Its burgeoning street art scene and newly found TropFest film festival make George Town a regional creative hub.
The well-known charm of its crumbling colonial and post-colonial architecture was a drawing card for Penang’s capital, George Town, even before Unesco added the historic city centre to its World Heritage Site Listing in 2008. Broad swathes of exposed brick and flaking stucco, framed by some of Southeast Asia’s most elaborate Straits Settlement-style architecture, preserved but not necessarily restored, stand block after block.
But once one has thoroughly explored that backdrop, one might start wondering if there’s any life in the old city, something beyond the town’s justly famed street foodstalls and souvenir shops.
On a recent visit to the island capital for the first edition of the TropFest SEA, I find that the new Penang branch of the short film festival is only one among several new directions George Town is heading.
Under the guidance of rocker, scholar and novelist (his first novel, Nazi Goreng, deals with Malay skinhead gangs) Marco Ferrarese, I ramble through George Town’s historic centre to discover a whole new dimension to the city, in which old buildings become striking canvases for street art.
This fast-rising local trend was only kicked off in 2012 by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who was commissioned by George Town Festival to create a series of murals around town. He soon became known as “Malaysia’s answer to Banksy.”
Signed “Zach,” his wall paintings typically interact with existing three-dimensional elements of local architecture. Sometimes he adds items he has salvaged locally to add a further dimension. An rusting bicycle, wired to a wall on Armenian Street, becomes a prop atop which figures of two local children have been brushed onto the wall using over the border TRAVEL high-quality, water-based paints.
Called “Two Kids on a Bike,” this and other lighthearted works by Zacharevic have become popular icons, with both locals and tourists seeking them out to take photos themselves standing alongside.
Since his success in George Town the artist has been invited to paint murals in many other sites around the world, including Stavanger, Norway, Singapore, Venice, Florence, Brussels and Kuala Lumpur. In spite of his growing world acclaim, the Lithuanian says he still prefers to keep George Town as a base, citing the city’s “amazing people, mindblowing food, breathtaking scenery and rich cultural heritage.”
His work has given rise to a slew of local imitators who bring along props and paint boxes to add their own art to available blank walls. In reference to the trend, Zacharevic says “Copying is just an inevitable short term reaction to any successful project and it does not bother me. I’m happy that my works have sparked a debate about art education and art in general in Malaysia and hopefully it will inspire young artists to explore.”
At night, Ferrarese introduces me to Soundmaker, an underground club and recording studio that opened in an old warehouse on Weld Quay Rd seven years ago. On the Friday night we turn up we are treated to a masterful performance by local post-rock band The Color Noise, whose members include players of Indian, Chinese and Malay descent.
Ferrarese, who is writing a PhD thesis on extreme music in Malaysia, says oundmaker is the country’s most powerful centre of punk, metal, thrash and alternative rock. He says the owner skirts the strict midnight noise curfew by holding matinee shows on weekends.
The club has also hosted a stream of Western punk bands passing through Southeast Asia.
Supporting Penang’s streams of musical and visual creativity is the annual George Town Festival, which began in 2008 to commemorate Penang’s inclusion on UNESCO’s world heritage list. Over its five years of existence, the festival has put Penang on the map for its impressive range of art, music, dance, theatre, and film programmes, drawing around 200,000 art and culture enthusiasts from all over the world. The next festival with extend the entire month of August, 2014.
No visit to George Town is complete without diving into the variety of tasty foods available from local street vendors, cafes and restaurants. I indulge in one of my favourite Penang traditions, nasi kandar, a popular meal of rice served with a variety of side dishes, at Line Clear Nasi Kandar, a 24-hour joint in a narrow alley off Jalan Penang. I’m amazed to pay only the equivalent of 65 baht for a massive plate of steamed rice, fried chicken, omelette, vegetables and kuah banjir (a mix of curry sauces).
Roti canai (roti bread with curry) is something I always seek out for breakfast in Malaysia, and this time I track down George Town’s most famous morning roti source, Kani Cafe Stall, on Jalan Transfer. I order chewy egg roti with a curry stocked with tender chunks of chicken and a meaty, flavourful gravy.
Architecture, cuisine, art and music. By the time TropFest is over and I’m headed for the airport, I’m making a vow to myself to return to George Town as soon as I can.