When George Town, capital of the Malaysian island state of Penang, was awarded World Heritage status in 2008, it was not just for its splendid colonial-era architecture but also its multi-ethnic and multi-religious “living culture”.
Penang has drawn diverse ethnicities to its shores and the city has been a trading port since the British East India Company began operating there in 1786. George Town’s residents include people of Cantonese and mainland Chinese background, Indians, Thais, Indonesians, Arabs and Europeans. Bungalows, terrace houses and low-rise commercial buildings were constructed, linked by colonnaded walkways (known as five-foot ways). An intricate social fabric thrived, combined with traditional trades, music, art and religious rituals.
George Town’s architecture is experiencing renewal. Spurred by the World Heritage listing, key colonial-era terraces and historic mansions are being converted into small hotels, cafes, galleries and boutiques to cater to the city’s blossoming tourism industry. However, less-tangible cultural elements haven’t fared as well. Many of the city’s old coffee-roasting places have disappeared, the Peranakan shoemakers are dying out, the work of paper lantern and incense makers is being replaced by cheaper, commercial alternatives and the martial arts, dances and songs that arrived with settlers are increasingly the preserve of museums.
Held over five weekends, from June 15 to July 15, the George Town Festival is hoping to preserve traditional arts. “We want to create a platform for dying and endangered art forms,” says the founder and festival director, Joe Sidek, a Penang-born ethnic-Malay businessman who bankrolled much of the first festival in 2010.
“We want to reinstate George Town as a destination for art and culture,” he says.
Now funded by the Penang state government, the annual festival has an extensive line-up of artwork and exhibitions, music, theatre and dance acts by both local and international artists. Many performances are free, others have ticket prices starting at MYR40 ($12).
The highlights of this year’s festival include the opening performance, Silat, which weaves the eponymous martial arts used by warriors of the Indo-Malay archipelago with contemporary music. Directed by the acclaimed ethnic-Chinese Malaysian film director Saw Teong Hin, the free performance was commissioned for the George Town Festival. A performance of Cambodia’s shadow puppets, known as Sbaek Thom – an ancient form considered by UNESCO to be an endangered masterpiece of oral art – will retell a scene from the Hindu epic the Ramayana.
ResCube will exhibit six George Town artists’ visions of their city in a disused colonial-era warehouse. The final festival performance is The Manganiyar Seduction, which blends the folk music of nomads from India’s desert state of Rajasthan with stage design. The performance has featured at festivals in Melbourne and Sydney.
“Penang doesn’t have traditional acts proficient enough for the grand finale, yet,” Sidek says.
“But we hope the festival will inspire them and one day we will close the festival with their act.”