The George Town Festival 2012 – an overwhelming month


The optimism that has been palpable in Penang over the last few years is perhaps best felt through the yearly celebration we know as George Town Festival. It is a celebration because it is not commercial, and it unashamedly expresses a passion for the Arts and for Heritage, which is both innovative and traditional.

For four weeks stretching between June and July, the streets of Penang became a living outdoor museum bursting with dance, drama, arts and music.

Ostensibly to celebrate George Town’s inscription along with Malacca as a Unesco World Heritage site (2008), the dizzying celebration of arts and culture revolved around the stellar international programmes of the George Town Festival (GTF) 2012 under the baton of director Joe Sidek.

Most of the peripheral activities were concentrated in the historical heritage enclaves of Armenian Street, Acheh Street, Acheen Street, Cannon Street and Ah Quee Street.

Some events such as the performance by the Philippines Madrigal Singers and “Rasa Sayang” (under choreographer-dancer Tony Yap) were held at the Penang Performing Arts Centre (PenangPac) at Straits Quay, while the much ballyhooed curtain-raiser, Saw Teong Hin’s “Silat”, electrified the night air at Fort Cornwallis.

The Cambodian shadow puppet theatre Sbaek Thom was performed – as was the Hokkien opera “Painted Skin Ghost Story” – with the surreal backdrop of the majestic Khoo Kongsi clan-house cum temple. The Sri Lanka Dance Troupe livened up the already bustling Little India, with the Tropfest short-film festival at China House and Quarry Park at the Penang Botanic Gardens.

Other venues for cultural performances and exhibitions included the Penang Times Square, MPPP Town Hall, House of Yeap Chor Ee, Cheah Kongsi (dragon dance on stilts) and Rumah Teh Bunga at Hutton Lane (Malam Melayu).

I caught the “Manganiyar Seduction” at the Dewan Sri Pinang, and it was truly a magical séance of mock-religious mantric chants and choral timbre with a mesmeric synchronisation of traditional Rajastan instrumentation.

It was no mean feat bringing some 37 performers to Penang, excluding its conductor and its producer-choreographer Roysten Abel, what with the lumbering instruments and four-tiered semi-circle prop stage. And the GTF is essentially only in its infancy period!

But the ticket prices need to be democratised. The cheapest ticket cost RM63, while the other programmes only started at RM43 a pop.

But there was something for everyone in the GTF 2012 and the fringe activities – the kids, the youths, the pleasantly bewildered and the cognoscenti, and whole families. Arts and crafts, fun and educational activities, competitions, demonstrations of the different martial arts (Malay silat cekak, Indian Kalari Payat and Sikh Gatka)…

The Heritage Heboh Children’s Festival (a production of the Arts-ED NGO under producer Chen Yoke Pin) was a riot for the kids at Lumut Lane with a treasure hunt, toy-making, t-shirt printing, crafts-making, cooking and other activities.

Every day, there was something on, and best of all is that some of these were free. Heritage walks and even night cycling, open houses of Penang’s great kongsis or clans, competitions, weighty talks (on issues such as early secret societies and the Siamese heritage), street cinema (Tan Yeow Wooi’s “Rojak Penang”).

There was also a Chinese opera performance in front of Guan Im Teng (Goddess of Mercy Temple) while the Teochews capped their contributions with an opera “Painted Faces” make-up presentation.

There were also gamelan and gambus by Fauziah Gambus, keronchong, zapin, Wau Bulan, joget, Thai-Malaysian Menora, Penang’s own dance repertoire Boria, Baba Poetry and Dance, Hokkien Folk Rhymes and traditional dances such as Giddha (Punjabi) and an Indian dance by the Bhaavanarthana Naatyalaya.

A small crowd sat cross-legged on a mat, rapt with the street Mak Yong “Usikan Rebab” performance on a low makeshift stage by the Actor’s Studio Teater Rakyat at the junction of Pitt Street ( Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling) and Kampung Kolam.

At the Islamic Museum, exhibitions of Malay wood-carving, Malay cooking and Islamic calligraphy highlighted the two-day Acheh Street Festival.

Photography exhibitions that showcased the community heritage and history proved informative – Kadayanallur Indian Muslim in Penang, Early Chinese Immigrants (Meng Eng Soo at Rope Walk [ Jalan PintaTali]) and the Historical Images of the St George’s Church, Penang (built in 1815 by Col J.L. Caldwell) with a more recent photograph by Eric Peris, at Alpha Utara Gallery. Also held at the same gallery was the “Views of Pulo Penang” exhibition by Captain Charles Cazalet.

Alpha Utara Gallery also organised an international art exhibition featuring artists from Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Another major international show was the “We ART Together” exhibition of the Sasaran International Arts Festival of December 2011. What is most captivating about this show involving more than 50 artists from 16 countries is that it was partly organised by the Sasaran fishing community in Kuala Selangor, and yet it could attract artists from faraway places like Romania, Denmark, the US, Russia, Italy, China and Mongolia.

Because of the large numbers, the works were spread over both spaces of artist-gallerist Koay Soo Kau at Galeri Seni Mutiara and Whiteaways Arcade.

The exhibitions also went virtually outdoors.

Flaky moss-dried walls of side buildings were also turned into mock-cinematic photo opportunities for passers-by and tourists, with even one mural with a discarded motorcycle frame added as a prop. This was one of the works by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, 25, who has been based on the island for one-and-a-half years, and was even featured in Penang’s tourism promotion in Singapore on billboards on their MRT.

Also with his mug plastered all over Singapore in the same tourism drive was architectdesigner- artist Ch’ng Kiah Kiaen, who with Khoo Chiang Jin, through Urban Sketchers Penang helped organise the first Malaysian International Sketching George Town exhibition involving more than 70 participants from Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore.

Like Zacharevic, the merry band of sketchers also got to decorate the interior walls and drain pipes of the canteen section of the China House boutique café cum gallery/theatre.

These were not the only street art trend. Steel-rod mural caricatures of cartoonist Tang Mun Kian and “Mr Lefty” of Sculpture At Work were also put up generously, including at Muntri Street, Stewart Lane, Victoria Street, King Street, Kimberly Street and Prangin Lane.

This was sanctioned under the “Marking George Town” Project, tracing the ordinary Penang lifestyle with a more humorous vein, like the fortune-telling parakeet on King Street and the no-plastic bag in Prangin Lane – unlike, say, the more subversive and contemptuous works of Banksy or the vitriolic graffiti of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), which are setting record prices in the art market.

A painted giant cube that stood on one of its tips at the junction of Armenian Street and Beach Street heralded the ResCube exhibition which also involved Zacharevic. The others taking part were all Malaysians – self-taught sculptor Low Chee Peng, Taiwan-trained buddies and outstanding young artists Tan Kai Sheuan and Renny Cheng Sing Ching, and two promising women artists, the Australian-trained Louise Low (Contemporary Art in Tasmania) and Chua Eeyan (Media Art in Melbourne).

Their exhibition was held at Penang’s most famous dilapidated art space, 212 Beach Street, art collector Lee Khai’s residencein- the-making – just a street away from his art-laden law office at Victoria Street.

The offerings at the Penang State Art Gallery in conjunction with the festival were the Shoko Lee solo exhibition which also celebrated the Chinese lunar reign of the Dragon, and the annual exhibitions of the Penang Teachers Art Circle and the Penang Water Colour Society.

The local police also took the opportunity to engage the community in an anti-crime street drive, especially so after artist cum gallerist Joey Lim was attacked by a lone robber in her gallery, Unique Penang Art Gallery at Love Lane.

From palette to palate, the pungent Durian Festival (direct from Balik Pulau plantations) with its sampling of Musang King, Red Prawn, D-24, Horlor, Kun Poh and Siew Ang was only a two-stall event on an isolated edge of New World Park, while the Nasi Kandar Festival took over Queen Street – just a stone’s throw from the hugely popular Nasi Kandar Beratur (RestoranLiyaqatali).

Of course, the biggest 24-hour celebration 365 days of the year is Penang’s multi-ethnic hawker food including the unique concoctions of Peranakan cuisine, Indian-Muslim Nasi Kandar and Eurasian (Portuguese) pastries.

As is well known, one of Penangites’ biggest sins is their habit of eating meals five times a day, which can be summed up by the mock admonition in Hokkien dialect: Chiak Beh Theng (non-stopping eating spree).

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.

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