Sharing Penang with the world

By ANDREA FILMER

THE George Town Festival is creating waves up north in Penang. Now in its second year, the month-long event in July celebrates the anniversary of the city making it to the Unesco World Heritage Site list.

With a budget that’s triple that of 2010, this year’s organising committee is holding nothing back in ensuring the festival makes a bang.

From securing coveted international acts and performers to locking down the support of four of the nation’s most famous fashion figures, the committee, led by festival director Joe Sidek, is pushing the bar for the biggest cultural celebration the state has ever seen.

“We have over 80 performing groups lined up for the month and for the first time, four Malaysian fashion icons are coming together to promote Penang,” Joe says.

Dancers from Akram Khan Company will be performing in Vertical Road at Dewan Sri Pinang on July 20.

Yeohlee and Zang Toi, who have made their mark in London and New York, will be featured in Peranakan Penang, the gala opening on July 1. The designers are crafting 13 garments which will tailored especially to highlight the beauty and elegance of Peranakan jewellery worn by the wealthy descendents of 15th- and 16th-century Chinese immigrants.

Global jeweller Mouawad, whose pieces have adorned countless celebrities, from the legendary Elizabeth Taylor to supermodels Adriana Lima and Gisele Bundchen, will bring in RM100mil worth of jems for the event.

“(Antique collector) Peter Soon from the Pinang Peranakan Mansion is also loaning us antique Peranakan jewellery from his private collection and this will be shown alongside those from Mouawad and seven other jewellers from Malaysia and Singapore,” Joe adds.

The show, to be held at the century-old E&O Hotel, will also see Kuala Lumpur-born supermodel Ling Tan in action. Tan and renowned shoe designer Jimmy Choo will be regular faces during the first four days of the festival.

Joe says picking the acts was tricky, given the long-term aim of anchoring the George Town Festival as a calendar event of Asia.

Singaporean Tan Kheng Hua (right), will take on the role of Tan Tay Po (left), the seventh wife of Cheong Fatt Tze.

“Our mission is to share Penang with the rest of the world, to give an insight into our best-kept secrets, which are in our homes, our food, our spaces and our history.

“At the same time, we’re trying to tempt people from Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore to fly in for the festival and they’re not going to do so if they’re not familiar with the shows we’re putting up.”

World-class performances

Emphasising that a strong business plan is the only way to keep the event sustainable, Joe says it’s important to marry international acts with local ones.

“We’re getting Tan Kheng Hua (famed for her role as Margaret Phua in sitcom Phua Chu Kang) from Singapore to perform at Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion on Leith Street from July 1 to 3. Tan will play Cheong’s seventh wife, Tan Tay Po, in a one-woman show entitled No. 7.”

Tay Po was 20 when she married the-then 70-year-old wealthy businessman, and lived in the grand two-storey bungalow (popularly known as the Blue Mansion for its vivid blue exterior) about a century ago.

“We chose Kheng Hua because she is so stunningly beautiful and she resembles Tay Po. Her being Singaporean has brought a lot of interest to the play from her countrymen and we see this as a plus point,” says Joe, as he shows off a promotional poster which has a portrait of Tay Po on one side, Kheng Hua on the other and a combined image of both their faces in the centre.

Another festival highlight, which should be treat for dance enthusiasts, is Vertical Road by the acclaimed classical and contemporary dancer Akram Khan.

“When I was interviewed by BFM (an independent Petaling Jaya-based business radio station), they kept asking me how we managed to get Akram Khan. Several organisations had tried to get his company to perform in Kuala Lumpur, but were not successful.

“We not only got them for Penang but are offering visitors a chance to watch them perform at rates far below what is usually charged,” Joe adds.

The Akram Khan Company, launched in 2000, will rock the stage of Dewan Sri Pinang on July 20. Tickets are going for RM40 (students), RM80, RM120 and RM180.

Vertical Road, a contemporary number, explores the path between the earthly and the spiritual. It will be brought over from Britain courtesy of the Penang Turf Club, one of the festival’s main sponsors.

For those who enjoy a more outdoor setting, 12 Monkeys and More, to be staged with the Penang Botanic Gardens as the backdrop, will be just the thing.

The show features leading Chinese opera star Ghaffar Pourazar, Thai choreographer and dancer Jitti Chompee, and Malaysian dancer Zubin Mohamad, currently a Fulbright scholar at the University of California, Riverside’s dance department. There will be individual works as well a collaborative piece by the trio.

“As George Town has only one performance venue, we had to look for alternatives. What better place to stage a performance on monkeys than the Botanic Gardens?” Joe says, laughing. Admission is free for the July 9 performance.

Local highlights

As the main showcase of the festival, George Town, its people and its culture will feature prominently in Tapestry of Cultures, a three-day event that will be held on the city streets, starting July 7, the third anniversary of the Unesco listing.

Events on the first day will be centred on open houses at both public and private heritage buildings. Fort Cornwallis, the Cheah Kongsi, Islamic Museum, St George’s Church, Penang State Museum, Penang Gold Smith Association, Yeng Keng Hotel, Muda House and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion will all open their doors to visitors from 1.30pm.

A vintage bicycle ride will kick off from the Kapitan Keling Mosque at 3pm, followed by a traditional food and crafts bazaar across Lebuh Armenian and Jalan Mesjid Kapitan Keling in the evening.

Malay cultural exhibitions and performances will bring Lebuh Acheh and Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh to life while Chinese traditional performances and Teochew puppet shows are set to trill and impress at venues on Lebuh Chulia.

At the Khoo Kongsi on Lebuh Cannon, local ethnic groups will set the stage on fire in a two-hour show. The George Town Cultural Show will include Indian peacock and horse dances, as well as performances by Baba Nyonya and Punjabi groups.

On day two, the city’s multi-cultural exchanges stemming from its role as a trading port will be showcased through public talks in the evening.

Talks on the Japanese occupation of Penang and the culinary heritage of Jawi Peranakan and Straits Muslims will be held at the Town Hall, while a session on Chinese revolution leader Dr Sun Yat Sen will be held at the Penang Teochew Association.

A talk on the history of Baba Nyonya will be held at a venue to be confirmed later, Joe says.

The enclave of Little India will also get a chance to shine with dances and musical performances at the junctions of Lebuh Penang and Lebuh Chulia from 7pm.

Day three will hone in on the city’s distinctive multi-cultural architectural landscape with visitors being offered guided tours through historic lanes and streets. A walk around George Town’s shophouses and another to the Protestant Cemetery (where Penang founder Captain Francis Light was laid to rest) are on the cards.

There will also be a series of story-telling sessions billed as The Living Museum – Sharing Our Stories, whereby six strong-rooted inner George Town families will open their photo albums and homes to visitors.The venues have yet to be confirmed.

Every day during Tapestry of Cultures, there will be a nasi kandar food festival on Lebuh Queen, tours of the Kapitan Keling Mosque, and a Penang Teochew Clan exhibition at the clan base on Lebuh Chulia.

With over 630 performers and volunteers taking part in the “festival within a festival” at 55 sites in the city, visitors will have ample opportunity to be part of George Town’s living heritage, Joe says.

For the full festival programme, ticket prices and reservations, visit georgetownfestival.com or call 04-261 6308.

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Category: News @ George Town