Articulating Penang’s heritage

WHILE the Saturday afternoon quiet descended upon the George Town business district in Penang, excitement was stirring inside the USM ABN-AMRO Arts & Cultural Centre at Beach Street. 

Not that the beige colonial building had been exactly sober these past five months. With a horde of 60-odd schoolchildren making strange noises and pulling queer actions there every weekend and during the school holidays in the five months, the colonnaded building had been anything but sober. 

The kids, who had trained under ‘Madame Heritage Heboh of Penang’ Janet Pillai under DiGi's Amazing Malaysians project since March, were there last Saturday for a preview of the Heritage Heboh Street Festival which will be held this Saturday. 

The festival will not be a conventional affair judging from the preview.  

With Pillai and her trademark bushy crop of greying hair at the helm, don't expect a prim and proper stage with leather-backed seats for the audience or a formal display of heritage in arts. 

Metal kopitiam chairs get utilised by dancers doing a dance routine involving ‘eating’ wantan mee, rap lyrics intersperse dikir barat performances to retell the story of early Penang settlers and wayang kulit becomes a cinematographic play of coloured shadows and unconventional sounds under the guidance of the 51-year-old university lecturer and arts proponent. 

But in all the bustling activity are incorporated lessons about the vast heritage treasures the children pass by daily without a second glance.  

STREET SKIRMISH:The 'Bendera Putih' and Ghee Hin groups gang up against the 'Bendera Merah' and Khian Teik in one of the many secret society clashes in the days of early Penang settlers.

Motifs on traditional clothes, the shape of lampposts and building arches and layout of pots and pans in a pre-war shop house are detailed in silhouettes panning behind a white cloth screen. 

The daily noise and sounds of life in George Town like the reverberating call of the azan, the chanting of monks and the shrill piping of the Indian trumpet are retranslated into a musical essay with gamelan music alongside to give the authentic touch. 

From wandering aimlessly around the streets of George Town dressed in the trademark yellow DiGi’s Amazing Malaysians T-shirt at the beginning of the project, the children have evolved into a traffic-stopping group. 

Curious passers-by craned their heads and drivers slowed down when they saw the bid to revive the good old days of street performances taking place on the steps of the Standard Chartered building or in the middle of Union Street during the preview. 

The Heritage Heboh Street Festival this Saturday will be held along Jalan Mesjid Kapitan Keling, Cannon Street and Armenian Street. The three parts of the children’s showcase – the visual arts segment (Wayang Bayang-Bayang) at 8.30pm, the dance segment (Gerak-Gerak Borak-Borak) at 9pm and the music segment (Muzik Bunyi-Bunyian) at 9.30pm - will take place at three different spots and end with a concert by Yudi, a songstress of golden oldies at the Khoo Kongsi at 10pm. 

The festival is the final showcase of a project under DiGi's Amazing Malaysian programme that identifies individuals who are doing great heritage work and engages them in projects with youth or children living mainly in rural areas.  

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