The Chinese Armenian community is a very small community that does not pass the thresholds of 500 individuals. However Armenians have held historical presence in China for many centuries. More recently the Armenian settlement of Harbin is also witness to Armenian presence in China from late 19th century until the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
In his book about the English and the Russians in the Middle East, Henry Raulison talks about the presence of 300 Armenians in Ghachia, on the Chinese frontiers and part of the traditional route for commerce of silk from China to the Middle East and Europe.
The first Armenians in China to live there were those who settled in Manchuria during the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway (KVZHD), undertaken by Imperial Russia in 1898 and were few in number. Their main settlement was in Harbin.
After the Russo-Japanese War the number of Armenians increased, which necessitated the creation of an Armenian National Organization for the purpose of helping their needy countrymen and the preservation of their national heritage.
The Armenian National Organization was headed by the Board of Directors, whose President for many years was Dr. C. G. Migdisov, along with Mr. Ter-Ovakimov, an engineer with the KVZHD and Nr. Melik-Ogandjanov, an attorney.
The Armenian National Organization was founded in 1917. Its statute was approved by the local authorities in 1919. By 1923, they succeeded in building their own church and adjacent to it a social hall located on Sadovaya Street. Because most of the members of theArmenian colony lived in Harbin and had the only Armenian church in China, with residential quarters for their priest, Fr. Yeghishe Rostomiants, the spiritual leader of all Armenians in Manchuria, China and Japan, Harbin became the center of Armenians in China.
One of the main tasks of the Armenian Organization was to solve the problems of assistance to the needy members, such as the elderly, the poor, the orphans and generally all those who needed one or another kind of help in cooperation with Ladies Aid Group. The Board organized social events, staged national and literary plays, which was performed by the youth group in Armenian. On the national and religious holidays, tea parties were also organized. Classes to study Armenian language and literature also were held. The theatrical plays were performed at the prestigious Commercial Club and the Tchurin Club, where “Anahit” drama and Azerbaijani opera “Arshin-Mal-Alan “musical were performed, featuring the lead-singer, Karine Psakian.
Until 1918, the city of Harbin had an Armenian House of Prayer in the district of Noviy Gored. In 1918, the KVZHD (Chinese Eastern Railroad) granted the Armenian Colony a piece of property on 18, Sadovaya Street, corner of Liaoyang Street, where they began to build the Far-Eastern Armeno-Gregorian Church, which took several years to complete. The name “Far-Eastern” derived from the fact that Rev. Fr. Yeghishe Rostomiants and his family emigrated to Harbin from Vladivostok, where evidently his church was closed. The church in Harbin began officially to function in the 1920s. In 1925, the Chinese Authorities registered it as the Armeno-Grigorian Church of Harbin. The church was erected in memory of St. Gregory the Illuminator.
In 1932, Fr. Yeghishe Rostomiants died, leaving the church without a pastor and for several years thereafter the church and the premises were rented to the members of the Lutheran Congregation, who later built their own church. In 1937, thanks to the initiative and efforts of Mr. Ter-Ovakimov, President of the Armenian Organization, a priest was brought from Jerusalem – Rev. Fr. Assoghig Ghazarian. He had been educated in the monastery, after he was orphaned during the Armenian Genocide. At the time of his arrival in Harbin, he was only 27 years old. He was well-educated and spoke five languages. The Armenian Colony, numbering at the time about 350-400 people, felt very fortunate once again to have a pastor.
During the period of 1938-1950, Rev. Fr. Ghazarian had a building adjacent to the church enlarged and renovated, thanks to the financial backing of large contributors and businessmen. In 1950, Rt. Rev. Fr. Assoghig Ghazarian, who during World War II ended up in the concentration camp for British and American citizens in the city of Moukden returned to Jerusalem and the Armenian Church once again remained without a pastor.
Subsequently, during the following years, due to the mass-exodus of Armenians from Harbin, their colony dwindled down to a mere 40-50 people. In 1959, the building of the Armenian Church changed hands and became the property of the Chinese Government, which in turn used it for a textile factory. In August 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, all churches in Harbin were demolished and all the treasures of the Armenian Church including icons and elaborate vestments were destroyed.