Wednesday, May 30, 2012

George Town Festival of Penang - Best Annual Events Malaysia

The mid-year Georgetown (or George Town) arts festival is a month of music, dance and visual art featuring artists from Malaysia and other countries.

Blinded Mind dancer - Photo by George Town Festival

Finland's Blinded Mind dance troupe: performing July 4 in Penang

As you might guess from the above photo of a Finnish dancer in Blinded Mind, Penang's annual arts festival has a decided contemporary emphasis. There are some traditional performances--such as the demonstration of the Malay martial art silat and the sacred songs of the Philippine Madrigal Singers at the 2012 festival. But you're more likely to see something like the Lee Wushu theater company, which "merges the traditional martial art of Wushu with contemporary dance forms to create a unique stage performance."

The first George Town Festival took place only in 2010, around the time that the charming district of Chinese shophouses, clanhouses and temples was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the past decade or so, something like 3,000 buildings had been left empty. On each visit, it seemed to me that there were fewer restaurant carts and tri-shaws, less bustle, yet another repair or craft shop shut down.

But the UNESCO stamp seems to have ignited a new spirit. Some dilapidated houses have been turned into boutique hotels and glass-fronted restaurants. A few shophouses have been turned into art galleries. No, I don't relish Georgetown turning into a tourist theme park a la Luang Prabang but better than letting the buildings collapse, decay or get paved over.

Lee Wushu Dance Theater

Festival Calendar and Tickets

The George Town Festival website can be wonky. You might find yourself clicking "dance," "opera" or other tabs on the top of the page and getting nowhere. Download the calendar here for the whole list of events. Here's the page with the events that require tickets. You then have to click the individual event to see ticket prices.

Some events are free and don't require tickets. These include painting exhibitions, durian bowling (!), some musical performances and a group climb of Penang Hill. But tickets are required for Blinded Mind, Lee Wushu, Cambodian puppet theater and a performance of Midsummer Night's Dream and some other splashy performances. Ticket prices range from 40 ringgit (US $12) to about 150 ringgit ($47).

Cambodian puppets, Eurasian food, South African Malay music

What would I attend in 2012? The Eurasian community--people with European and either Malay or Chinese ancestry--aren't as conspicuous as the Peranakan (a mix of Chinese and Malay) in Malaysia, so the July 1 event with Eurasian food, music and dance is very intriguing. As elsewhere in colonial Asia, Eurasian orphanages used to be common in the crown colonies.

Sbaek Thom - Cambodian shadow puppets

I'd also like to see Sbaek Thom, Cambodian shadow puppet theater, which will be performed on Saturday evening, July 7. From the picture (right), this theater resembles the very oldest Thai, or Siamese, puppet theater dating to the Ayutthaya period, or the 14th century. 

The earlier Siamese kingdom, Sukhothai, was greatly influenced by the Khmer kingdoms that preceded it, so it makes sense that the Siamese might have inherited the art. Characters from the Ramayana are cut-outs in huge pieces of leather. This kind of theater has to be performed at night because the figures are illuminated from behind by torches or bonfires. Despite the resemblance to the much smaller shadow puppets of Thailand's Malay south, Malaysia and Java, the larger Thai puppets of Ayutthaya developed separately from them so surely that has to be true of Sbaek Thom as well.

The music of Desert Rose of South Africa also sounds interesting. The description doesn't specify that the performers are so-called Capetown Malays but they are the ultimate source of the music. These are descendants of people, many of them royalty, that the Dutch brought from present-day Malaysia and Indonesia as slaves in the 17th century. However, the musicians "specialise in combining indigenous Sufi melodies with classical elements, brought to the shores of South Africa by slave ancestors from Java and Malaysia in the 1600s." Desert Rose is performing on the evening of July 8.

Event: George Town Festival
Usual dates: A month beginning in June
2012 dates: June 15 - July 15.
Location: Various places in Penang, but most are in Georgetown near the Esplanade. Here's a map with all the sites marked.
Ticket Prices: RM 40 to RM 140 per event. Some events are free.

Here's an official promotional video for the festival, with glimpses of a very interesting town:

Copyright +Susan Cunningham. No republication without permission. Contact SoutheastAsiaTraveler @

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