Profiling Penang as a culture hub

How can we appeal to and retain profit-making businesses and creative intellectuals? Through the arts, of course!

Rooftops of George Town.

Penang is rejuvenated, undergone a “renaissance”. George Town's streets are vibrant and bustling again, and it's no exception at night – just walk down Lebuh Stewart and you'll see. Murals, cafes, galleries are ubiquitous. The keen interest in culture and history spreads to its peripheries, from giant murals in Butterworth to heritage walks in Pulau Tikus.

And as Penang progresses towards an Age of Enlightenment of its own, more heads are needed. That was why a group of local leaders and foreign experts gathered in April at Sekeping Victoria in George Town to brainstorm on how to rebrand Penang in terms of culture, economy and liveability. Organised by the Penang Institute, the Penang Leaders Forum was facilitated by Richard Hsu, founder of the Pan-Asia Network and curator of TEDxShanghai, and was attended by a myriad of visionaries from all sectors – from architects to financiers, both local and foreign. It made for engaging and stimulating discussions.

Establishing an identity
Branding a city is more than creating a logo; it refers to establishing an identity based on the city’s inherent features and characteristics. A city with a successful brand of its own can eventually turn into a place where people want to live, work and visit. For instance, most great cities have a brand that is naturally developed: Paris revolves around romance and Hong Kong is based on trade. Thus to establish a city’s brand, it all boils down to what is already there in the city.

“We need to create our own individual brand,” says Joe Sidek, director of the George Town Festival. “Assess what we already have, and build on that. After all, we are still in the process of learning.” Liu Wei Gong, ex-commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs in Taipei, agrees: “Penang should find its legacy and maintain innovation despite having limited resources by first determining the character of the city.”

Ever since George Town was designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2008, it has been capitalising on the inscription and has been building for itself a strong reputation as a place for the arts. With its compelling amalgamation of elements from all cultural directions, George Town’s heritage environs stimulate creativity naturally.

A key example is the street art and wall murals peppered all over George Town. Furthermore, the George Town Literary Festival and the George Town Festival are international events that draw tourists from afar. George Town is also seeing a burgeoning of art galleries and quirky cafes – sometimes a combination of both – and while some may frown on the amount of cafes popping up in every nook and cranny, it is nonetheless the sapling branch of an identity, which may come to define George Town the way coffee defines Seoul or Melbourne.

The importance of a creative industry
Developing a creative industry and a cultural community has never been more prominent than it is today. The creative economy – generally encompassing digital media, performing arts, design and publishing – is not only recognised as one of the most burgeoning sectors of the world’s economy, it is also a highly transformative one. Most importantly, creativity is deemed a pivotal factor in making an urban centre a world city.

An alley off Lebuh Stewart. George Town is seeing a burgeoning of art galleries and quirky cafes.

What attaches citizens to their city is aesthetics – its architecture, its public spaces and its general atmosphere of arts and culture.

But how does one push in that direction? According to Hamdan Abdul Majeed, executive director of ThinkCity, a Khazanah Nasional subsidiary established to spearhead community based urban regeneration in Penang, the answer lies in its people: “People make the economy.”

Indeed, Penang needs to become a city that attracts and inspires creative intellectuals.

“In the past, the state had put too little emphasis on the cultural scene,” says Loo Lee Lian, general manager of investPenang. “We are changing that now. We know that culture attracts talent.” Aside from Penang’s investment in existing industries, it should take into account and invest in creative industries. It is a crucial time. “Asia is becoming an interesting open market and is well into its growth phase,” says Jason Sambanju, head of Asia Private Equity Secondaries for Deutsche Bank in Hong Kong. “Good private equity investors will add value as it connects companies to synergistic opportunities. A vibrant private equity industry is positive for Penang’s branding.”

A slight amount invested can go a long way in developing Penang’s arts scene.

Installation at the PMQ in Hong Kong, a centre for aspiring creative intellectuals.

Wheels in motion
Nani Kahar, a partner at labDNA and the architect of the Publika shopping gallery at Dutamas, KL, emphasises the importance of creative incubations; creating more art spaces and establishing art centres are one way of making a significant difference.

One example is Reka Art Space, which was founded in Petaling Jaya back in 2002. Now based in George Town, it encourages a participative approach in the visual arts by providing a space for emerging artists. Currently under its administration are Penang-based theatre company Pocketsize Productions and Sinkeh, a nine-room guesthouse that also features a specially constructed space for arts education. Some of the main activities include workshops, art classes, performances and occasional talks conducted by creative influencers in the industry.

Old and preserved vacant buildings can also be used to nurture up-and-coming local designers. For instance, the Hin Bus Depot Art Centre has been renovated into a unique art space for artists to showcase their portfolios. “Our main focus as of now is to minimise the impact we have caused,” says Raefer Wallis, principal founder of Green Ideas Green Actions (Giga) in China. “Regenerate the old sites into new sites and make a profit. In other words, do more with less.” He insists on a change in mindset when it comes to project design because flexibility in constructions is taking on an increasingly eminent role.


Retaining talent
It is imperative that Penang provides more job opportunities for those with creative acumens. Many graduates end up seeking greener pastures abroad due to the lack of opportunities at home.

For starters, one can take a leaf from Hong Kong’s former Police Married Quarters (PMQ). Built in 1889 and used first as a school and then as the first police quarters in Hong Kong to provide accommodation for married rank and file officers, the PMQ is now a centre for aspiring creative intellectuals; local talents are given a chance to start a business of their own by renting accommodation units there.

According to PMQ’s creative and programme director, William To, due to the lack of space and skyrocketing rent, youngsters seldom had the opportunity to showcase their talent. Creating new programmes in old establishments eventually led to the idea of starting a pop-up space to encourage design entrepreneurs. “This is to tell the young generation that there is a future if you choose to study design,” says To. Since its official opening in 2014, PMQ has attracted more than three million visitors.

Achieving a creative environment first will ultimately generate enough of sustainable local economy. Most importantly, provide job opportunities and careers for creative individuals. As Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif, president of MPSP, says, “We’ve got the hardware; all we need is the software.”

Chang Jia Ying is currently an intern at the Penang Institute. She is overwhelmed by the fact that she is a year away from adulthood. Julia Tan is assistant editor for Penang Monthly. She enjoys reading and thinks it would be awesome if Stephen King wrote a novel with Ryu Murakami.

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