The George Town Festival returns next month and is all set to wow Malaysians.
Five years ago, the George Town Festival in Penang was an ambitious project which aimed to put the bustling island on the arts and culture map. The main idea back then was to give Penang a solid platform to grow with everything arts and culture – and to find itself a voice in the regional scene. Indeed the festival started modestly.
It has steadily moved beyond heritage trishaw treasure hunts and street performers along Armenian Street from its early days. Through the years, the festival has built global connections and carved an artful niche for itself.
Today the George Town Festival, which returns to Penang next month, has grown significantly in profile with its month-long programming filled with theatre, music, art, dance, opera, film screenings and more. Much sophistication and diversity has been added to the festival’s programming. How the George Town Festival (GTF) has exceeded expectations.
“I have to be frank. The festival started in 2010 and I was given six weeks to plan it. How do you do that? So, what we did was put together a series of events,” says Joe Sidek, 55, the festival director of GTF, who has seen this project take flight. He remains excited about taking GTF further ahead.
“The road map we took was to position and brand the festival as a festival that people would recognise and want to participate in and attend.”
The upcoming GTF next month comes with bigger names and acts. According to Joe, it is set to excite Malaysians from all walks of life.
The all-ages festival boasts more than 100 performances and activities from local and international practitioners.
As a festival to celebrate the culture, heritage and history of George Town (after it was listed as a Unesco Heritage Site in 2008), the GTF venues will include historic mansions, landmark streets as well as more familiar arts-related sites like Penang Performing Arts Centre, Dewan Sri Pinang, MPPP Town Hall, China House, The Whiteaways Arcade and others.
“More importantly, we wanted to inspire local creative practitioners by bringing in international acts to nudge them to say ‘I can do that’,” explains Joe.
Many of the performances, which also include exhibitions and workshops, are free of charge and only some are ticketed, starting as low as RM20 to RM200.
Some of the notable international acts for the upcoming GTF are Circus Circus (Aug 1-5) with dancers/artists from Finland, Japan, China and Thailand in a high tempo performance with stunning acrobatics, dance, magic and clowns, Play (Aug 14-15) by award-winning Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, British-Indian kathak dancer Aakash Odedra’s Rising (Aug 15-16) and Indian director Roysten Abel’s musical theatre The Kitchen (Aug 22-23), which is renowned for presenting traditional content to a contemporary audience.
These shows are the crowd magnet for the festival, since, as Joe himself puts it, “at the end of the day the goal is to marry arts, culture and tourism to the dollar sign.”
But the GTF is still, by and large, for the local audience to experience and embrace the arts.
“The first step is to give culture to our own people. There is no point putting cultural shows for the foreigners when our own people don’t appreciate it. If we keep producing shows for the foreigners, we are on the wrong track,” says Joe.
He adds that the objective of the festival is to make the arts accessible to Malaysians.
“You don’t have to be cultured, rich, intelligent or belong to a certain social class to appreciate the arts,” he adds.
For instance, the Victoria & Armenian Street Project (V&A Project), which is held on the final day of the festival (Aug 31), is a free street festival that celebrates the distinctive spaces found in George Town. It will host public performances and workshops, bringing the festival to where the people are.
Some of the highlights of the V&A Project are kuda kepang and Mak Yong performances, handmade markets that features unique items and the Trolleys performance (from Australia) by Shaun Parker & Co, a mix of guerrilla and flash mob dance featuring five shopping carts and a group of energetic dancers.
Joe also believes Penang has interesting stories to offer and this is where the specially-commissioned works will come into play.
“By commissioning a work, especially about the people in George Town, about a special house, about a special people, it makes it your own. You take ownership of the festival and this is very important. There is no use buying big acts because any festival can do that. I feel the direction of our festival should be about owning it,” he says.
“This year, we have projects which are specially initiated by the festival such as (filmmaker) Saw Teong Hin’s Hai Kin Xin Lor (Hokkien play) and 2 Houses, a play written and directed by Singaporean Lim Yu-Beng.”
2 Houses is a site-specific play (Soonstead Mansion) with WWII and the subsequent Emergency years serving as the backdrop.
“This play is a collaboration between Singapore and Malaysia and it’s about two blood brothers who grew up together. It’s also about wealth, power, women and the strength of women.
“The playwright has managed to layer all of this in a story about the houses and layer it more around Merdeka, pride and brotherhood.”
Other noteworthy local performances and exhibitions are the Boria Fest, a parody theatre rooted deep in Penang’s history, Saw Teong Hin’s Hai Kin Xin Lor, a Hokkien play about a filmmaker who returns to Penang to film his family without their knowledge, the Obscura Festival Of Photography and a tribute exhibition to the late Ismail Hashim, one of Malaysia’s influential photographers, called Unpack-Repack: A Tribute To Ismail Hashim (1940 – 2013).
For Joe, one of the most memorable acknowledgements he received for GTF was when a woman contributed a sizeable donation to the festival.
“It happened about a month ago. I saw this lady buying a ticket for the festival and I thanked her for her support. Moments later, I was told that she was looking for me and when I met her, she gave me RM1,000. She could have bought the most expensive ticket but she decided to contribute it to the festival itself. That shows appreciation,” recounts Joe.
You don’t have to donate your savings to the GTF. There are other ways for you to support this celebration of the arts and culture.
Take some days off, drive up to Penang and catch some of the shows. Arts, after all, is to be experienced, posted on Instagram and enjoyed.
The George Town Festival 2014 will be happening from Aug 1 to Aug 31 at various locations around Penang. For more information, visit