Georgetown Festival Penang kicks off on the Malaysian island of Penang in two days and we’ll be there! The month-long arts festival is jam-packed with events, exhibitions, screenings, and installations. It’s our first trip in 15 years and we can’t wait to get back.
Our work is kind of crazy. It’s nothing new to us, of course. But every now and again I’m reminded how crazy it can be. This time last week we were planning a trip down to Kampot to do some research and writing, and help Kek Soon (the young Cambodian who was sponsored to do our May Travel and Food Writing and Photography Retreat) develop her cookbook, cooking classes, and food tours.
Instead, we’re about to spend a week taking in the Georgetown Festival Penang and reacquainting ourselves with the food scene for some stories. We’ll be checking into the swish new Edison Hotel for 8 nights and when we’re not seeing live music, film, comedy, performance, and art, we’ll be dining out, sampling street food, and testing out food tours and cooking classes.
What I’m most looking forward to is the opening show of the Georgetown Festival. Svara Bhumi – or Songs of the Earth – is said “a tribute to our land and its indigenous music”, featuring the Black Arm Band, one of Australia’s leading, contemporary indigenous music bands; New Zealand artist Ria Hall; members of Malaysian tribe Mah Meri, one of 18 Orang Asli groups (which we learnt about on our Borneo trip a few years ago); Penang-based musician Alena Murang, who plays the sape, a traditional wooden lute; and Indonesian singer Ayu Laksmi, who sings in five languages, including Sanskrit, Balinese and English.
I’m also hoping to take a peek at Habitat: The Exhibition before the event. While this is a free, month-long show, like many at Georgetown Festival, our tight schedule will prevent us from getting back. It probably also won’t allow us time to get up to The Habitat on Penang Hill, a new eco-tourism destination on the edge of a 130 million year old rainforest, with a 1.6km nature trail that I’d love to walk.
The festival will properly kick off with the A+SEAN Showcase, a two-day event on the Esplanade, with more music from Asia and Australia, along with art, installations, puppetry, street food, and a market. There’ll be gigs from the likes of OAG, Dasha Logan, Sheila Majid, and Nidji, an interactive performance by the Snuff Puppets, and an enormous PVC sculpture by a Dutch artist called the Strandbeests, which looks very cool.
We’re also going to get along to a talk titled Humanity and What About the Arts? featuring celebrated Cambodian film director, Rithy Panh, of all people, and the ASEAN Film Showcase. We haven’t had a chance to meet Rithy since moving to Cambodia, nor see his acclaimed film The Missing Picture, so it will be a little odd to finally do both in Penang, however, I can’t wait.
As some of you might know, Terence and I were filmmakers once upon a time and rarely get time to get to the cinema these days, so I’m eager to see some film – along with comedy. Terence, of course, is keen to check out some of the photography shows (all are month-long and free), including an exhibition of century-old photographs, called Penang Then and Now, and Panicrama by Penang-based photographer Tan Yeow Wooi, which transforms straight landscapes into “whimsical urbanscapes that twist, wiggle and dance with a life of their own”.
I also like the look of Iranian artist Farhad Fakhrian’s photography show Harmonious Co-existence, which has been hung on the walls of Muntri Street and Stewart Lane. The images depict lush greenery, some of it within windows that appear to be real, to provoke discussion about ideas to do with nature and historical preservation, which is very relevant to Georgetown right now.
Georgetown Festival Director Joe Sidek, who we’ll get to interview, helped put Georgetown back on the map by commissioning much of the street art that has enlivened the crumbling walls of the city, so I’m really looking forwarding to both talking to Joe, as well as seeing Street Art Penang-Style, an exhibition of photographs of the urban art dotted around the town. It will save me jostling for space to shoot pics with the selfie-takers that I’ve heard crowd around the murals.
There’s a lot of interesting-looking theatre and dance on the Georgetown Festival calendar, although unfortunately much of it is scheduled to start after we leave. I’d love to be able to see Triptyque (26-27 August), which combines spectacle, circus acrobatics and contemporary dance; a collaboration between three incredible choreographers, Marie Chouinard, Victor Quijada and Marcos Morau, it’s going to push some boundaries and is said to be breathtaking.
For someone who lives in Cambodia, where we don’t have to drive far to be amongst the rice fields, Moved by Padi (27-28 August) also looks intriguing. A real rice paddy, cultivated on Macallum Street in the heart of Georgetown, will serves as the setting for a collaborative, experimental, multi-arts dance performance by leading Malaysian choreographer and dancer Aida Redza, and Ombak-Ombak ArtStudio, composer Ng Chor Guan, visual artist Sarah Ameera, installation artist Lisa Foo, and Japanese choreographer and performer Mao Arata. Rice, of course, is central to the way of life here in Southeast Asia and the performance will depict a “contemporary reinvention of rituals and communal celebrations honouring the semangat (spirit) of paddy and rice as a source of existence and self”.
Other highlights of Georgetown Festival that I am hoping we can catch before we leave include everything from the theatrical experience, All That Fall (pictured above) by the Pan Pan Theatre, which has been showing at festivals all around the world, to stand-up comics from the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which I’m really hoping we’ll be able to get to see. Like a lot of you right now, I could seriously do with a night of bellyaching laughs.
Our return to Penang is going to be bittersweet, however…
Our last trip there was with mum and dad 15 years ago. Dad was dying of pancreatic cancer and his last wish was a holiday in Asia eating spicy food washed down with icy beer, exploring exotic new places, and soaking up some sun on sandy beaches. We spent a month in Malaysia and Singapore tucking into char kwey teow and chilli crab and it was this time of the year, too.
That means the annual, month-long Hungry Ghost Festival will also begin while we’re on Penang, so hopefully we should be able to catch some Chinese opera and puppet shows while we’re there.
We’ve heard Georgetown, already a hugely popular tourist destination when we were there all those years ago, has gentrified significantly and has been facing some challenges since receiving its UNESCO World Heritage listing. I’m curious to see how much has changed, and whether we can still find traces of the sleepy little city we remember.