Armenian over the Generations: The Story of the Sultan’s Bookbinder and his Descendants

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By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Parunag Gurjian died a poor man in Egypt in 1937, leaving a bill outstanding at a poor house hospital. His life had also begun humbly, in a fishing village on the sea. However, Parunag moved to Constantinople and apprenticed as a bookbinder. His life soon changed for the better. He ended up living in the upscale neighborhood of Pera, and prospered. In those days, Seroun Wang, his great-granddaughter explains, bookbinders were like jewelers. They used gold and precious jewels on bindings, and were highly skilled and sought after.

Parunag was even called to the palace by Sultan Abdul Hamid II sometime in the late 1880s or 1890s, and given the seal of the sultan to post over the door of his atelier. This seems like a great honor, but there was a dark side to it. Abdul Hamid was known as the “bloody sultan” for his massacres of Armenians. Wang said that Parunag told his children, Nuritza and Levon, that “you are called to the palace once to get the bag of gold, but when you are invited the second time, you never come home. We have to leave. You get the bag of gold but…”

Consequently, one day he suddenly took the children out for a walk, but instead took a ship to Varna, Bulgaria, where there was an aunt and uncle. Parunag’s wife had died previously in an accident. The children were placed in a French Catholic school, while Parunag went to Boston to see if it could be a suitable place for their new home.

Eventually, a Turkish man came to his place and said the sultan wanted to know why he left, and presented him with a second bag of gold to pay for him to come back home. Parunag felt that only in Cairo could he be safe from the sultan, so he went back to Bulgaria and took his children to Egypt, where he married again. Wang does not know why Parunag specifically was important enough to be invited back, or whether he had done anything to warrant being considered a threat to the Ottoman government.

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Parunag’s son died of tuberculosis, which he had caught while attempting to come to the US via Italy. Unfortunately, Italy and the Ottoman Empire were at war then, and since he bore an Ottoman passport, he was jailed and got sick. He was sent back to Egypt where he died.

Levon’s older sister Nuritza (“Nurig”) went to St. George’s Austrian School in Constantinople before the moves to Varna and then Cairo, and became an educated young woman. Meanwhile, a man named Hovannes Hacdorian [Hovhannes Khachadurian, also spelled Hackdorian] of Kharpert had come to the US as a teenager. By the time he reached the age of 30, his older brother told him he needed to get married, and suggested he go to Cairo where cultured Armenians lived. With a letter of introduction, Hovannes met and soon married Nuritza. Back in Philadelphia, they had a daughter, Seroon Anna, in 1906, and a son, Armen, in 1909. Hovannes worked in various businesses, including men’s clothing stories and shoe stores. His father had a big shoe factory in Kharpert, which gave him some initial experience in this field.

Nuritza and Hovannes with their children took a trip to Varna to live with the former’s aunt, but after a year they left. This may have been during the period of the Armenian Genocide or its aftermath. Seroon later related to her daughter that once they sat on the floor in church and a woman approached her, saying that you think I’m poor because I sit on the floor, but look at these coins sewn on my clothes — this means I’m rich. After a stop in Constantinople they went back to the US because Hovannes needed a hernia operation. Consequently, they were unable to see Parunag in Egypt.

Seroon Anna’s daughter pointed out that at the time, the marriage of an Armenian from Kharpert with one from Istanbul was considered a mixed marriage, and many did not welcome it. In fact, before she died, Seroon Anna confessed that the Kharpert side of the family never fully accepted her, in part because she spoke standard Western Armenian in the house. Her attempts to tell jokes in the Kharpert dialect to them failed to bridge the gap. Nonetheless, she instructed her daughter not to speak to Armenians who used the non-standard “gor” ending in Western Armenian.

There is a historically interesting anecdote (for Armenians at least) related by Hovannes’ granddaughter, Seroun: “In 1933 at the back of my grandfather’s store in Philadelphia there was a meeting of Armenians. My grandfather was busy in the front with business, or maybe the Armenians there didn’t trust him. Then they came out. A man who left, named Richardson, was wealthy. He manufactured the pink, green and white mints still seen today in many restaurants, called Richardson Candies. He said, ‘don’t worry, tomorrow everything will be fine.’ The next day they found out that they killed the bishop in New York.” After that, Hovannes and his family would have nothing to do with members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

Seroon Anna’s brother, Armen, served in the marching Marines, and became an accomplished pianist. He played on cruise ships, the Republican Club on Capitol Hill and many other clubs. He dated a famous Armenian opera singer for some time, but never married.

Seroon Anna went to work for the Federal government in Washington, DC, and both her parents eventually died. The division of the Department of Labor in which she worked was transferred to New York City, and there she made new friends, including many Chinese girls. While waiting for somebody, she met Dr. Chao Chen Wang, who was born in Chang Zhou, in the Jiangsu province of China, and graduated from Jiao Tung University in Shanghai, where he studied electrical engineering. He was sent to Harvard University by the Chinese government and specialized in ultrahigh frequency communications. He earned his doctorate in 1940.

The two began to see each other and decided to marry. The Armenian Church refused to marry them, as did the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, so they held their service on January 25, 1947 at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York, which was more liberal. Dr. Wang had attended services at a church in China, but only was baptized prior to the marriage. He had worked for RCA and Westinghouse.

Dr. Wang almost never talked about this wartime work, but his daughter Seroun was told by his friends after he died that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had secretly met with him in the White House. She also found out earlier that one of his inventions, a type of klystron, may have contributed to ending the war by misleading the enemy at night to think he was shooting at Allied forces instead of his own troops. He later worked for Sperry Gyroscope, and then became the founding president of the Industrial Technology Research Institute in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

As reflected in her name, daughter Seroun Mei Mei Wang, the source of the information in this article, grew up in the US with two ancient cultures in her family. She found this to be perfectly natural, and pointed out: “Everybody thought that my mother and father were in a mixed marriage, but they weren’t. I never thought of them as a mixed marriage — unlike the Kharpertsi and Bolsetsi marriage of my grandparents.”

Seroun Mei Mei learned Armenian from her mother and went to Armenian school on Saturdays in Bethpage, Long Island. She also took a summer course at Columbia University years later. Even her father understood Armenian and spoke a little. He also would attend Armenian cultural events with his wife, as well as Armenian Church services. Seroun Mei Mei had tasted her first lahmajun at a fundraiser in a parking lot which was to be the future site of St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral.

When her father was transferred to Massachusetts the family had more frequent interactions with Armenians, some of whom interestingly spoke Armenian with a Boston accent. Nonetheless, Armenian remained primarily a language between Seroun and her mother. While her father spoke three or four Chinese dialects, he primarily spoke English with his daughter, and in fact spoke very little in general. She did hear the Shanghai dialect when he spoke with his former schoolmates, and Mandarin at events connected to his fraternity. Seroun Mei Mei learned Mandarin Chinese by taking classes, and followed up before graduating college with a summer session at Middlebury College.

There were some difficulties too. Seroun declared: “The Chinese kids all said I was an American; and the Armenians called me an odar. I wasn’t accepted with either group. At the Armenian dance group they gave me the nickname of chini.” This was a Tekeyan Cultural Association Dance group which met at the present Mirror-Spectator headquarters. The Wang family, incidentally, was a regular subscriber to the Mirror.

Seroun Mei Mei studied French at Boston University, and then lived in Taiwan a year, where she studied Chinese as well as computer science, probably in 1972-73. Her mother stayed with her, and then her father came to Taiwan to start up his company, but Seroun Mei Mei went back to the US after three years and got a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) based on the computer skills she had learned in Taiwan.

She got married like her mother to somebody from China whom she met through her job. Her husband was raised in Burma and came to the US for college at Sacramento State, and then transferred to MIT. He ended up with four degrees. They had two daughters, Ani and Mariam Manichaikul, but divorced after seven years.

Seroun Wang worked at the National Institute of Health and at a pharmaceutical company as a clinical research associate. She taught English as a second language in high school for many years. She is retired now and lives in Chevy Chase, Md.

Dr. Wang taught his grandchildren the names of all the parts of the face in Armenian when they were little, on a clown. The two girls went to Armenian school at St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church in Washington, DC but it was not that effective for a variety of reasons. The girls made some Armenian friends from Sunday school and ballet school though there were relatively few Armenians their age. Their mother and grandmother worked hard to get them interested in Armenian culture, and seem to have succeeded.

Ani went to Stanford University, where she majored in mathematics and was active in the Armenian student organization. This allowed her to become friends with Armenians not only from California but from around the globe. She said, “One thing I could always feel is that the Armenian community is really small, but I found them to be really inclusive. Some cultural groups can be well defined. I found some of the groups I identify with culturally say that you’re not 100 percent full-blooded and not be accepting — not like the Armenian group.”

When she went to Johns Hopkins University for her doctorate, she organized an Armenian club her last year, though it fell apart after she left. She now works at the Center for Public Health Genomics and the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Virginia as an assistant professor. Many of her fellow classmates and colleagues in the sciences were Chinese, and so in 2006 she ended up marrying Wei Min Chen, a man from China (Wuxue, in Hubei) like her grandmother and mother. Again like the immediately preceding generations of women in her family, Dr. Ani Manichaikul gave Armenian names to two of her three children (Raffi, Zoe, and Daron). Her husband also took an interest in researching Armenian names. Zoe is also informally called Taline at home.

Ani’s husband teaches the children to speak Chinese, while Ani encourages the children to learn Armenian, as does their grandmother. The children love the Taline Armenian DVDs and CDs, which have songs and dances, and they play with Armenian alphabet blocks. Ani says that the children really enjoy church too, though it is hard for them to understand what is spoken.

Mariam studied history at Oberlin, and after graduating law school at Rutgers University, became a judge in New York and a professor of law at Cornell/CUNY teaching night classes. Both Mariam and Ani were accomplished pianists who performed at Peabody. Ani pointed out that Armenians despite being few in numbers have contributed a lot to Western music, and she and her sister had the opportunity to perform some Armenian pieces.

Looking back at her experiences and her family, Seroun Mei Mei Wang finds many similarities between Armenian and Chinese culture and society which helped make one understandable to the other. For example, when she got to know her older aunt in China, she found her quite similar to her mother in her thinking. She declares: “Actually, I don’t see any differences between Armenian and Chinese culture.  Interactions are the same. They both have the same social upbringing of children and traditional lifestyle. Families are important, with everything done together. They both take care of old people and don’t send them to nursing homes. Armenians do quarrel a lot, but so do the Chinese.”

Ani Manichaikul agreed about the commitment to education, which allowed both sides of her family to encourage her to study and work hard. She found that both cultures were food-centric too. She said, “I think both Armenians and Chinese have diasporan cultures with strong ties to their homelands. Many other immigrants will after a few generations feel fully Americanized but both Chinese and Armenians no matter how many generations pass still strongly identify with their cultural history.” Yet, she continued, “being part Chinese and part Armenian, I do feel a difference between the two cultural backgrounds. You can meet Chinese people everywhere and feel a small bond. But with Armenians I feel an instant connection because I don’t meet Armenians all that often. It is very exciting and I want to share this part of myself. They tend to be really warm. I think it is something we are proud of–being part of this smaller group with a rich history.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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