Writer: Martin Schacht
The Goethe-Institut in Thailand – a Success Story
2020 is the year of the 60th anniversary of the Goethe-Institut in Thailand. It was founded in 1960 as the first Goethe-Institut in South East Asia and is now the third largest in the world. The GI conveys a comprehensive picture of Germany by providing information about current social and political issues and promotes the exchange between Thailand, Germany and Europe through language courses, cultural events, festival contributions, productions and artist exchanges in the realms of film, dance, music, theatre, exhibition, literature and translation. It cooperates with the Thai education authorities, universities and schools. German teachers receive further training and students participate in language and cultural activities. For many artists and interested people the GI is also the gateway to the German way of life.
When the Goethe-Institut first opened at the corner of Phayathai and Sri Ayutthaya Road in1960, Bangkok did not yet have any skyscrapers and was a – compared to today– laid-back metropolis with canals running through it and wooden colonial-style mansions standing on their banks. It was in one of these mansions that the GI began its work. The first director of the institute had been living as a teacher in Bangkok for several years, and teaching German was also the main focus at that time. Although the building was only used as an institute for a short time, it established a tradition that runs through the entire history of the institute: the appearance of ghosts, in this case in the shape of a smoking stranger, who was seen at the window at night.
At the time, the GI offered mostly evening classes, but it soon became clear that a larger building was needed for planned cultural events. A suitable building was found in Phra Athit Road in the historic city centre, not far from the now popular backpacker district around Khao San Road. The location was ideal for a cultural institute, as many institutions that were potential cooperation partners were close-by: the National Museum, the National Gallery, the National Theatre, Silpakorn University (Art Academy) and Thammasat University. In addition, the proximity of the universities promised an audience that would be interested in the language courses.
The grounds were covered with tall, old tress that surrounded the spacious house with its pointed tower. The tower lent a Gothic flair to the building, and the whitewashed masonry and the high open windows looked inviting. A Thai prince lived next door and on the street in front of the building, the tram rumbled by. Here, entire generations of Thais had their first encounters with the German language and culture. Still today, the old GI in Phra Athit Road is considered legendary among older Thais.
In the sixties there was hardly any opportunity to listen to classical music or jazz in Bangkok. The GI had the possibility to hold intimate concerts on the upper floor of its building. The space also served as rehearsal room for the Pro Musica Orchestra, which was founded around that time.
In the early seventies the GI’s the demand for language classes grew significantly and another house was rented on the same property. Advanced training of Thai German teachers and the support of German lessons at schools and universities became important tasks of the GI at that time. During these years the GI also began to become a centre of cultural life in Thailand, bringing together the country’s artistic and cultural elite at various events. The GI offered a forum for dialogue between the Western and Asian culture.
And the Goethe-Institut was innovative: At a time when it was difficult for artists to find an exhibition space, the GI made its rooms available and thus became a stepping-stone for many now internationally renowned artists. In 1971 the GI showed works of the young artist Thawan Duchanee, who back then faced hostility and who would later become one of Thailand’s most famous artists. Today his works fill entire halls in the MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art), his residency Black House in Chiang Rai is a place of pilgrimage for art lovers. One of the main tasks of the GI in those years was also the foundation of a symphony orchestra in Thailand, which was created with members of the already existing Pro Musica Orchestra: the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. By the way, a ghost was also sighted in this building. It appeared in the conference room and was regarded by the staff as a kind of protective spirit that had to be treated respectfully to be able to fulfil wishes.
1985 was a year of celebration for the GI. It celebrated its 25th anniversary and on the day set for the festivities, Buddhist monks blessed the institute in a traditional ceremony. Shortly afterwards, the offer was made to build a new building in the Tungmahamek district in close proximity to the German embassy, which would meet the growing requirements. The businessman Carl Werner Drewes had lived in Thailand for a long time and had made a fortune there – and wanted to use it for a good cause. He was the holder of a long-term lease for the site and made donations for the establishment of a Thai-German cultural foundation (Thai-Deutsche Kulturstiftung, TDKS). The goal of the TDKS is the promotion of the German-Thai friendship through cultural exchange in the broadest sense. Given that background, it made sense to make common cause with the GI.
Prior to World War II, there had been a German club that met in an impressive colonial building on Sathorn Road. A similar building stood on the leased property. In addition, the property offered enough space for a new building, which could be financed by a generous loan from Drewes. Although the change of location meant that the GI lost some of its regular guests and partners from the old town, the chance of beginning a new era outweighed the concerns. And so, in 1986 German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was on a state visit to Thailand, unveiled the foundation plaque of the planned new building.
The rest is history: Soon after the inauguration in 1988 a new ghost appeared behind the pool, this time in the shape of a colonial-style “farang”. He is believed to be the spirit of an advisor to King Rama V who had lived in the old building and had died in a fall in the pool.
In 1999 the alley the institute is located in was renamed Soi Goethe (Goethe alley), an address that many Bangkok taxi drivers today know even without using GPS and without asking for further specifications. Hardly anything could be better proof that the GI really is a Bangkok institution that everyone has heard of. Today, the Goethe-Institut with its classrooms, library, cafeteria and the German restaurant “Ratsstube“ is a lively centre for language students and cultural exchange. Inaugurated in 2016, the event hall with its outstanding acoustics provides an appropriate space for concerts, film screenings and theatre performances. The Goethe-Institut is a place of encounter between Germany and Thailand, reflecting the legacy of the long and always friendly history between Thailand and Germany, and continues to actively promote the intercultural dialogue.