The month-long George Town Festival presents a city that is comfortable in its own skin

Chin Seng Leong is not just an antique store. It also offers vintage Japanese bicycles for rent. -- PHOTO: ERFENDI DHAHLAN
Chin Seng Leong is not just an antique store. It also offers vintage Japanese bicycles for rent. -- PHOTO: ERFENDI DHAHLAN
Penang-born photographer Ismail Hashim. -- PHOTO: PUAH CHIN KOK
Penang-born photographer Ismail Hashim. -- PHOTO: PUAH CHIN KOK
There will also be showcases of Malay traditional art forms, the Kuda Kepang and Mak Yong (above). -- PHOTO: GEORGE TOWN FESTIVAL
There will also be showcases of Malay traditional art forms, the Kuda Kepang and Mak Yong (above). -- PHOTO: GEORGE TOWN FESTIVAL
In The Kitchen. -- PHOTO: KR VINAYAN
In The Kitchen. -- PHOTO: KR VINAYAN
This laid-back series of concerts located in coffeeshops across George Town sees the combined talent of local musicians such as Joe Pragasam (above), artists, poets and even a magician under one roof. -- PHOTO: ERFENDI DHAHLAN
This laid-back series of concerts located in coffeeshops across George Town sees the combined talent of local musicians such as Joe Pragasam (above), artists, poets and even a magician under one roof. -- PHOTO: ERFENDI DHAHLAN
The Art Deco building now hosts exhibitions such as Come Close and The Movers (above). -- PHOTO: ERFENDI DHAHLAN
The Art Deco building now hosts exhibitions such as Come Close and The Movers (above). -- PHOTO: ERFENDI DHAHLAN

Here are the must-see acts

Picture this: disco lights are flashing and a man dressed in a blue checked shirt, with a little chest hair exposed, is belting out Stevie Wonder's evergreen hit, I Just Called To Say I Love You, accompanied by a flautist and a guitarist.

This is not a club, but a laid-back coffee shop called Asia Cafe on Jalan Kapitan Keling in George Town, Penang. On the walls are vintage enamel signs. A bird cage hangs from the ceiling.

The mood is convivial. Patrons spill out on the streets, content to drink their beer standing up.

This is Konsert Kopitiam, a series of free concerts held in coffee shops as part of the returning George Town Festival, which runs until the end of the month.

Penang, for many Singaporeans, calls to mind street food delights and a nostalgic vibe reminiscent of 1970s and 1980s Singapore, thanks to their historic relationship as fellow-port cities in the British Straits Settlements.

The annual George Town Festival, now in its fifth year, breathes fresh life into the city's well-worn charms - using the humble kopitiams, restored prewar shophouses and colonial homes of the state capital as a backdrop for a slew of arts events by Malaysian, Singaporean and international acts.

"It has always been about the realness of the spaces," says festival director Joe Sidek, 56, in an interview at Sarkies, the sea-facing eatery at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel on Lebuh Farquhar.

The month-long festival activates the entire city with 147 events held in more than 20 venues. Organisers hope to attract a crowd of about 200,000, the same as last year.

It helps that the festival has gained plaudits internationally, with the New York Times recently calling it a "major Asian arts event". The programme is wonderfully eclectic, ranging from poetry readings to plays to traditional and contemporary dance.

While bigger acts take place in formal theatres such as Dewan Sri Penang, the majority of events are held in unconventional spaces such shophouses and cafes.

A majestic Chinese clan house located on Lebuh Cannon, Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, will soon become the backdrop for Penang Hokkien-language play Hai Ki Xin Lor ("You Mean The World To Me" in English), directed by Penang-born Saw Teong Hin. "It is very much a street festival. The festival oozes out from all corners of the city, where you least expect it," says Singapore actress-producer Tan Kheng Hua, 52, who is in George Town to present SIN-PEN Colony later this month. It is a showcase held at various venues in the last two weeks of the festival, centred around Singapore and Penang's shared heritage and encompassing theatre, visual art, food and music. 2 Houses, a play about a Penang family produced by Tan, has already sold out ahead of the festival's opening.

Most of the venues are located within walking distance of one another, making this very much a "walking" festival.

But pack a sturdy pair of shoes. The "realness" of the spaces translates into uneven pavements and the occasional pothole.

Alternatively, try cycling - bicycle rental shops peppered throughout the city charge about RM8 (S$3) a day.

Ticket prices for festival acts are affordable too. One can watch big names such as Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui - a towering figure in contemporary dance - for as little as RM20 and the most expensive tickets go for RM200. The majority of the other acts are free.

The affordable tickets are the result of corporate sponsorships, state funding and even federal government funding, which makes up about 10 per cent of its $2.7m budget. For a festival organised by an opposition state - Penang is governed by the opposition Democratic Action Party - this is recognition that it is doing something right.

"I've been asking for federal funding, so it's a really breakthrough year for us. I hope that in the eyes of Malaysian companies, it will open doors," says Mr Sidek, whose company, Joe Sidek Productions, has been appointed to run the festival since 2010.

He is looking to get more sponsors on board, but is also heartened by the support from the local community.

Penang poet and lawyer Cecil Rajendra, 73, the man behind the Konsert Kopitiam series in the festival, is doing his part to take the arts to the people.

"It gets the people together - even the nasi kandar people are on board," he says, gesturing towards the hawker located outside Asia Cafe, who sells rice served with curry-based side dishes.

If there is one criticism he has of the festival, it is the influx of foreign shows. "We have enough talent in Penang," he says. About half of the acts in this year's festival are local.

Nonetheless, there is a strong sense of community, with the festival very much rooted in everyday life in the city.

As Joe Pragasam, the crooner in the blue-checked shirt, entertains with his feel-good hits at Asia Cafe, the audience includes curious Indian labourers clad in dhoti (an Indian sarong-like garment), smiles spreading on their faces.

There is also a palpable Singapore connection.

A pop-up bookstore by local outfit Gerak Budaya accompanies Konsert Kopitiam and among its selection of Malaysian fiction, one sees titles by Singapore writer Alfian Sa'at.

This connection between the two former Straits Settlements cities is keenly felt. It is at the heart of Tan's SIN-PEN Colony - the brochure even goes so far as to call them "sister islands".

But while it celebrates its heritage proudly - George Town was conferred Unesco heritage status in 2008 - it is hardly stuck in the past. There is an energy injected by young entrepreneurial Penangites.

Just walk down Love Lane or Lebuh Muntri for a dose of the lively cafe scene. Another example is one-year-old The Mugshot Cafe on Lebuh Chulia, a trendy joint selling fresh pastries and coffee, run by longtime friends Jesse Tan and Tristan Navarednam, both 35.

The cafe is flanked by shops run by ageing residents. Outside, trishaw riders cycle past Mugshot's new food truck, The Duchess, that sells burgers fresh off the grill.

Similarly, the festival tries to find that balance between the traditional and the modern.

On one hand, there is Cherkaoui's Play which pits contemporary dance against Indian kuchipudi dance.

On the other hand, Kuala Lumpur company Danirai Dance is presenting a free Mak Yong (a traditional Malay dance-drama art form) showcase on the last day of the festival.

Mr Sidek has grand plans. He wishes to organise a cross-state arts festival straddling multiple Asean countries. And yes, it includes Singapore.

"It's about the arts, it's about the culture. It's all of us sharing this same journey," he says.

nabilahs@sph.com.sg


HIN BUS DEPOT ART CENTRE

What: Though not technically part of the festival, this beautifully run-down building (walk past Komtar from Jalan Penang), a 20-minute walk from the start of Jalan Penang, is truly worth visiting. The Art Deco building now hosts exhibitions such as Come Close and The Movers. Ernest Zacharevic’s murals from a past show make for the best photos. The building can be easy to miss, so look out for Hotel Grand Continental Penang across the road.

Where: 31A Jalan Gurdwara

When: Exhibitions run till Aug 31

Admission: Free


KONSERT KOPITIAM

What: This laid-back series of concerts located in coffeeshops across George Town sees the combined talent of local musicians such as Joe Pragasam, artists, poets and even a magician under one roof. Come early to grab a seat and soak in the atmosphere. Check out the range of Malaysian English-language fiction offered at the pop-up bookstore by Gerak Budaya.

Where: Various locations. Go to www.georgetownfestival.com for details

When: Aug 15, 22 and 29, 6 to 8pm

Admission: Free


THE KITCHEN

What: Director Roysten Abel is noted for making traditional art forms contemporary, as he did with The Manganiyar Seduction, a touring production featuring singers and musicians from Rajasthan in northern India.

In The Kitchen, two cooks prepare vats of payasam (a traditional Indian rice pudding) to the rousing beat of Keralan copper drums played live.

A giant metal scaffolding, on top of which 12 drummers sit, forms a majestic backdrop.

A metaphor for spiritual transformation, the multisensory production culminates in a mass payasam tasting session for the audience.

Where: Dewan Sri Pinang, Lebuh Light

When: Aug 22 and 23, 8.30pm

Admission: $8, $24, $31, $47 and $78 (Go to georgetownfestival.com for ticket info)


V&A Project

What: The streets Lebuh Victoria and Lebuh Armenian will be taken over by artists who will present performances, workshops and a Hand Made Market selling crafts.

There will also be showcases of Malay traditional art forms, the Kuda Kepang and Mak Yong.

Sydney dance company, Shaun Parker & Company, presents Trolleys, a performance combining a flash mob, ballet and acrobatics.

Where: Lebuh Victoria and Lebuh Armenian

When: Aug 31, 4 to 11pm

Admission: Free


UNPACK-REPACK: A TRIBUTE TO ISMAIL HASHIM (1940-2013)

What: Curator Wong Hoy Cheong, a prominent Malaysian artist, sieved through stacks of photographic negatives, test prints and letters belonging to the late Penang-born photographer Ismail Hashim that even his family was not privy to. The result: an incisive and personal tribute that turns the metaphorical lens towards the intensely private artist, featuring more than 600 objects including photographic equipment and personal effects.

Where: The Whiteways Arcade, 2nd storey, Lebuh Pantai

When: Till Aug 31, 11am to 7pm. Go to www.facebook.com/fergana.art for details on exhibition-related talks and tours.

Admission: Free


PENANG: FOOD AND LODGING

WHERE TO EAT

George Town is best explored on foot. This also gives you the perfect reason to make multiple food stops while sightseeing.

A good place to start would be the core heritage zone of Lebuh Armenian. Look out for the now-iconic Little Children On A Bicycle mural by Ernest Zacharevic. Just opposite is Guan Seang Trading Cafe (266 Lebuh Pantai; tel: +6019-472-1480), a low-key cafe selling Nonya kuih such as kuih talam, a two-layer cake made of coconut milk and rice flour (40 cents each). It also serves a decent assam laksa ($1.80 a bowl).

Down the road, look for Chin Seng Leong (55 Armenian Street; tel: +6012-553-3553), a bicycle rental shop-cum-antique store that is chockfull of rarities such as vintage clocks. Vintage Japanese bicycles are available for rent at just $4 a day.

For brunch, head to The Mugshot Cafe (302 Lebuh Chulia; tel: +6012-405-6276), a bustling coffee joint that serves freshly baked bagels ($2 to $4 depending on the topping), which go well with an iced latte ($4 each) or espresso ($2.40 each).

Take a 10-minute walk to Pasar Chowrasta on Jalan Chowrasta, a 124-year-old wet market selling an array of local wares. Try the colourful jeruk or preserved fruit like nutmeg or mango ($1.60 a packet).

At the side of the market, look out for a simple cart selling cendol pulut, or cendol mixed with glutinous rice ($1 a cup).

After dark, head to multi-concept space China House (153 and 155 Lebuh Pantai and 183B Lebuh Victoria; tel: +604-263-7299) and order its generously sized cakes, such as tiramisu and chocolate orange cake ($4 to $6 a slice).

China House is also the venue for festival events such as The Penang Depressed Cake Shop (Aug 24), a bake sale to raise awareness about mental illness, and Singapore House Supper Club (Aug 29 to 31) helmed by Singapore Peranakan chef Malcolm Lee.

WHERE TO STAY

Tourist-friendly George Town has no shortage of accommodation, both high- and low-end. Prices quoted are for one night and come with breakfast.

Syok@Chulia (45 Lebuh Chulia; tel: +604-263-2663; room rates: $43 for a double room) is a trendy "flashpacker" (or a more affluent backpacker) hostel.

Housed within three restored shophouses, it has received rave reviews for being cleaner and better designed than most hostels.

Festival partner Bayview Hotel George Town (25A Lebuh Farquhar; tel: +604-263-3161; room rates: $82 per for a superior twin room) is a mid-range hotel with amenities, such as a gym, swimming pool and even a revolving restaurant. To book, go to georgetownfestival.com and click on "GTF Specials".

For a glimpse of what old Penang might have been like, book a stay at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel (10 Lebuh Farquhar; tel: +604-222-2000; room rates: $250 for a deluxe twin room), which has a history that dates back to 1885.

The charming colonial-style hotel looks like Singapore's Raffles Hotel and for good reason - both properties were built by the Sarkies brothers.

HOW TO GET THERE

AirAsia offers four flights to Penang's Bayan Lepas airport daily. Prices range from $130 to $240 for a return trip. Alternatively, Singapore Airlines and SilkAir have flights to Penang for about $350.

You can also drive from Singapore to Penang. It takes about eight to nine hours.

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