Singapore arrives in George Town

Twin banners adorning a flower-decked shophouse in this historic city declares the building to be 'Singapore House' - well, at least for a month.

Singapore House is a pop-up design exhibition, retail store and art gallery set up in a pre-war shophouse on Victoria Street in the heart of George Town's heritage area.

It popped up for the month-long George Town Festival being held to celebrate the fifth anniversary of its listing as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008.

For the first time since the festival began five years ago, Singapore has a significant presence with its small and big arts groups, and creative folk bringing their talent here.

"They wanted to collaborate with us. It was amazing, they have already made their names, why would they want to come to Penang?" says festival director Joe Sidek who is running the event for the fifth year.

But he said the Singapore interest has been high, noting that there had also been visits from the Republic's heritage and tourism authorities.

Singapore House showcases a selection of products by local designers and shops like Books Actually, design studio The Gentlemen's Press and hat-makers Heads of State Millinery.

Another big group of Singaporean performers took part via the Causeway Exchange, an exchange programme which sees Singaporean and Malaysian performers taking turns to hold shows in each other's countries. Instead of Kuala Lumpur this time, the Causeway Exchange came to George Town.

Popular comedian Kumar did a show, so did 10 other acts.

"It went down fabulously well, from theatre to poetry, art, photography," said Mr Joe.

The increased Singapore participation could be due to much warmer political ties in the last five years which had seen prickly issues like the railway land resolved for mutual benefit.

But it is as much also due to the rising popularity of the George Town Festival which operates on a budget of just RM3.5 million (S$1.4 million). It's become one of the better-known events that have helped turn George Town into one of hippest destinations in the country.

Mr Joe also pointed out that Singapore and Penang have had long ties through their similar Peranakan culture, and old family ties.

"Between Penang and Singapore, there's still a thread between the old Chinese families from the 1800s and early 1900s," he said.

He and a Singaporean friend are toying with having a Straits Settlement theme for a festival that would travel from George Town to Malacca to Singapore.

Since June 7, the festival has featured art installations, food fests, open houses of places of worship, and its trademark street art.

Last year, street murals sent visitors on a treasure hunt to seek out paintings in the oddest corners.

This year, it's the "Secret Gardens of Earthly Delights" that's sending visitors looking for hidden pockets of greenery. Once disused patches filled with weeds and grime, some too small to be of any use, the patches were turned into magical urban gardens.

No map is provided as visitors are encouraged to stumble upon them. Street events are the star of the George Town Festival, all of which are free, along with the pop-up shows in disused shophouses.

It's a deliberate move.

"This is the magic of the festival, the people and the outdoors. We want to make art accessible for people to discover. It doesn't need to be intimidating; if they don't like it, they can just walk away," Mr Joe said.

The festival is not a sleek glitzy show, as it is meant to be a celebration of George Town, its living heritage and natural raw beauty.

The festival ends on July 7 with a street celebration of its living heritage, but the secret gardens and a giant art installation 'The Theatre of Ships' by Indonesian artist Joko Avianto will remain for at least a year.

The fading street murals from last year's festival can still be viewed.

carolynh@sph.com.sg