The Gathering Place: Stories from the Armenian Social Club in Old Shanghai ($13.95, 216 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60381-123-1), is a collection of stories compiled from interviews with Armenians who immigrated to Asia during the first half of the twentieth century.
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A hundred years ago, the small country of Armenia within the Ottoman Empire became the site of continuous border conflict, political intrigue and sporadic wars between the Turks, the Persians and the Tsarist Russians. Early in the twentieth century, these regional conflicts erupted into bitter political and ethnic “cleansing” that decimated the country and nearly destroyed the population living there. The causes and magnitude of the ethnic killing that took place during and after World War I are still debated and disputed in Turkey and Armenia today.
In times of calamity or economic distress, there is a small percentage of people (about two percent) who are willing to leave family, home, and their country of origin to set up businesses in exotic or foreign lands. The two-percenters and undocumented immigrants whose stories appear in The Gathering Place made the arduous trek across Asia to gather in the exotic city of Old Shanghai, where they joined a social club in the city’s Old International Settlement. Their travels coincide with war, economic depression, revolution, banditry and military occupation during the most turbulent period in modern history—a period that covers what some call the ‘Modern Dark Age’—the first half of the twentieth century. The personal histories in The Gathering Place offer a fresh take on the immigrant experience during a time of momentous change in Asia—from the end of World War I to the exodus of Europeans from China.
Says Sergoyan, “I was inspired to write The Gathering Place by two photographs given to me by my mother. The first was a family portrait taken circa 1920. I did not recognize any of the five people. My mother was not surprised and explained that it was the only group photo of my father’s family that survived. I realized then that my father had not spoken of his family or how they had migrated across all of Asia and settled in the Orient. There was a deep tragedy associated with their experience that he did not want to share. I became determined then to interview him and get as much information as possible. That led me to interview others as well. I noticed that many of the stories revolved around the Armenian Social Club in Shanghai—the subject of the second photograph. My hope is that these stories will also help others to personalize the immigrant experience in the Orient between the two World Wars, a subject that has had little attention.”
E.G. Sergoyan holds degrees in aeronautical and mechanical engineering and has been involved in the aerospace industry for over forty years. This book is his first non-technical publication. Mr. Sergoyan and his wife live in Mukilteo, Washington, with family nearby. For more information, please visit his blog.
The Gathering Place is available in 6×9 trade paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com, the European Amazons, and Amazon Japan. Wholesale orders can be placed through email@example.com and Ingram. Libraries can also purchase books through Follett Library Resources or Midwest Library Services.
Read on for an Excerpt, the chapter titled, “Nadia”:
In 1940, at the Armenian Social Club in Shanghai, George saw Nadia for the first time. He later commented that he first noticed a slender girl wearing a silly hat, but his friends were sure it wasn’t the “hat” that caught his attention.
She was twenty-two years old, with jet black hair and beautiful dark eyes, slim of figure and quick to smile. She was accompanied by her nineteen-year-old brother, Aram, who kept a watchful eye and introduced her to his friends in the club.
Nadia asked a family friend about the “Jewish fellow” who was staring at her from across the room.
“Oh, he’s not Jewish, he is Armenian,” the friend explained. “He kind of looks Jewish because of that big nose. I think some hoodlums broke his nose in a fight years ago when he was hanging around in one of the casinos.”
“Probably there was a girl involved,” Nadia commented.
George walked over and had a mutual friend make introductions; then he asked the brother if he could escort Nadia and show her around the club. That was how they met. George was involved with the theater group that produced ethnic plays for the Armenians who frequented the international district. Occasionally George would direct and even perform. He kept trying to persuade Nadia to become an actor in the group. But she was too shy and self conscious. Besides, his real motive for recruiting her into the group was to see her more often.
A courtship followed that led to an engagement. Nadia delighted in telling her daughter years later that during that time, because she was unsure of her feelings for George in the beginning of their courtship, George had to work extra hard to convince her to give him a chance. He would write her “love letters,” and she would tear them up and “sprinkle the pieces on him from the top of the stairs in her home when he came to call. But he was persistent and finally won her heart.
The engagement went on for seventeen months. During those months, George became well acquainted with the Oganjanovs and was particularly interested in the stories of the father, Haig.
In his youth Haig had been a soldier and prospector. He had studied to be an engineer but eventually joined the family business and became a successful business man. But now the family had fallen on hard times; the Japanese occupation in Harbin was interfering with their business. Haig moved the family to Shanghai because it was still a free port and the Japanese were more liberal. Everyone knew about World War II in Europe, but no one believed that the Japanese would attack America.
Nadia enjoyed telling stories about her family adventures. She told George how they had traveled from Kars, Armenia, to Irkutsk, Siberia. During the Russian Civil War in Siberia they had all escaped to Manzhouli, Manchuria, and then moved to Harbin in Northern China. Nadia and George knew many of the same people but didn’t meet until that day at the Armenian Club.
It had taken Nadia’s family more than twenty years to cross Asia. Now that they were in Shanghai, they were hoping to find a way to get to America. But World War II was on the horizon—yet another obstacle blocking their path.
As George sat in the social club and listened to the stories of his fiancée’s family adventures, he realized that Haig the father and his family had followed the same path as so many Harbinites who had escaped Armenia to avoid the massacres and the ethnic wars—the same path George had followed before ending up in Shanghai. It was the story of a family struggling together in the midst of civil war, occupation, banditry and revolution. Like so many, they were searching for a place where they could finally be free from nationalistic fanatics, war, and subjugation.
At its most basic level, this was a story of a merchant who was never comfortable working for others. The struggle to save the family began with Haig’s father Mkrtich in Kars, Armenia, when the first ethnic cleansing of the twentieth century forced the family into Asia. To tell their story, one had to go back to World War I and 1915 once more.