An in­sider’s guide to the Ge­orge Town Fes­ti­val

As the fa­mous fes­ti­val’s copy­writer this year, Kat Fat­land is uniquely placed to give us an in­side peek into the event’s past and its plans for this year

Time Out Penang Visitors Guide - - Contents -

Headed into its sixth year, Pe­nang’s Ge­orge Town Fes­ti­val (GTF) has never looked bet­ter or brighter. For the en­tire month of Au­gust, the rapidly grow­ing event will make its an­nual re­turn with its tried-and-true blend of lo­cal and global flavours. This year, Pe­nang’s own cit­i­zens will take to the stage for a per­for­mance that shines the spot­light on their very own lives and life­styles, and artists from all over the world will visit the main­land for the first time for the in­au­gu­ral But­ter­worth Fringe Fes­ti­val. As usual, thou­sands of vis­i­tors and lo­cals alike can re­joice in what this spe­cial event is all about: The unique sense of place that makes Ge­orge Town so spe­cial to all of us lucky enough to have walked its streets.

The GTF has seen ex­po­nen­tial growth since its in­au­gu­ra­tion in 2010, when just un­der 100,000 peo­ple at­tended the 54 sched­uled events held. As the fes­ti­val slowly be­gan to re­ceive in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, au­di­ence num­bers started to rise. By 2014 at­ten­dance more than dou­bled its de­but run. Sud­denly, GTF had be­come a real player in the in­ter­na­tional arts and cul­ture scene, with news­pa­pers such as The New York Times, The Guardian and Al Jazeera all sug­gest­ing that this was an event to keep an eye on.

While GTF con­tin­ues to grow and ma­ture into a premier Asian arts event, its vi­sion has re­mained sur­pris­ingly clear: The fes­ti­val has al­ways sought to pro­mote and show­case the city of Ge­orge Town as a vi­brant, cos­mopoli­tan cityscape ready to own the spot­light on a global stage. Dur­ing fes­ti­val month, the city it­self – with its vi­brant com­mu­nity and colour­ful ar­chi­tec­ture – be­comes a cen­tral event. Street fes­ti­vals, com­plete with food ven­dors, dancers and ar­ti­sans and not to men­tion the huge throngs of fes­ti­val­go­ers ea­ger to take it all in, em­pha­sise Ge­orge Town’s unique sense of place. Art in­stal­la­tions, like 2013’s ‘101 Lost Kit­tens’ which fea­tured 101 paint­ings, sculp­tures and sketches of cats all around the city, in­vite

There’s a lot of pride in work­ing for an or­gan­i­sa­tion that’s do­ing so much to pro­mote the arts in my home­town

lo­cals and vis­i­tors to ac­tively en­gage with Ge­orge Town’s streets, nooks and cran­nies as well as the art it­self. This is just one of the ways in which the fes­ti­val puts its au­di­ence first. Another way the fes­ti­val pri­ori­tised its au­di­ence was in 2014, when just 48 out of the 156 events were tick­eted with the re­main­ing 108 be­ing com­pletely free of charge.

Per­for­mances fea­tur­ing Malaysian ta­lent of­ten pro­vide lo­cals a chance to re­con­nect with their cul­ture: In 2012, the fes­ti­val com­mis­sioned ‘Silat – Our Her­itage for the World’ by Malaysian di­rec­tor Saw Teong Hin, for the open­ing gala. Hun­dreds of au­di­ence mem­bers were rein­tro­duced to one of Malaysia’s most ma­jes­tic and an­cient tra­di­tions – silat, a form of mar­tial arts that has been prac­ticed by Malay war­riors for over 2,000 years. The fol­low­ing year, the fes­ti­val show­cased ‘Arus Me­layu’, a two-day event fo­cused on ex­plor­ing the com­plex­ity of the word ‘Me­layu’ through lan­guage, lit­er­a­ture, mu­sic, maps and more.

The fes­ti­val’s fo­cus on the city of Ge­orge Town, and the greater cul­ture of Malaysia, re­flects the fact that it was first con­ceived as a cel­e­bra­tion of Ge­orge Town’s

118 Time Out Pe­nang

2015/16 Unesco World Her­itage sta­tus. Dur­ing the fes­ti­val’s short his­tory, Malaysian per­form­ers and artists have made up the ma­jor­ity of the fes­ti­val’s events and pro­grammes. How­ever, GTF has also in­cluded an im­pres­sive num­ber of in­ter­na­tional per­form­ers, and this num­ber con­tin­ues to grow. In a way, this too is a cel­e­bra­tion of Ge­orge Town’s her­itage. Since its found­ing as a Bri­tish colony in 1786, Pe­nang has seen a con­tin­u­ous in­flux of in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ences – traders and mi­grants com­ing upon its shores from all over the globe to en­joy its strate­gic lo­ca­tion be­tween the trad­ing pow­er­houses of China and In­dia. The GTF’s com­mit­ment to bring­ing dance and the­atre per­for­mances from all over the globe is an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the is­land’s rich in­ter­na­tional his­tory.

Joe Sidek, fes­ti­val Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor since the be­gin­ning and master­mind be­hind its growth and suc­cess, is well aware of the im­por­tance of find­ing the right bal­ance be­tween lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional, grass­roots and global. Mr Sidek worked for many years in the tex­tile in­dus­try, but has al­ways had a pas­sion for ev­ery­thing re­lated to arts, cul­ture and her­itage. It is be­cause of his role as one of the city’s strong­est ad­vo­cates that the govern­ment ap­proached him in 2010 to co­or­di­nate the first fes­ti­val. ‘I never stud­ied or re­ceived any train­ing on how to cu­rate or or­gan­ise a fes­ti­val,’ he com­ments, which is per­haps why GTF has such a re­fresh­ingly unique iden­tity as an event by and for the peo­ple. ‘I ap­proach my role at the fes­ti­val as a com­mu­nity mem­ber who has cre­ated a peo­ple-driven fes­ti­val – and I want to in­vite peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence that sense of com­mu­nity.’

He sees the fes­ti­val as a way to bring in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion to the city he feels so pas­sion­ate about,

I am drawn

to­wards per­form­ers who are in­ter­ested in rein­ter­pret­ing their tra­di­tions …el­e­vat­ing them into some­thing


as well as an op­por­tu­nity to ed­u­cate and in­spire the lo­cal pub­lic and to in­crease their aware­ness and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for global art forms. ‘From the very be­gin­ning, I knew we would need to build both a plat­form and an au­di­ence who would be in­ter­ested in see­ing these fas­ci­nat­ing in­ter­na­tional arts and the­atre per­for­mances,’ Mr Sidek says. ‘I am par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in fos­ter­ing a cul­ture of ap­pre­ci­a­tion among the younger gen­er­a­tion of Pe­nan­gites who are still get­ting ac­quainted with what they like and what in­ter­ests them.’

If his staff is any in­di­ca­tion, Mr Sidek’s wish to in­spire the younger pop­u­la­tion has been a suc­cess. The GTF of­fice is full of twenty-some­thing Pe­nan­gites who have cho­sen to stay lo­cal be­cause they feel as pas­sion­ate as their boss about pro­mot­ing the arts. Me­dia and PR As­sis­tant Tay Yi Lin re­cently moved back to Pe­nang from North­ern Ire­land to work for the fes­ti­val. ‘This is the big­gest arts event in Pe­nang, and maybe the whole of Malaysia. There’s a lot of pride in work­ing for an or­gan­i­sa­tion that’s do­ing so much to pro­mote the arts in my home­town,’ she says. ‘The fes­ti­val pro­vides a place for lo­cals to be in­volved in arts and cul­ture. Be­ing on staff here makes me feel like I am contributing to some­thing big.’ Carey Ooi re­cently re­turned from work­ing in Perth and Sin­ga­pore to take on a pub­lic re­la­tions role in the fes­ti­val. ‘There’s a re­ally great en­ergy in the of­fice ev­ery day – ev­ery per­son on our team loves this fes­ti­val, and feels pas­sion­ate about work­ing to­wards some­thing that’s big­ger than us,’ she com­ments. Then there’s the mul­ti­tude of vol­un­teers that come on board ev­ery year in num­bers that con­tinue to dra­mat­i­cally in­crease. From 2013 to 2014, vol­un­teer num­bers grew by 30 per­cent – an in­di­ca­tion that lo­cal en­thu­si­asm is sky­rock­et­ing as quickly as the fes­ti­val it­self.

Armed with an in­creas­ingly in­spired com­mu­nity and a pla­toon of ea­ger staff headed by a tire­less di­rec­tor, Ge­orge Town Fes­ti­val 2015 is slated to be the bright­est yet. Many of this year’s artists come from dis­tinct cul­tures with vi­brant his­to­ries, and their per­for­mances and ex­hi­bi­tions call at­ten­tion to these iden­ti­ties while also re­shap­ing them into some­thing new and ex­cit­ing. High­lights in­clude sev­eral per­for­mances that of­fer a new twist on tra­di­tion. ‘It’s very hard to keep tra­di­tional art forms alive,’ says Mr Sidek. ‘I am drawn to­wards per­form­ers who are in­ter­ested in rein­ter­pret­ing their tra­di­tions in a way that is mean­ing­ful for a con­tem­po­rary au­di­ence – el­e­vat­ing them into some­thing thrilling.’

The all-male dance troupe of Spain’s ‘Ti­ta­nium’ will com­bine their an­cient fla­menco her­itage with mod­ern forms of hip hop and break danc­ing, seam­lessly blend­ing the old with the new. Ber­lin art col­lec­tive Ri­mini Pro­tokoll’s ‘100% Pe­nang’ will gather 100 Pe­nang cit­i­zens to form a hu­man pie chart on stage, with each in­di­vid­ual rep­re­sent­ing one per­cent of the city’s pop­u­la­tion. They will an­swer ques­tions and share their sto­ries, giv­ing the au­di­ence an in­ti­mate and tan­gi­ble view into the liv­ing com­mu­nity of Ge­orge Town. As in previous years, the fes­ti­val will head to the streets with a day-long cel­e­bra­tion of Malaysian cul­ture, aptly named ‘ATM @ Beach Street’, or ‘All Things Malaysian’. The in­au­gu­ral But­ter­worth Fringe Fes­ti­val will ferry GTF across the Straits and to the main­land with ex­hi­bi­tions, work­shops and pop-up cafés exclusive to But­ter­worth.

With a strong sense of pur­pose, a tire­less com­mit­ment to the city and its in­hab­i­tants, and a pas­sion­ate group of young peo­ple work­ing for the best pos­si­ble re­sults, the GTF can only get bet­ter. The world is only just be­gin­ning to see what the city is all about – and all it has to of­fer.

'100% Pe­nang'

GTF Staff


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