PENANG BECAME THE first Malaysian state to introduce the Creative Economy portfolio when Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow reshuffled the portfolios of state executive councillors last September. The local arts scene has helped to fuel a new kind of tourism since George Town’s elevation to World Heritage Site (WHS) status by UNESCO in 2008, one that connects visitors to the mishmash of culture, heritage and arts. The Creative Economy portfolio therefore reinforces the importance of local creative industries as one of the state's key economic assets.
“‘Creative economy’ has been on everyone’s lips lately but countries like Taiwan, Korea and Singapore have been driving that economy for the last decade. The time is right for us to repackage and market Penang’s offerings,” says chairman of the Penang Arts Council (PAC) and former director of the George Town Festival (GTF), Joe Sidek.
Joe Sidek, chairman of the Penang Arts Council.
Established in 1954, PAC is one of the oldest registered cultural non-profit organisations in Malaysia dedicated to nurturing and advancing Penang’s arts sphere. In anticipation of a post-Covid-19 travel boom now that vaccination programmes are being rolled out globally, PAC is rejuvenating Penang as a creative tourism destination through its initiative O:PEN – the moniker is a portmanteau of the words “Open” and “Penang”.
The idea of O:PEN was conceived in 2020 with an ambition to be a recurring platform to profile Penang’s diverse artistic talents through performances, talks, workshops and myriad other programmes.
The event was officially introduced to the public on the first weekend of April 2021. Viewers and visitors were treated to an exciting series of online live-streamed events, pre-recorded programmes and presentations, as well as several SOP-compliant live shows that covered a broad range of traditional to contemporary cultural genres, including dance, literature, music and visual arts. Local creative brands were also spotlighted as were some of Penang’s best foods and hotels. There was even a virtual live tour of George Town’s WHS on a trishaw.
“O:PEN is the result of countless individuals, organisations and groups volunteering and contributing their talents, time and effort to put together these programmes. But it is not without its challenges. The MCO threw us many curveballs; we had to work out what programmes to go live with and which to pre-record. Then, we had to record everything within two weeks.
“In TEN x TEN, our young presenters had to host the show with face masks on which slightly muffled the audio. But we were able to overcome this technical issue with the help of students from Han Chiang University College of Communication. I am fortunate to have a really good team of people around me.
“This is also a testimony of the resilience of Penang’s creative forces in the face of lockdowns and closures over the past 12 months, despite how severely they and the creative industries were affected by the pandemic,” says Joe.
Presenters of TEN X TEN posing for a photo with Joe. TEN X TEN is a series of pre-recorded videos presented by a selected group of young hosts, featuring the best of Penang’s street foods, heritage hotels, products, cafes and restaurants. The series is produced in collaboration with Han Chiang University College of Communication and assisted by Digital Penang.
Compared to the pomp and fanfare during his time at GTF, the inaugural O:PEN showcase sees Joe taking things in a more intimate direction to market the Penang brand.
“Penangites are proud of the state and all that it has to offer. That’s why O:PEN has a strong Penang narrative and is inclusive of all layers of society. We’re drawing meaningful involvement from the community to promote the Penang brand. We want to show that we have really talented creatives.” Joe references a reworked version of the Malay classic Tanah Pusaka which was aired during the event, and is a nod to the time when Penang was known by its old Malay name Tanjung Penaga. Local singer Nurlida Ab. Rahman sang the tune and was accompanied by a group of differently-abled musicians from Kumpulan Muzik Asli Alunan Mutiara.
From the realm of social media, Joe recruited Penang personalities behind popular social media groups like Penang Walkabouts to introduce heritage and cultural cuisines, while Penang Hidden Gems, a Facebook page that highlights interesting little-known stories and places around Penang, took viewers on a live tour around the George Town WHS.
To fund O:PEN, PAC currently receives RM50,000 from the Penang State Exco for Tourism and Creative Economy, and RM10,000 more from Think City. “But we’re still begging for funding,” says Joe candidly. “The question is how do we ensure the continuity of the NGO without relying on the government? This is why our mission is to get one million loyal supporters to contribute USD10 to PAC to sustain Penang as a creative hub. “Hopefully, with the support of passionate Penangites, PAC can continue to play a role in Penang’s emerging creative economy hub as a curated platform, enabler, producer and organiser. This is the first baby step we must take.”
Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer who has a love-hate relationship with the weighing scale.