DRIVING along in the middle of George Town last weekend, I spied a Malay couple in full wedding finery taking photographs in front of one of the restored old buildings. I couldn’t stop to take photos of them but I was intrigued because you rarely see this in Kuala Lumpur.
According to my friends in Penang, these days you see all sorts of marrying couples taking their pre-wedding photos in the heritage district of George Town.
“There was even a Malay couple taking photos in the Khoo Kongsi!”
I suppose young couples getting married simply want memorable photos of themselves in scenic settings and George Town obviously offers many such places.
I was in Penang for the Georgetown Literary Festival, an annual event showcasing literary works by Malaysian and foreign writers.
My hosts put me up in a boutique hotel in the heart of Little India, a beautiful old building renovated into an upmarket version of a backpacker’s hotel.
The ground floor coffeeshop opens up into the street and you can sit there and watch the hustle and bustle of the predominantly Indian section of town.
The street life was lively and diverse. On one side was what looked like a rather dilapidated coffee shop selling the usual Penang specialities like char kuey teow and laksa.
One afternoon my host got me puttu with brown sugar and coconut, a treat I haven’t had since childhood. Dinner one night was thosai with dhal curry round the corner at a well-known nasi kandar restaurant.
I was speaking at several sessions at the festival and the venues were all within walking distance, which gave me the opportunity to look closely at the shops and other activity going on along the streets. It’s the sort of thing I would do in Europe but rarely get a chance to do in KL.
What is abundantly clear is that the awarding of the Unesco heritage city status to George Town has revived the city like nothing else, with beautiful old buildings being restored and turned into interesting shops, cafes and galleries while the life of the original denizens of the areas goes on uninterrupted.
Walking the streets becomes a cultural experience because you can see so many things, so much colour and so much life. There is an organic feel about it, as if a nice clean splash of water has been poured over these areas so that people woke up and felt okay to be themselves again.
And culture is a good way to do it. George Town has the advantage of being small enough that you can walk everywhere, unlike KL.
And what’s good is that the cultural festivals that go on are organised by people who know and understand culture and what makes a good festival.
The state mostly gives the go-ahead and then stays out of it. This means that you can have a vibrant event with performances and talks that are a bit more edgy and different. This is what attracts people to them.
KL of course has its share of cultural events too and there have been many good ones recently, the KataKatha festival being one. But our disadvantage is that KL is so big and venues are far apart and necessitates driving to them.
Also the venues are often in malls, which dampens the atmosphere somewhat. Going to events becomes a major effort and some days you just can’t muster the energy to go to them.
Even then, sometimes you don’t even hear about what’s going on. I may be more tapped in than most to arts and cultural events in KL but I always find it puzzling when people think that nothing is happening in the city at all.
There is a lot going on but unfortunately we are so bad about publicising these events. For example, recently there was a month-long arts festival in KL but there was a woeful lack of publicity about it.
It’s as if the entire budget went to the productions with nothing left over for marketing. So people don’t know and don’t go, and the entire festival is deemed a failure. Then we stop it altogether or cut the budgets even more, without considering that all such festivals take time to build up their reputation.
Arts and culture give us a respite from the incessant ugly politics that we are subject to every day these days.
They give us beautiful experiences which all human beings need in order to feel human. They also get us to think about the times we live in, in a different way.
In Penang I listened as young people asked extremely intelligent questions about the fairly esoteric subject of translation. And suddenly I felt hope. Not everybody is like what we see on our TV news.
Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. The views expressed here are entirely her own.