Penang may be known as the unofficial foodie capital of Malaysia, but this July, come nourish your imagination and wonder at the George Town Festival (GTF).
Taking place from July 15 to 30, the 14th edition of GTF promises something for everyone, featuring over 50 activities and performances held at more than 20 locations across George Town and wider Penang – many of which offer free admission.
Over 150,000 visitors are also expected to attend the festival, making it one of the most high-profile arts events in the Malaysian cultural calendar.
“If there is anything worth celebrating, especially in our post-lockdown circumstances, it is our human experiences,” says Jack Wong, GTF director, in a recent interview.
“I hope that by (re)creating these experiences, residents in the area and audiences are encouraged to engage with these spaces and each other, to feel proud of our shared heritage, and to witness the power and possibilities of the arts within these familiar or unknown spaces.”
Wong adds that GTF will utilise many spaces within and throughout Penang that are not typically used for the performing arts, including hidden and lesser-known spaces and heritage surroundings, such as clan associations and community spaces.
“The blending of our arts and culture within the spaces of historic buildings and surroundings is a unique feature of GTF. These experiences and stories of new and old, past and present, cannot be replicated anywhere else, making GTF 2023 a most exciting iteration in recent years,” says Wong.
The programme line-up includes theatre, dance and music productions, ethnic cultural performances, comedy acts, documentary films, exhibitions, digital installations, book and game launches, plus a series of arts masterclasses, workshops, and forums.
Ticket prices for the GTF events have remained largely accessible for the masses. At a minimum, you can currently get tickets for shows such as the dance-inspired bhumiMATA and the Malaysia-Japan puppet theatre The Monkey King Adventures: Love Of Onibaba for RM30 and RM50, respectively.
The highest ticket price would be RM150, which includes a train ride and venue entry pass, for The Senses outdoor concert at the Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk located at The Habitat Penang Hill.
Besides shining a spotlight on our homegrown artists, GTF 2023 is also partnering with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Malaysia and Australian High Commission to welcome artists from Taiwan and Australia to celebrate creative collaborations that span across borders.
With a variety of shows ranging from traditional and contemporary to experimental and multidisciplinary, here are some highlights from the festival that you’re sure to enjoy.
PANGGUNG SEMAR: GELIGA EMBUN
Venue: Dewan Budaya, Universiti Sains Malaysia
Date: July 8
If you can’t wait for GTF to start, here’s a pre-festival event to check out. Take an unforgettable journey into the heart of traditional Malay arts and music with Geliga Embun, a one-of-a-kind production presented by Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Dewan Budaya and Arjuna Sukma Academy.
This extraordinary showcase will feature the Malay traditional art forms of Mak Yong, Wayang Kulit, and Dikir Barat, performed by 20 talented individuals, including three Adiguru as trainers, a Tok Dalang as master puppeteer, a Tok Jogho as the movement director, a Tukang Karut as the master storyteller, and 13 skilled musicians known as the Panjak. Tickets: RM30.
Venue: Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk, The Habitat Penang Hill
Date: July 16
Spend an outdoor concert evening enraptured by the ethnic melodies of Frank Yamma and David Bridie (Australia) and Sangpuy Katatepan, a renowned musician from Taiwan’s indigenous Pinuyumayan community, while surrounded by Penang Hill’s 130-million-year-old rainforest.
You’ll also get the chance to enjoy breathtaking 360° views of the island and mainland from the Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk. The performance is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of George Town and Adelaide as sister cities.
Tickets are RM150 per person and RM540 for a group of four, inclusive of Fast Lane Funicular Train Passes and entrance fee.
MATERIAL WOMAN IN THE BEAUTY WORLD
Venue: Auditorium C, Komtar
Date: July 20-23
Material Woman In The Beauty World, which previewed in Kuala Lumpur in April, is a new one-actor play by veteran playwright Leow Puay Tin. The play – presented in Mandarin and English language shows – is a microscope into the life of women who embody courage and resilience, determined to survive amid the harshness of the world.
Performed by Ling Tang, an accomplished Malaysian actress, and under the direction of Tung Jit Yang, Material Woman In The Beauty World challenges how we understand what it is to be a woman today. It offers the masses a slice of thoughtful homegrown theatre at GTF.
Tickets are RM50.
PULU’EM and LUNA
Venue: Dewan Budaya, Universiti Sains Malaysia
Date: July 22 and 23
Did you know that Taiwan has 16 officially recognised indigenous peoples? Witness the mastery and grace of their artistry in this evocative music and dance performance, which kicks off with Pinuyumayan musician Sangpuy Katatepan’s mesmerising vocals.
Sangpuy pays tribute to the cultural, natural, and spiritual heritage of Taiwan’s indigenous culture with songs from his latest album pulu’em, which means “gaining strength and being blessed” in his native Puyuma language.
The show closes with Luna, performed by the highly-acclaimed Bulareyaung Dance Company. Their 2018 milestone production integrates contemporary dance with inspiration from the rituals and singing of the Bunun people, also recognised as a cultural heritage in Taiwan.
Tickets are RM70 and RM90 individually, while tickets bought in groups of four are going for RM252 and RM324.
Venue: Penang Institute
Date: July 28 and 29
The adventurous bhumiMATA is a multidisciplinary production by Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio, which incorporates elements of classical, ritualistic, and contemporary dance forms to uncover and embody the woman’s voice across generations.
Featuring community, pre- professional, and professional dancers, bhumiMATA takes audiences on an exploration of cross-cultural and intergenerational exchange to interrogate and reintroduce concepts of femininity, our relationship with nature, and the hidden and neglected narratives of women.
As an experimental work, bhumiMATA, or mother earth, tethers culture, tradition, and heritage to explore themes of survival, protection, spirituality, and sacrifice through the female lens, a journey into the soul and spirit of a woman through the ages. Tickets are RM30 per person and RM108 for a group of four.
BAWAKALI: AN ATYPICAL JOURNEY
Venue: Hin Bus Depot
Date: July 27 and 28
In the busy festival atmosphere at George Town, you might need some calm and quiet time. Framed by the notion of mindfulness, Bawakali: An Atypical Journey is an experimental production which draws audiences to explore the relationship between meditation, creativity, and knowledge.
Produced by Lee Swee Keong, the production is a space for audiences to converse and interact with each other, known and unknown, creating pockets of ideas and suggestions on how meditation can be used to sustain the body and mind for creative outcomes. Tickets: RM108.
THE MONKEY KING ADVENTURES: LOVE OF ONIBABA
Venue: Majestic Theatre
Date: July 29 and 30
The Japanese Team ITO, a puppet maker/puppeteer specialising in traditional Japanese marionette puppet theatre, collaborates with Penang’s Ombak Potehi to stage a localised sequel to the literary classic Journey to the West, told through the whimsical art form of puppetry.
Following the original story, Tang Sam Tsong, the legendary Tang dynasty Buddhist monk, travels to India to look for sacred scriptures, accompanied by Sun Ngoo-khong (Monkey King), Tu Pat Kai (Pigsy), and Sua Tseng (Friar Sandy).
However, on their return journey from India, Tang and his companions are tricked by Onibaba, a female supernatural monster in Japanese folklore, to disembark at Penang Island.
The performance will be in Hokkien, Bahasa Malaysia and Japanese, with subtitles in English and Mandarin. As is tradition with puppet shows, you’ll get to join in the fun, as the intricately-made Japanese marionettes and potehi glove puppets will interact with the audience.
Tickets are RM50 per person and RM180 for a group of four.
WARNA-WARNI GEORGE TOWN
Venue: Beach Street and the Esplanade
Date: July 23 and 30
If you’re looking for something more hands-on, join Malaysian artist Azmi Hussin at his colouring workshops following the publication of his latest colouring book, Warna Warni George Town. The workshops are open to all ages, but are limited to 30 participants.
The workshops will be conducted on-site at Beach Street (opposite India House) on July 23 and at the Esplanade (opposite the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce) on July 30.
Whether you’re a budding artist, history buff, or simply someone who loves to explore new places, the workshop is a fun way to discover the rich cultural heritage of George Town. The registration fee is RM20, which includes a copy of the Warna Warni George Town colouring book.
More info here.