Review: Tales of the ‘Two-Percenters’ Depict Armenian Community in China


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

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community of Armenians, who, fleeing the rav- ages 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 emigrate 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 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 two sisters, 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-Gregorian Church. 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 servicesb

there and he and George became friends. Much later in life, he moved to Los Angeles where he served as archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

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 California where George was immediately able to get a job with Montgomery Ward. They thrived in California where they made investments in real estate, ran several businesses, bought several homes and lived comfortably. They retired to Seattle 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 new 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 and on Kindle after May 15. Bookstores and libraries may order the book wholesale through Baker & Taylor and Ingram.

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