Ever since becoming a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008, Penang’s George Town has been celebrating with an annual festival. Southeast Asia Globe headed out for the opening weekend to discover a rich and varied array of art, culture and life and left wanting more
By Daniel Besant
Speeding along the highway into Penang we pass towering apartment complexes and the impressive soon-to-be complete SPICE (Subterranean Penang International Convention and Exhibition) Centre, Freddy the taxi driver is enthusiastically recalling his passengers from earlier in the day. “The Finns,” he exclaims. “They were exhausted after their long flight. But as soon as they reached George Town, they became really excited.”
“The Koreans’ instruments were strange though,” he continues. “I helped them unload their gear from the boot.”
There’s some excitement from his current passenger too, mostly at the thought of consuming some of the fabled food. A visit here is long overdue, fired up on tales of banana-leaf thalis and street-stall kuay teow. Not to mention the roti canai and succulent satay.
The variety and quality of Indian, Chinese and Malay food available in the Unesco-listed port city is well renowned. But food is not the primary reason for this trip. Southeast Asia Globe is here for the fifth George Town Festival, an annual mash up of music and arts putting itself firmly on the regional and international cultural map.
And this is where the excited Finns and Koreans with strange instruments come in. The former are performers from Race Horse Company, an anarchic-but-poised circus act from Finland with – as they profess – “no philosophy”. The latter are Rhythmic Space: A Pause for Breath, a beguiling duo that plays traditional Korean instruments such as the kiri and the saenghwang in a modern style.
Race Horse Company is due to share the stage that night at a show entitled Circus Circus in the Brutalist-style Dewan Sri Pinang auditorium along with the dazzlingly sinuous Shanghai Starlight Acrobatic Troupe, shadow dancers from Thailand’s Bunditpatanasilpa Institute and the Wrecking Crew Orchestra, a futuristic lightshow-cum-dance company from Japan. Two days later, across the way at the magnificently preserved 19th century splendour of the Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang, the former home of the city’s assembly, Rhythmic Space will transfix an audience with their contemplative, mournful tunes.
Just like the city’s food, the festival’s menu of highlights seems to effortless meld influences from far and wide with those closer to home. “It shows the city as a canvas for the arts, both local and international,” says Joe Sidek, the festival’s organiser. “So it is a time to come and see a city brought alive.”
And it is on the streets of George Town itself where the festival comes alive just as much as in the performance spaces. Here and there, amongst the Art Deco offices, colonial-era mansions, Chinese shophouses, mosques and temples you find galleries showing the work of local artists and photographers. Around the corner in a café, there’s a performance named Konsert Kopitam, a blend of singers, comedians, poets and storytellers. Up the road there’s a masterclass in Arabic calligraphy.
It could not be easier to see all that is on offer at the festival. Due to it compact size, nothing is more than a 20-minute stroll away. If the heat gets too much, then there are affordable meter taxis and bicycle rickshaws to take. Circumnavigating the perimeter, there is a free bus service. And you can always hire a bike, pedal your way around and burn off some of that food.
On the opening night, before the Circus Circus performers ramp up the energy, we listen to speeches from the traditionally attired Sidek, plus the Chief Minister of Penang Lim Guan Eng and Malaysia’s Minister of Tourism & Culture Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz. “I am with you,” says Nazri addressing Lim, as he pledges his ministry’s financial support to the festival.
This is fantastic news for Sidek and the festival. “Penang is an opposition state, and while the Penang State government has been one of our biggest supporters, we have been severely disadvantaged when it comes to trying to form federal partnerships,” he tells Southeast Asia Globe later. “This support from the tourism minister shows that the arts can be a powerful tool to overcome divides and borders.”
Next evening, the beautiful people gather for a fashion show in front of the exquisitely restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Pecking on the canapés and sipping the champers are Singapore acting royalty Tan Kheng Hua and Lim Yu-Beng, artist Tiffany Chung and sculptor Tanya Sierra. Inside a courtyard we are regaled by creations from designers Ong Shunmugam from Singapore, Nita Kenzo from Indonesia, Mae Teeta from Thailand and Khoon Hooi from Malaysia. In the front row sit Laurence Loh, the award-winning heritage preservationist who worked on the mansion, and world-famous designer Jimmy Choo, who hails from Penang.
Heading back to the airport in the early evening after three full days of art, life and culture, it is still hard not to feel a sense of missing out. The festival runs for the rest of the month and Southeast Asia Globe has only just scratched the surface of what the city and its up-and-coming festival have to offer. Better make a space in the diary for next year.
The George Town Festival runs until August 31. A full programme can be accessed here
“Art is life” – Street artists are colouring the streets of George Town, breathing new life into the city’s heritage quarter