WHILE WE NEED social interactions in our daily lives to feel a sense of belonging, there are also some moments where we need space for thinking and reading. As a city grows, a wider variety of spaces also bloom to fulfil people’s various needs.
In this article, we walk you through some of the emerging spaces in Penang and explore the meanings behind them.
From being an entrepot where immigrants gathered to earn a living, George Town gradually developed its own unique way to allow for different lifestyles. From residential areas to eateries, the division of space not only reminds us of the complexities of surviving in the city but also of how social lives and identities have been formed. For instance, a familiar sharing by our elders would be how they used to squeeze an entire family into a shophouse – sometimes even more than one family. Even today, it is not too uncommon for “kopitiams” (coffee shops) to house more than one family.
Spatial practices are closely associated with societal changes. The drastic economic changes witnessed in Penang in the early 1970s inevitably led to changes in spaces used. The abolition of Penang’s free port status diminished work opportunities and resulted in residents leaving in search of a better livelihood. This thinned out the population within George Town, and changed the urban landscape. Be that as it may, the historical traces of an entrepot remained in the buildings, some of which became very dilapidated.
In 2008 George Town’s inscription as a World Heritage Site introduced a new wave of spatial changes. Many heritage buildings, which were once abandoned, have been given a facelift. Following on the influx of tourists, these places have been transformed to be relevant to the needs of the day and have become boutique hotels, cafes, selection stores, museums, and art spaces. Accompanied by elements of the digital era, these spaces encourage different lifestyles and working methods where individuality is introduced, encouraged and even made necessary. For example, the emergence of coworking spaces fulfils the needs of an individual looking for a more flexible environment, while moving in close proximity to other fields of work from which he or she can draw inspiration.
Since 2008 various festivals in Penang have played such an important role in redefining the meaning of public space. For example, each year, George Town Festival carefully explores the availability of new spaces for its acts, such as vacant land near dense residential areas. However, this process requires careful consideration of many factors, including the location, condition and nature of the spaces, but most importantly, the impact on the community – be it positive or negative. Throughout the process, some spaces are given chances to discover their strengths and potentials.
As a city grows, the need for various spaces increases. Some examples of this need are cultural and art facilities. This lack signals the city’s growing dimensional multiplicity.
In the early 1970s the establishment of the Dewan Sri Pinang marked an important milestone for Penang. Dewan Sri Pinang was an unprecedented cultural space for Penang at the time. Prior to that, cultural activities at large remained in spaces associated with respective backgrounds. With its aim as a civic space for various cultural activities, it symbolised the cultural enriching of citizens. Its large capacity – housing about 1,000 audiences – makes it an important venue for hosting large-scale domestic and international performances even today. Over the years, there have been discussions to reposition it to respond to social needs, and to upgrade its facilities.
Later, the development of performing arts in Penang saw a growing need for smaller spaces – to accommodate productions for the small- and medium-sized audience. These spaces are funded by government or private efforts, such as Kompleks Pustaka Warisan Seni, Komtar Auditorium, the Penang Performing Arts Centre (penangpac) and Penang House of Music. In 2014 the establishment of Sinkeh, located at the centre of George Town, instilled a unique feeling for theatre. Given that its capacity is at most 50 people, the interactions and emotions between the performers and audiences are closely linked. This in turn encourages more experimentation.
Cross-boundary is another trait of these merging spaces. By making good use of neighbouring space, a relaxing environment can emerge to welcome various audiences, including individuals, families and tourists. Among these, Hin Bus Depot is a leading example in Penang. Established in 2014, it has gradually positioned itself as a hub where various creators gather – from visual artists, sculptors, pottery artists to crafters. Jetty 35, a recently developed space located at Weld Quay consisting of a cluster of spaces, including one back lane and some warehouses is another fine example. It holds various activities such as exhibitions, seminars, documentary screenings and a regular craft market.
For a city that had once possessed a great number of publishers, reading is definitely not a thing of the past. In recent years, Areca Books and Gerakbudaya Bookshop have become important knowledge bases for local and international publications. More recently, the establishment of Hikayat further transformed the concept of bookstores into being more of an interactive thinking space. They hold regular activities such as movie screenings and discussions on various contemporary issues. Mano Plus, a select store that contains various spaces for activities and artisanal items for sale, also has a small bookstore where customers can read and purchase books. Opposite Universiti Sains Malaysia at Jalan Sungai Dua is Ruang Kongsi, another reading and discussion corner where various social issues are discussed in multiple languages – to be as inclusive as possible.
With these new spaces, Penang has been full of possibilities for engagement with different communities. Since space is able to open different modes of engagement with their community, we are looking forward to the sparks that these spatial practices could bring to society.
However, some challenges such as the rising cost of spaces make them difficult to maintain, even content-wise. These are aspects that need consideration.