.

As part of the evacuation Norma, just 18, traveled to India, joined the army and later moved to London where she met my grandfather at a dance. She never returned to Burma.

Her parents did go back to the house in Rangoon but left for good when the military, led by former dictator Gen Ne Win, confiscated it.

Last month, in an attempt to trace my family history, I went to the 150-year-old Armenian Apostolic Church of St John the Baptist on Bo Aung Kyaw Street in Rangoon.

Its priest, Reverend John Felix, who invited me for tea, said there used to be hundreds of Armenian families in Burma but there are now very few left, as a result of the upheavals in the country over the decades. When he took over the church in 2011, he only knew two Armenian families.

“I said, I must do something,” the Rev Felix told me. “I started to search and talk to people as much as I can. I learned that Armenians used to have positions with official status.”

In the 17th century, a Persian shah uprooted many thousands of Armenians from the region of Julfa in their homeland and deported them to his new capital in modern day Isfahan, Iran. Ambitious young traders from the diaspora then traveled to India and Southeast Asia.

As the Armenian community established itself in Burma, a few of the most powerful merchants became advisors to Burmese kings and acted as go-betweens with the British.

After the British colonized Burma, my great-great-grandfather Chater Gregory moved to Rangoon from Calcutta in India, where Anglo-Armenian relations were traditionally close.

Rev Felix said that a number of Armenians ran large companies and built monuments, an airport and a fire brigade tower in Rangoon.

“When the British ruled, they were very much trusted,” he said. “They got major building contracts and positions in customs. They contributed to the development of Myanmar.”

In 1901, Armenian brothers Aviet and Tigran Sarkies opened the Strand Hotel as part of a luxury hotel chain including the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

My great-grandfather is said to have drunk there after a day’s work at the courtroom nearby.

Rev Felix took me to visit Armenian Ralf Gregory, 94, who was once a signaler in the British Army, got the last train out of Rangoon before its capture in 1942 and was later taken hostage by the Japanese.

Gregory, a frail man with the same surname and accent as my great-uncle, was born just four years before my grandmother but said he did not know my family.

At his home in Rangoon, he said that he is proud to be one of the few people with Armenian heritage left in Burma, where sometimes he is mistaken for a Jew.

He said: “I don’t feel lonely, I depend on God. I pray morning and night, I pray for everybody, I leave nobody out.”

When invited to celebrate the church’s 150th anniversary, he said: “If I am in good health I will go. I am almost blind and I have to wear this [visor] to keep away the light.”

Rev Felix said that Gregory’s Armenian school friend Basil Martin, chairman of the board of trustees at the church and a respected figure whose family ran a company, died in May.

At the start of the year, Burma established diplomatic ties with Armenia and more Armenians could soon begin to arrive as the country opens up.

If nothing else, Rev Felix hopes the changes will bolster the congregation of his church, which sees about 10 people attend its weekly Sunday morning service.