George Town, Malaysia – At a traditional Penang coffee shop, as the day’s oppressive heat gives way to a light evening breeze, people gather around marble-topped tables to enjoy some of the island’s fabled food and relax with friends.
But they’re not just here for the fried noodles and the beer.
Asia Cafe, which has operated from the same spot since the 1920s, is the stage for Konsert Kopitiam – an eclectic mix of music, magic and poetry – and the latest addition to George Town’s annual arts festival.
“This is the first ever Konsert Kopitiam in Malaysia,” poet Cecil Rajendran told the crowd – a mix of regulars, curious locals and tourists – as he introduced the first musical act. “We’re breaking the trend of protocol and our prices are very reasonable. You can get noodles over there, nasi kandar [rice] just outside.”
The band, accompanied by a flautist, breaks into its first song – a cover of the Bee Gees 45-year-old hit, “Words”. Amid clouds of dry ice, the audience tucks into plates of spicy fried noodles, their faces illuminated by dancing dots of coloured light from the rotating disco ball. The singer follows with his best Stevie Wonder impersonation and a string of 70s hits. Later, a poet takes the microphone, struggling to be heard over the din of the beer-fuelled chatter and a waitress screeching orders over the heads of the punters to the kitchen.
Now in its fifth year, the George Town Festival has evolved from a simple event to mark the city’s inclusion on the World Heritage list in 2008, to a monthlong celebration of all kinds of art – from Japanese hip-hop to specially commissioned plays, cutting edge contemporary dance, and exhibitions. But without the backdrop of the city’s historic architecture and multilayered living traditions, it’s unlikely it would even exist.
The approach has allowed the festival to do far more than its relatively small budget of just over $2m would suggest. Last year, more than 200,000 people visited Penang during the event.
“George Town is a canvas for the festival,” founder and director Joe Sidek, told Al Jazeera over coffee in one of George Town’s most popular cafes. “Everything lends itself to a picture or a story; the people, the street scenes, the buildings, and the history. You eat and sleep the festival. It belongs to Penang. That’s the vital ingredient.”
George Town was founded in 1786 after Captain Francis Light claimed the island of Penang for the East India Company.
UNESCO revived the city
In colonial times, Penang quickly established itself as a thriving port city, but by the end of the 20th century, George Town had fallen into decline. Tourists preferred the beaches that the authorities had marketed aggressively overseas and the grand villas of the city’s wealthiest tycoons had decayed. Shop houses had fallen into disrepair and many had been replaced with nondescript tower blocks. Conservationists feared the removal of rent controls would spell the end of George Town’s historic heart.
The World Heritage status was the catalyst. It’s rejuvenation. I think it’s similar to when Liverpool was named European Capital of Culture.
But in 2008, UNESCO recognised the city’s historic and living heritage.
“George Town was a fading city,” said Wong Hoy Cheong, a Penang-born artist who lived in Britain for many years, but returned to his hometown four years ago. “The World Heritage status was the catalyst. It’s rejuvenation. I think it’s similar to when Liverpool was named European Capital of Culture.”
Wong is the curator of Unpack/Repack – an exhibit of Malaysian photographer Ismail Hashim – which opened as part of the Georgetown Festival. Wong hopes to transfer the exhibit to the National Gallery in Kuala Lumpur in February 2015.
Ismail, who was born in Penang and died last year, was renowned as a cataloguer of ordinary Malaysian life. Some of his most affecting pieces, now exhibited in what was the upmarket Whiteaways department store in colonial times and was recently restored, capture the everyday artistry of the letter box or bicycle seat.
Since it started, the festival has made a name for itself with its site-specific installations.
This year, there’s a series of artist-designed chairs at secret, and not-so-secret locations, around the city. Some of them are close to the wall murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic that were commissioned for the Festival in 2012 and have since become a major tourist draw.
At Fort Cornwallis, Tim Craker, an Australian artist who lives in Penang and runs a residency for writers, artists, and designers, has created “String of Pearls”, a series of giant bamboo balls strung together with rope. Breaking down the bamboo blinds that are used throughout the city to keep out the sun, the show is a tribute to an island dubbed the “Pearl of the Orient”.
A former bus station, a newly restored villa, guest houses and coffee shops have all been put to use hosting not only exhibitions, but specially commissioned performances. This year, two houses will allow the audience to follow the story of two of Penang’s upper class families through the rooms of one of the mansions in which they might once have lived.
Life as normal
Despite the pockets of modernity, the boutique hotels and fancy cafes, the old George Town lives on. Down small side streets, families live much as they have done for decades, amid the paraphernalia of their businesses watched over by dimly lit altars honouring their ancestors. Mahjong makers, engravers of wooden signboards, and calligraphers can still be found in parts of the city.
It's remarkable to witness how the city has opened its doors to the rest of the country.
“The festival stands out for the integration of contemporary creative expressions in a wide range of unusual urban spaces,” the Asia Europe Foundation noted in a June report on creative cities in the two continents. “In addition to providing a good example of creative adaptive reuse of buildings, this also contributes to rethinking the city and highlighting its diverse sources of attractiveness. The city itself emerges as the performative space.”
This year, for the first time, the federal government has given its support to the event. The minister of Culture and Tourism, Nazri Aziz, flew up from Kuala Lumpur for the opening weekend. Federal government involvement could mean more money and a higher profile.
“It’s remarkable to witness how the city has opened its doors to the rest of the country and the world in this monthlong showcase,” Nazri said, pledging that his Ministry would work with the Penang state government to ensure the island’s continuing success in the arts and creative industries. “If it helps tourism in Penang, it helps tourism in Malaysia,” he said.
The opening show took place in one of George Town’s few conventional theatre spaces. A slice of contemporary vaudeville called CircusCircus, it included a group of Finnish acrobats who bounced on their stomachs across the stage on giant red balls and Japanese hip-hop performers, Wrecking Crew Orchestra, whose high-tech fluorescent wireless light suits and thumping bass thrilled the capacity crowd.
CircusCircus was a paid event with tickets starting at about 20 ringgit ($6.27) and going up to 200 ringgit ($62.75), but to ensure as many people as possible have the chance to experience the arts, many events are free. A new initiative known as Friends of the Festival aims to give underprivileged children a chance to experience a live performance.
“I hope that a kid sits down and feels comfortable,” Penang-born Sidek said, catching his breath and wiping away tears as he recalled the moment an eight-year-old boy had donated his pocket money to the festival when it was short of funds. “If one child decides he likes dance, music, theatre … then it was worth it.”