On my recent trip to Surabaya I stayed at the prestigious Hotel Majapahit, established in 1910 as the Oranje Hotel by Lucas Martin Sarkies, a member of the famous Sarkies clan of leading hoteliers.
The Sarkies brothers, (Aviet, Arshak, Martin and Tigran) were Armenian businessmen born in New Julfa, the Armenian quarter of Isfahan in Iran. They founded a hospitality empire in South East Asia at the end of the 19th century which included the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (Penang), Raffles (Singapore) and the Strand (Rangoon).
Lucas Martin Sarkies was the son of Martin Sarkies and continued the family tradition in Surabaya. He commissioned noted architect RAJ Bidwell to create a Dutch colonial art nouveau hotel with a budget of 500,000 guilders. Bidwell also designed Kuala Lumpur’s Sultan Abdul Samad Building and Singapore’s Raffles Hotel.
The Oranje soon became the place to stay in East Java and famous guests have included Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Conrad and now, Thrifty Traveller.
In 1930 a new art-deco style lobby was added and is where the hotel’s main lobby is now located.
The flag pole on the roof is where a celebrated incident took place at the end of World War Two as Dutch forces were attempting to re-establish control after the defeat of the Japanese. Leaders of the Indonesian independence movement ripped the blue strip off the Dutch flag, leaving just the red and white which became Indonesia’s national flag.
Apart from the Majapahit, I have also had the good fortune to visit the other surviving former Sarkies hotels, even if I could not afford to stay in any of them.
Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Continues to be the ultimate in colonial-era luxury. The Long Bar (home of the Singapore Sling) is the only outlet I’ve visited in the Raffles.
Eastern & Oriental Hotel, George Town, Penang. An advert for this hotel in 1906 boasted that it was ‘perfectly appointed, unrivalled situation,sea, lawn, excellent cuisine & wines, terms moderate’ . All still apply, except perhaps the bit about moderate terms. The Sarkies also ran an establishment next door called the Oriental Tiffin & Billiard Rooms, a great name which should be brought back.
The Strand, Rangoon – ‘the finest hostelry East of Suez”’ said the 1911 edition of the ‘Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon”. Still the top hotel in Yangon.
I enjoyed a quiet drink with my son at the Sarkies Bar at The Strand in 2010. The hotel’s website says that the bar ‘has played host to many a thirsty traveller, explorer and celebrity alike, and the names of Noël Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Orson Welles are worth a mention.’