Germany’s Links to Penang are Old and Esteemed

loading The Malaysian-German Society is located in Air Itam.

Two centuries ago, attracted by its bustling free port, scores of German merchants sought new ventures in Penang.

Their presence was further fortified when the German international shipping line, Norddeutscher Lloyd (today’s Hapag Lloyd), began making regular stops at Penang. A link was thus established with the German seaports in the nineteenth century, encouraging more German entrepreneurs, photographers, missionaries and even famous writers like Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse and the adventure novelist Karl May to set sail for Penang in search of inspiration.

Much of the state’s early development is credited to prominent German personalities who made significant contributions. August Huttenbach of Huttenbach Brothers & Co. was responsible for introducing petroleum lamps for street lighting to Penang; Lebuh Pantai was the first street in Malaysian history to be lit up in 1874. The multi-talented architect Henry Alfred Neubronner is famed for designing many of Penang’s iconic landmarks, including the Bank of China (1905), formerly the Netherlands Trading Society; the HSBC building (1906); and the Kapitan Keling Mosque (1910); while the eminent lawyer Felix Henri Gottlieb, whose name is immortalised in Jalan Gottlieb, served in the Straits Settlements government from 1846 to 1882.

In Penang, the first Oktoberfest was celebrated in a bungalow at Taman Jesselton in 1972.

“Before World War I, the German-speaking community probably formed the second-largest group of European traders in Penang, after the British,” says Petra Mueller, president of the Malaysian-German Society (MGS).

Penang is favoured as a trading and investment hub for German companies – the Katz Brothers Ltd. (Lebuh Katz is named after them) and Behn Meyer & Co., which continues its operations to this day, are testaments to the state’s enduring commercial viability. More German electronic and medical corporations of the likes of B. Braun, Osram and Robert Bosch have also set up base here. “These companies entail a widespread local supplier network that contributes to the growth of Penang’s economy. German companies are renowned for their focus on excellent training and the development of employees, and thus are highly sought-after as employers for locals,” Mueller explains.

Today, an estimated 600 Germans call Penang home. “Besides coming here to work, we have also seen more Germans coming under the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) programme recently.”

A Society Founded on Friendship

Petra Mueller.

 

MGS came into existence in 1962. It was created by Peter Hütz, an employee of Behn Meyer & Co, together with Malaysians who had ties to Germany. “The aim is to promote friendship and understanding between the people of Malaysia and Germany through cultural activities like movie nights, concerts and art exhibitions. Our biggest events are the annual MaiBall and Oktoberfest,” says Mueller.

More than just a “purported” drinking festival, Oktoberfest is steep in centuries-old history and culture. It was first celebrated more than 200 years ago to commemorate the union of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. To honour the nuptial, a horse race was held, and food and beer were served. “The festival was later relocated to Munich. However, due to war and epidemic breakouts, the celebration was cancelled several times in the past.”

In Penang, the first Oktoberfest was celebrated in a bungalow at Taman Jesselton in 1972. “It grew bigger with time and recently, we have been celebrating it on two evenings with about 3,000 guests.” This year’s festivities, happening on October 19 and 20 on the grounds of MGS, promises lively musical entertainment – the Bavarian band Frankenräuber will be flown in especially for the occasion – and a feast of scrumptious German food. “We will also offer a variety of German beers, including non-alcoholic ones which are quite popular in Germany.”

Propagating German Culture

"Before World War I, the German-speaking community probably formed the second-largest group of European traders in Penang, after the British"

MGS collaborates with the German Embassy and the Goethe-Institut to host a series of cultural and art events for the Penang public to enjoy. “Besides the sponsorships of German movies, books and cultural events, we have German education consultants from DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, to advise students, showcase exhibitions of life in Germany, as well as conduct talks focused on German and European Union issues.”

The society also participated in the George Town World Heritage Day celebration last July. “A German card-game booth was set up in front of the Kapitan Keling Mosque, which was very well-received by the public.”

For those interested in picking up German, language classes are offered at MGS. “We provide regular courses, as well as private lessons from beginner to intermediate levels,” says Mueller. “We are also an examination centre for the internationally recognised German language proficiency tests administered by the Goethe-Institut. Education talks by German tertiary education institutions are hosted at the society as well to expose students to German culture.

“Most Malaysians who come to us to learn German either work for German companies, are married to Germans, or just want to learn another useful foreign language. There are also those who wish to further their studies at German universities. Germany has a first-class education system which makes studying there an attractive option. However, many of the courses are taught in German and because of that, our universities do not often appear in the world’s top rankings constructed by the British and American media. Still, a large number of Nobel Prize winners do come from our universities.”

For more information on MGS, visit their website at mgs.org.my.

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.



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