Seeing with Fresh Eyes: The Pearl that is Penang

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“In the Malay states
There are hats like plates
Which the Britishers won’t wear.”

I live a hop skip and jump from Sadler’s Wells theatre in London, so have no excuse for not seeing the world’s international contemporary dance stars perform practically on my doorstep. Dance troupes come from all over the world to perform there. Yet life’s daily duties sometimes prevent me from going there more often.  Crazily – or perhaps not now that the world is a global village – it takes a leap of 6,370 miles from London and to be in George Town, Penang, Malaysia for the annual George Town arts festival, now in its fifth year, to see a contemporary dance artist like Aakash Odedra who is from Birmingham! Even better when that Arts festival happens to be directed by a dear friend, Joe Sidek who I met in Manchester during our university years. I knew there was an impresario in him way back, but now after years of hard work promoting and realising his vision for George Town, it has flourished into an event that is making waves in Asia, and establishing Penang as a major destination on the annual arts calendar. He also runs TropFest dedicated to promoting short films by Asian directors.

By the law of the hundredth monkey, it has gathered momentum.Last year, the GTF (George Town Festival) drew 200,000 people and this year looks very like topping that. Joe’s feet barely touch the ground as he officiates, hosts, entertains, gives speeches, organises dinners for performers, brings people together to collaborate, oiling the intricate machinery of connection, working tirelessly to keep  new ideas flowing so the show can keep on the road. He is practically 24-7 for everyone  and it’s a lot of hard slog. He doesn’t work alone but with a loyal team, plus volunteers. Since embarking on this major refashioning of Penang, he has become like a magician ready to pull a rabbit out of a rice paddy hat – you never quite know what the next project will be. He’s in a position to push some boundaries. “People in Penang are ready for something new.” Thirty years ago when I first met Joe, he was studying Town Planning. Now I realise  that was in embryo ‘George’ Town Planning. I could see the energy of a dancer bursting out of him even then, and the budding impresario bubbling under the surface. He appears to be riding that wave of destiny now: he’s the right person in the right place at the right time: he’s found his true calling, as the Buddhists say his dharma, and is now Joe aka Mr Penang himself. So the energy is effortlessly self generating and that makes him happy.

Penang did not have such a festival before Joe dreamed it up. It took Joe’s vision to make it happen. He saw that Penang was under appreciated, but had huge potential.  All it took was a bit of creative thinking, good taste and a grim resolution to begin inviting international stars, who in fact rarely say “No”. This now included re-branding used buildings and turn them into exciting new spaces, building George Town into a credible international Arts destination. “It takes seven years,” he says “to stabilise the reputation of a festival.”  For the Melbourne Festival it took that long. So he has the staying power. Now Penang can say it has something to be proud of besides a fascinating heritage area, an incredible variety of both Buddhist and Hindu temples, dilapidated and renovated Mansion houses, such as the Blue or Chong Fatt Tze Mansion, as seen in the film Indochine (1992), which Joe used for a fashion show, great food in street food courts, and an ambience of easy going tolerance and old-world charm. True, Penang still has open sewers, but hey, they are not anywhere near as in-your-face as those in Mandalay! That’s Penang for you; it’s not anywhere near as chaotic as India, but retains a lot of India’s colour and dynamism; yet it has all the organised, modern infrastructure of Dubai – all the youth are addicted to i-phones – but at least it has not lost its soul. So it is a nice blend of the two.

The George Town Festival 2014

I’m very lucky to have been able to see a number of shows. The opening night of the GTF was a grand event Circus Circus at the Sri Dewan Penang, a spacious auditorium at which Malaysian royalty and the minister for Culture and Tourism were in attendance. Yes, the preliminaries went on too long, but that didn’t stop the performers from delivering the goods. These included The Wrecking Crew from Japan and the Race Horse Company from Finland, along with more traditional shows from Thailand and China.

Highlights, in the dance arena include Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s new production Play, a multi-layered, complex yet still accessible – even moving- meditation on the ebb and flow of interactions in people utilising dance, visuals,  Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and English lyrics, chess games, a lecture on happiness that sounded straight out of one of the Dalai Lama’s books, traditional instruments  such as the dulcimer and ritual drumming. Protege of Cherkaoui now has his own show Rising in which Aakash Odedra demonstrated what one man can do to reinvigorate dance using Karak and Bharat Natyam traditional techniques, and often moving in such a dexterous and ultra-coordinated, concentrated way  and so fast as to resemble a humming bird, whose circling arms form a visible halo of spinning light around him. After a bow he lifts off stage like a grasshopper. He is truly a gem, creating bold and innovative visions of formal and primal states of mind. I expect great works to emerge from Odedra and his company.

Kumar and Jason

Dance is not the only attraction here, there is much much more. In cabaret there is  scabrous comedy with Kumar, the crossdressing comedy Queen from Singapore. He has his finger on the pulse of how Singaporeans think, so the Penang audience can identify with the Chinese, Indian and Malay slang salted with more than a dollop of deliciously dirty talk. If you want your belly to laugh and not just your face, go and see Kumar. In theatre, there is a newly commissioned play – 2 Houses, written and directed by Lim Yu Beng, who appeared in the Jodie Foster version of Anna and the King (1999). This draws on real life memoirs of Penang’s elite families during World War II. This promises to be Penang’s riposte to Downtown Abbey, showing a sensitivity to changing times and social upheavals.At the City hall, there was another project promoted by Joe – the revival of Boria, an ancient parody genre including song and dance, originating from India but with roots in Persia. Boria however is unique to Penang.  All these events are scattered around George Town, which becomes in Joe’s phrase, the ‘canvas’ upon which his expert brushwork is executed. There is much excited talk about re-utilising old venues, rambling old mansion houses with that haunted house look, whose wall are reeking with untold stories, mainly of the women who lived here, as according to Joe it is the maids who know everything that is going on with the family, yet theirs is the unwritten history. Performances could take place in venues such as the Bus Depot. Other mansions may yet be given a fresh breath of life rather than just a coat of paint.

The George Town Canvas

Boy reaching up to the Boy reaching up, Cannon Street

Penang is an oddity at the crossroads. It is that rare creature, an island city, like Singapore to which it is sometimes compared. They both have their signature colonial hotels, Raffles in Singapore and the Eastern and Oriental in Penang, emblems of their British origins. Somerset Maugham said of Penang “If you haven’t seen this place, you haven’t seen the world” perhaps referring to the dense concentration of languages, religions and cultures here. It is a heady spiced mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian and various expatriates, so you can see Christian churches, Hindu temples, Buddhist pagodas of which the Kek Lok Si is outstanding, mosques and even a Jewish cemetery all sharing the same town, and seemingly without conflict. People flock here for the faded charm of George Town given a new modern twist with the Street Art by a Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic such as the little boy reaching up to a window on Cannon Steet- life mirroring art. The street art was sponsored by George Town Festival. Another innovation is the Lost and Found sculptures. This is already a tradition for the best known names in street art in Shoreditch and Brick Lane, with artists keeping ahead of the game. Hidden expressionist sculptures designed by American sculptor Tanya Sierra, add to the idea of using George Town itself as the space in which to engage people with art in beguiling ways, creating accidental collectors.Other art events include Thomas Powell’s Chinese Zodiac, in which he has rendered the personalities of each sign in hyper-real, yet still symbolic mode.


Penang in the Thirties

The Cockerel and the Rat: Chinese Zodiac

George Bilainkin youngest editor of the Straits newspaper, wrote a book that offers some insight into 1930s Penang. It was no UNESCO heritage city then but was already a thriving business city. His office was on Beach Street. His observations are embedded in his era- he did not foresee the rise of China as a world power, or even agree that the British Empire was really in decline- yet in all other aspects his keen perception was that the Malay character is quite passionate,warm and mostly misunderstood.  According to Bilainkin Malays wrote great love letters. He also states that the colour bar is the core issue, as does Anthony Burgess, whose poem about Malaysia, suppressed for years, has recently resurfaced.  Burgess wrote the Malayan Trilogy (1956-9) pointing out these foibles, not just of the crumbling Empire. Bilainkin still detested parvenu colonial society like Somerset Maugham. Snobbery is easy to detect in others, but not quite so easy to observe in oneself. So finger wagging tended to become a national pass time.

Bilainkin  said that in 1932 more divisions among whites that they perpetuate miles away from home than between the Chinese Malays and the whites. There are also Eurasians and Chindians, and the Pernakans (half Chinese, Half Malay) whose legacy is enshrined at the Pinang Pernakan Mansion. It can get complex here to disentangle the layers, as there are also Alawite Muslims here. Boria culture attempts to show how these stereotypes can become fixed in the people’s minds. Yet Boria could easily be updated to comment on today’s conflicts. Kumar picks up on this in a contemporary and more acerbic way, defusing racial tensions through razor sharp humour.  Kumar is carrying the baton where Boria left off.


The Art of Seeing the New in the Old

Joe at Christine Daas’s exhibition, Penangpac

Travel is alleged to broaden the mind. But I double check that it is genuinely being stretched and not just confirming already preconceived ideas. Being abroad plays on people differently, catching them in a kaleidoscope of moods. From this standpoint, there is no need to travel to obtain this mind-expanding effect. You can stay at home to do that. But if you stay at home, you have to guess what other places might be like, and strain to see how they might alter your perception. When you travel, it depends if your mental swing doors are closed tight, partially open, or madly circulating with gusts of fresh air. The problem is that travel boosts the possibility of seeing things differently- it’s an instant mix- while staying at home tends to entrench the already glutted mental picture of your neighbourhood, so there are harder layers to remove. By dint of habit and repetition we see the world as we are, along with our limitations, and not as it really is. Joe has avoided this – which is a staggering achievement that I stand back and applaud. Artist Christine Daas, in her exhibition at Penangpac, uses the idea of Jonathan Swift that “Vision is the art of seeing what others cannot see” which Joe has already done for George Town.

Proust said “The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in seeing with fresh eyes.” But new landscapes make it a whole lot easier. For me, both ways are possible, but as soon as I get on a plane to a new location, the expansion effect kicks in full on, and I absorb the fresh experience, and hopefully learn to appreciate the things I hate about home even more. A view from the top of Penang Hill is another way to see it fresh. So Penang has done the magician’s trick. If Penang is a Pearl of the famed Orient – whatever that chimera is- it is polished one on a string of pearls (all the other cities in Asia) that dangles elegantly close to a plunging neckline and cleavage. It was enough to attract Noel Coward here. Coward wrote Private Lives in Singapore and Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1931) at Penang’s Eastern and Oriental hotel. He travelled with his very close friend Lord Amherst.  Bilainkin devotes an entire chapter to Coward’s visit which took in the zoo and The Snake Temple. The song may sound arch and dated to us now, yet  “strange how potent cheap music often is,” Penang has a similar potency that I feel – thanks to Joe’s vision of it as his personal installation, and Penang, despite all the grumpy bus drivers, muggers and bike thieves, will tend to linger for a long time and pull me back  for a second visit.

As Bilainkin titled his book ‘Hail Penang!’ not ‘Miss’ Saigon, and I feel there’s a show title in there somewhere, perhaps for the GTF 2015? But there are so many ideas Joe could run with. We’ll all just have to wait and see what he pulls out of the hat next.

Over to you Joe.

Doing my bit to promote the GTF, Armenian Street, George  Town

August 2014

© Kieron Devlin, 2014
all rights reserved

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