Budding Artists of Penang, Stifled and Side-tracked

By Paul Ooi

October 2021 FEATURE
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“HERE WE ARE, just around the corner.” We park next to an idyllic stream in rural Balik Pulau, and walk through what seems to be a secret hideaway into an orchard of durian trees. “I used to come here alone to paint,” says Jason, in his usual reflective voice. I have known Jason my whole life, from a friendship forged at a small Standard 1 classroom in Batu Maung, but I never knew he painted.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, our time together would only last a year before a family divorce saw me moving to the U.K. But Jason and I stayed in touch as pen pals, before connecting again on social media. Fast-forward 16 years and we’re finally reunited in person in the bucolic outskirts of Penang Island, reminiscing and laughing about strict teachers and first crushes. But our conversation also made pronounced the very different beings we’ve matured into as adults, shaped by the education, work and culture of our respective countries.

Jason now works as a realtor on the Island, inundated with enquiries from prospective clients, even during our Sunday outing. It is a given that he does not have the time to paint anymore. “Whatever happens, don’t lose your works,” I urge him. “It’s the essence of the soul, after all.”

My encounter with Jason was but one of several meetings with people with the soul of an artist, who have been side-tracked by life. My return to Penang in January was initially to reconnect with my extended family, explore my roots, and hopefully understand my insatiable desire to continue developing as an artist. But as luck and lockdown would have it, I have had only a handful of such serendipitous encounters. On the bright side, this also meant that I could thoroughly mull over each interaction during the long spans of silence that followed.

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“Can I tell you a secret?” she leans in with a wink. “This technique was actually made by dabbing a piece of sponge on the canvas!” Wanda is an incredibly knowledgeable art associate with a memory bank for each and every artwork on display at the Ming Fine Art Gallery, including the age, background and styles of their creators.

Dazzled, I ask if she paints too? Wanda had studied art in Form 5 and still remembers her favourite technique on canvas. A recent workshop attendance had reminded her of her love for creating, but Wanda says she hasn’t picked up a paintbrush since she started working. “I have no time from work, let alone a clear head to create. Most artists on display here only found the time to create after retirement,” she adds, making a gestural sweep of the gallery.

Students working on a studio assignment. Sadly, many won't have the time to pursue their artistic passions after entering the workforce. Photo by: The One Academy

I wondered how they, if at all, let their creative minds wander throughout their working lives? Coming from the U.K., with furlough schemes readily available, supplemented by bodies of organisations bestowing grants for struggling artists during the pandemic, I’d always lived by the mantra that true artists always find the time to express and create, as I have done during my times of struggle, juggling jobs in London. But what if I had grown up in Penang? Would I too have to put my creative tools away until retirement?

The following Sunday I visit the Hin Bus Depot. The air is abuzz; the exhibition space has been refreshed with new artworks, with children running happily around the gallery and posing for pictures. I decide to relax in an adjoining café and spy a man poring intently over a sheet music. “Finally,” I think, “my first encounter with a musician!”

Over my laptop screen, we catch each other’s glances. I smile, spurred by curiosity, I ask if I can have a look. The opening bars look familiar and memories of practice exercises come flooding back to me. “Scarlatti,” I say.

A little while later, Ken has moved his things to my table and we settle into an animated discussion on classical music. “I’d buy dozens of tickets to classical music concerts for friends, but to no avail,” he sighs. I meanwhile share my memories of the iconic venues in London, the Barbican, Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Opera House, all offering free or heavily discounted tickets to eager students.

Only after retirement do artists devote themselves fully to their craft.

What fascinated me about Ken was how, despite his passion, he had been able to abstain from music for 10 long years. In order to focus on his career as an engineer at a factory in Bayan Lepas, he had locked up his music and CDs and only recently decided to pick up the piano again. Ken’s reasoning was simple and matter-of-fact, “First you get a job, then a car, then a house.” His shoulders had to be somewhat relieved from family pressures, before he could re-devote himself to music.

Our conversation flows into the teaching of music and the typical Malaysian parents’ approach to music lessons; the underappreciation of live music; and the infancy of the classical music scene in Penang. I ask Ken his thoughts on the stark acceptance of the arts between our two countries. He ponders over this before explaining, “Malaysia’s history of colonialism and occupancies have raised us for survival, and to not take chances with fields that may not bear any financial returns. And when the arts are ruled out for most youths, palpable talents are oftentimes not realised.” Ken and I spend the rest of our time swapping stories of how we each convinced our parents in our pursuit of the arts.

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The exhibition space of Hin Bus Depot.

Shortly after, the Malaysian government issued an ultimatum to those on an expired visa to leave the country. Sensing an end to an already shortened trip, I find myself thinking about Jason, picturing him painting in that durian farm once more; will his mind be filled with reveries of colours, composition and textures? Or will it be clouded by thoughts of clients and calls? Will he let his inner artist take over or will he have to pack away his art supplies, to be reacquaint with during his golden years?

I also fantasise about meeting a local artist my age, who has taken a leap of faith and doggedly pursues their passion to emerge rich and fulfilled on the other side, a kindred spirit. On my next visit perhaps Malaysian youths may have triggered a cultural shift, and the government may have established plans to nurture the inner artists in its people. Such changes are plausible – one hopes.

Names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy.

Paul Ooi

is a Penang-born, British musician and composer for the past 20 years. His return to Penang provides an alternative perspective; through the eyes of an outsider, yet sharing the same heritage.