AN INTERVIEW WITH THE PRESIDENT OF THE ARMENIAN COMMUNITY OF CHINA, MR. HENRI ARSLANIAN
1. Please tell us a bit about the community and its main goals.
The Armenian Community of China has three main pillars: to unite and bring together individuals of Armenian heritage living in China, to share with the world at large the remarkable history of Armenians in China and to be the natural bridge between Armenia and China.
We are a relatively young community that is totally independent with no religious or political affiliations, built on the pillars of independence, transparency and governance. We aim to become a best-in-class Armenian organization, a role model for the next generation.
Many Armenians in Armenia and in the diaspora are not aware of the fact that we have a very active and fast growing Armenian community in China. Our group is composed of hundreds of Armenians from all around the world, mainly living, studying or working in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. We even opened our first Armenian centre two years ago in Hong Kong.
Armenians have been active in China from the 17th century to the 1950s, when most of them left. We used to have Armenian communities in major cities like Tianjin or Shanghai but also in less expected places like Tibet or Inner Mongolia. There was even an Armenian Church in Harbin in Northern China, while the Armenian Relief Society had a chapter that was run out of the Armenian Club of Shanghai.
Armenians have also been extremely successful in China. For example, one of the most significant individuals in the history of Hong Kong is a gentleman by the name of Sir Paul Catchik Chater, who was an Armenian orphan from Calcutta, India. He become such a leading figure in business and politics that to this day many buildings and streets in Hong Kong are named after him and companies he started are still active and listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
So in a way, we are not new to China but are simply walking in the footsteps of our ancestors.
2. How do you think the Armenian Community of China is different from some of the other Armenian Communities globally?
Although Armenians have been active in China for centuries, we had the rare opportunity in 2013 to set-up a proper organizational structure for the governance of our community. We had the chance to start with a blank sheet of paper and build what we believed should be the model for an Armenian community of the future — a version 2.0. We looked at many communities and organizations globally and decided to keep what we believe worked best, while changing and innovating as needed. We always kept in mind the long term interests of not only our community but also of the generations to come.
For example, my mandate as President of the community is limited only to 2 years and our constitution forces me to step down after my term to ensure that we always have new individuals with new energy and new ideas to lead the organization. Also, despite our small size, our accounts are audited by Ernst and Young and are publically available on our website so that every member of our community knows exactly where each dollar is spent.
In addition, we make a very active effort to integrate the non-Armenian partners and spouses in our community. Over the past decades many Armenians stepped away from community life, often because they felt their non-Armenian partners were not welcome. We want to change that completely. Women are also actively involved in the leadership of our community, with almost half of our board of directors composed of women.
Gandhi famously said, “be the change you want to see in the world”. We have done just that but in the context of building our Armenian community.
3. What are the ties between ChinaHay and other communities of Asia?
Armenian communities are growing very fast, not only in China but also across Asia. For example, there are also relatively active communities of various sizes in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
All the leaders of all the communities across Asia have quarterly conference calls where we update each other of the initiatives and projects that we are each leading in our respective jurisdictions to ensure that we are properly synchronized and can work together when possible. This ensures that we are all connected and can work together when need be, like for example the recent initiatives to restore the old Armenian Churches in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
4. Earlier this year, the Armenian Community of China had some very unique events surrounding the April 24 Genocide commemoration events. Can you tell us more about it? What was the reaction of the media on this topic?
Like all Armenian communities in the diaspora, the Armenians in China wanted to organize some events around April 24, while being sensitive towards our Chinese hosts. For that reason, we decided to organize some cultural events in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing where our Chinese friends had the opportunity to get acquainted with Armenian culture, art, music and, of course, history.
Our main remembrance event took place in Nanjing, which is where China experienced the sad episode of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre – an event which has many similarities with the Armenian genocide. The Armenian Community of China visited the Nanjing Massacre Museum and laid flowers in remembrance of the victims of all Genocides and massacres, including the Armenian Genocide and the Nanjing Massacre. By having our remembrance events held in Nanjing, we wanted to show solidarity with our Chinese friends, show sympathy for the atrocities they have gone through as well and be thankful to them for being so welcoming over the past centuries towards Armenians.
We also had a number of cultural events from exhibitions of Armenian artists in Nanjing, Armenian dance performances in Shanghai, documentary viewings in Beijing and remembrance dinners in Hong Kong. A documentary on the Armenian Genocide translated into Chinese is now even available on Chinese social media websites.
Our commemoration events across China were covered in the Armenian media globally. To our surprise, they were covered in the Turkish media as well, to highlight our active Armenian community in China. We took it as a compliment!
5. What are some of the ongoing projects for the Armenian Community in the coming year?
We are working on a number of projects within our community. For example, we have between 70 to 90 students from Armenia coming every year to study in China. However, there are very few Chinese students going to Armenia. We are launching a scholarship this year in partnership with the American University of Armenia where the Armenian Community of China will cover the travel, healthcare and living costs of Chinese students willing to go and pursue graduate studies in Armenia. We believe that these students can then be a natural bridge between Armenia and China. It is also the right moral gesture to give back to our Chinese friends who have been welcoming Armenians for centuries.
We also have a number of ongoing initiatives aimed at sharing the inspiring Armenian history in China and Asia with the global community. For example, we have an ongoing fellowship with the Gulbenkian Foundation, supporting Armenian and Chinese academics currently researching old Armenian history in China.
We also want to solidify the links between Armenia and China and we do this in multiple ways. For example, dozens of Chinese university students are now enrolled in Armenian language courses offered in Beijing. We even helped promote videos in Mandarin Chinese talking about tourism in Yerevan, videos that are now posted on Chinese social media platforms.
We also believe in building professional links within our community. For example, we have a very successful annual Armenian academic conference in China where all the Armenian academics living and working in China come together to connect and find ways to work together. We also have a number of professional groups – from one that brings together Armenians in Finance in Asia to another that brings together the dozens of Armenian students across China.
6. What would be your advice to anyone who wants to learn more about the Armenian Community of China or the Armenian history in China?
A great resource is our community website,http://www.chinahay.com or our Facebook page. They contain not only updates about our community but also information and links about Armenian history in China.
Interviewed by Anahit Parzyan
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