By George Town! A festival to inherit

Penang celebrates its Unesco Heritage status with a pulsating fiesta. Performances by local and foreign talents will fill the whole month of July, giving no one an excuse for missing it.

About four months ago, the Penang state government put out a call for people to submit their ideas for the year’s 2010 Unesco celebrations, conceived to be a one-day event. As Joe Sidek listened to the plans, he found himself thinking about what he called his “secret desire”: to hold a large-scale festival. “I always wanted to do a festival,” he said. “Why do just one show?” But he still didn’t pitch his big idea, not until after the third meeting, when George Town World Heritage Incorporated (WHI) general manager Maimunah Mohd Sharif pulled him aside and asked, “Why don’t you do it?”

So Sidek pitched. “At the first meeting,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ll need a million ringgit.’ It shocked the state because they’re not used to things like that. They kept saying they can’t, they didn’t have the money...” The state government did, however, manage to raise RM400,000 in the end from various state agencies.

Today, with the help of various state agencies, private companies and volunteers, and after countless hours of planning, festival director Joe Sidek is on the verge of launching the month long George Town Festival 2010, featuring a mix of internationally renowned acts and local performances. The aim is to draw the attention of the world towards Penang as it holds what may be its most ambitious arts festival to date, and with the big names Sidek has managed to draw, people are bound to sit up and pay attention. Among the acts:

Director Saw Teong Hin.

Emily of Emerald Hill
Date: 1, 2 and 4 July
Venue: Town Hall

Opening the festival is Emily of Emerald Hill, a monologue about a controlling peranakan Nyonya matriarch who ends up losing everything. Written by Singaporean writer Stella Kon, the play is directed by Saw Teong Hin, best known as the director of Puteri Gunung Ledang, making his first foray into theatre.

What makes this version of Emily, commissioned by the festival, stand out is that the part of Emily will be played by three different actresses: Neo Swee Lin (best known as Ah Ma from Phua Chu Kang), Pearlly Chua (a veteran Emily actress) and Leow Puay Tin, who played Emily 25 years ago.

Sidek said that it was important to have a twist, as Emily is one of the most done peranakan plays in the world. “We’re having three different Emilies in three different combinations every night. So if you see it all three nights, it’s like seeing a different play every night. This is a very interesting, exciting, edgy play.”

From left to right: Neoh Swee Lin, Pearlly Chua and Leow Puay Tin.

George Town Ball Presents Patrizio Buanne
Date: 11 July
Venue: e&o Hotel

Italian baritone/heart throb Patrizio Buanne will be performing at the George Town Ball, a fundraising event for WHI. “He’s on a world tour now,” said Sidek. “He’s like your current big, handsome crooner that everyone wants to hear. We’ve had a lot of calls asking about him.”

Ghaffar Pourazar and Chie Morimura.

Ghaffar Pourazar and Chie Morimura – Beijing Opera Inspirational Talk@Town Hall
Date: 6 July
Venue: Town Hall

Monkey King Excerpts on the Streets Date: 7 July
Venue: Khoo Kongsi

British performer Ghaffar Pourazar was the first Westerner to complete his training at the National Academy for Beijing Opera. “Ghaffar Pourazar is internationally-acclaimed,” Sidek said, adding that he was fortunate to be able to recruit him under such short notice. The director of the International Centre for Beijing Opera, formerly a computer programmer, will perform excerpts from his repertoire of The Monkey God with Chie Morimura, a founding member of the International Centre for Beijing Opera.

Joe Sidek was quick to point out that, despite the heavy international presence, the festival organisers do not intend to undermine the local performers at all. “It’s basically to sell an international show. They’re there to catch people’s attention. When people do come in, they’ll see that a lot of the performances (about 80 programmes) are local.”

Considering the scale of the festival, the fact that the organisers managed to put it together in just three months is nothing short of amazing. “It’s quite scary,” Sidek acknowledged. “But as you can see, we really have to work nonstop, seven days a week. People have had huge amounts of money and they take at least three years to pull it off . We’re doing it in our first year. In three years, I want to beat the Sun Festival (in Singapore). It may be presumptuous or audacious, but that’s my yardstick.”

The short amount of time preparing meant that Sidek didn’t have time to conceptualise the festival. “I had to bring in enough elements that would anchor a festival, enough to attract the attention of the public, and then involve the local community.

“But what’s really been amazing is that all the state agencies, from the chief minister to the MPPP to the state secretary to Puan Maimunah, everyone has come forward to help. We have over 80 community events, from school plays to school bands and cultural shows. The objective of this whole thing is to show that this can be an arts festival if we work together. It’s our George Town.”

More information about the George Town Festival 2010 can be found at For further enquiries, call +6016 464 4211, or email

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