Penang's George Town Festival grows up

Penang's George Town Festival blends arts, culture and heritage

At first glance, the green patch appears to be just an overgrown field beneath two blocks of nondescript flats. But a closer look shows the "weeds" to be actually a lush field of padi growing in a tidy 450 sq m plot.

A padi field in the city?

Yes, though anyone who visits George Town this month will not be too surprised. August is when this historic city comes alive for the annual George Town Festival (GTF) to commemorate the city's inclusion in the Unesco World Heritage list in 2008. This year, the festival is being held from July 27 to Aug 28.

The padi field will be the venue for art installations and performances, to take place right in the mud. The "Moved By Padi" project is a tribute both to a lost way of life in Penang and to rice, which brings all communities together, said dancer-choreographer Aida Redza, who put the show together.

Now in its seventh year, the GTF is much anticipated for its imaginative blend of arts, culture and heritage, with over 200,000 people attending every year.

The festival has played no small role in the remaking of George Town into a chic destination. Shunned by tourists in the 1990s for its derelict buildings, visitors now cannot get enough of these samestructures.

The GTF can take some credit for that. With its events often held in crumbling shophouses or on the streets, and often showcasing local people, it shone a nostalgic spotlight on Penang's charms as a "living museum".

Festival director Joe Sidek hit on this winning formula in 2010 when he had just six weeks to put together a festival in a city with only one performing hall. Events, thus, had to be held outdoors or in old shophouses. Arias performed on the streets, art displayed on grimy shophouse walls, and the City Hall draped in a huge bamboo installation quickly piqued public interest.

State-owned Penang Global Tourism's promotion manager Danny Tan said the GTF plays a big part in drawing visitors to Penang, which is now seeing around 6.7 million visitors a year compared to five million several years ago.

He noted that while the GTF's impact is not measurable by numbers, its influence is readily apparent. For instance, it has helped spark new trends such as street murals.

It was the GTF that first commissioned Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic to paint nostalgic murals on the city's walls in 2012. These became so popular - tourists still queue for selfies with them - that other artists followed suit, in George Town and beyond.

Ms Aida said Malaysian artists have also gained a lot from the exposure and opportunities offered by the GTF as it is well known for being daring, innovative and eclectic.

"The festival is open to challenging and experimental work, and supports so many art forms and cultural practices in both conventional and unexpected ways," she said.

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This year's GTF boasts international names such as Larry Harvey, founder of the iconic Burning Man festival in Nevada. The Strandbeest, a walking kinetic sculpture created by Dutch artist Theo Jansen, also made an appearance.

Mr Sidek said he now receives over 400 proposals every year from artists around the world.

But even as he acknowledges the importance of tourism, he insists that the festival is not about tourism or even the arts. Its focus is on celebrating people and building bridges, inspiring people and making them think, he said. Hence, for this year's edition, he took the bold step of opening the festival with Svara Bhumi (Voice Of The Earth), a concert of songs of the indigenous people of Malaysia and the region.

"The concert was not about making any political statement about development or who came here first. It's a journey in exploring the earth and land, and the indigenous people's connection to it," he said.

Alongside this spiritual songfest, the Strandbeest made a dramatic appearance on a windswept field just outside the performance hall.

Meaning "Beach Animal" in Dutch, the Strandbeest is a bizarre moving sculpture made from an intricate network of tubes and powered by the wind. It moves uncannily like a real living creature, stepping daintily with its many legs.

Other events include traditional music at street corners, movie screening on the walls of old shophouses, and a Singapore-produced play staged at the iconic E&O Hotel. It is eclectic, for sure.

Much of the GTF's success is driven by Mr Sidek's imaginative streak. And it helps that the state government gives him a free hand to run the show, even though it is partly financed by public funds. This year, the state provided RM4.5 million (S$1.5 million), which covers about two-thirds of its running costs.

Freed of political limitations, the festival calendar can be filled with politically delicate events like Christian sacred music or visits to religious houses - and even an active Singapore participation.

Singaporean artists have taken part in the festival since it began in 2010, and a Singapore House was even created in an old shophouse in 2013 to showcase its art and fashion.

A year later, in 2014, the Sin-Pen Colony production was organised by Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua. Partly funded by Singapore's National Arts Council, it was like a festival within a festival, with a wide range of art, music, food, fashion and theatre contributed by Singaporean artists.

In the same year, Ms Tan produced 2 Houses, a play by her playwright husband Lim Yu-Beng, which was staged in a grand old mansion in George Town. This year, their second play, Pearl of the Eastern & Oriental, was staged at the E&O Hotel.

The plays have been described as an ode to Penang, the home town of Mr Lim's father. "Yu-Beng has a lot of family here, and I love it here," said Ms Tan, adding that they like Penang for its deft juggling of the fresh and new, while retaining familiar traditions.

Although they live in Singapore with a full plate of projects there, they spend enough time in Penang to have bought a pre-war shophouse three years ago as a home away from home.

Another Singaporean with a home here is Mr Jonathan Foo, CEO of property firm 1919 Global, which recently restored Penang's Majestic Theatre, built in 1926. For its grand reopening, it hosted two productions as part of the GTF.

To Mr Sidek, it is fitting that Singaporeans have a part in the GTF because both islands share an entwined history, and in many ways Penang still retains the feel of old Singapore.

He still thinks of the GTF as a baby festival, although its fame is growing. "To me, its success is due to the realness of the festival, set against the backdrop of an old city with many imperfections, and celebrating real people," he said.

The other side of the island awakens

Penang is undoubtedly hip and chic, crowded and touristy, but in reality the buzz is confined to George Town on the island's east coast. Its west coast remains blissfully tranquil.

Still, in recent years, the Balik Pulau area, or literally the "back of the island", has begun to wake up to the potential of tourism. New attractions that have sprung up include the Hakka Village and its museum.

Balik Pulau, the biggest town here, now has its own nostalgic street murals as well. Even its durian orchards have gone upscale, offering a gourmet experience where visitors can enjoy the choicest fruits, eaten in the right order to truly savour the flavours.

The area benefits from lower land costs and lots of space.

Glass artist Fuan Wong found the luxury of space quite liberating when his city house grew overcrowded with his collection of plants and art installations.

He built his intriguing Art and Garden here, taking up nearly 3ha of a former orchid farm. Opened in the middle of last year, it is the quintessential secret garden, with every turn revealing fresh paths and art pieces, including striking glass artworks by Wong that catch the sunlight. The artist is in favour of rejuvenating Balik Pulau, which he remembers as a wilderness when he was a boy.

"Development is spreading here but the town is still quiet with an air of the past," he said.

He does not think development will overwhelm this area because Balik Pulau is still considered out of the way. Development will thus be slow, and the area is likely to remain tranquil for some time yet.

Its seclusion was what attracted a prominent Penang family to build a private retreat on its steep hills in 2001. Opened to the public in 2009, the Malihom estate features 10 chalets converted from rice barns that were brought over from Thailand and reassembled in Penang.

"My parents wanted a getaway spot, and Balik Pulau is remote," said Ms Daryl Yeap, who now runs Malihom.

Visitors who want to escape the city are drawn by this very remoteness, and Ms Yeap hopes the area will stay quiet, with the focus being on eco-tourism.

"We have to be mindful that the town doesn't overdevelop as it could lose its charm," she said.

Carolyn Hong

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline Penang's George Town Festival grows up. Subscribe