George Town Festival: more can be done
The balancing act for organisers is to hold sway to the allure of commercialisation while protecting heritage interests
THE George Town Festival (GTF)’s 13th edition drew to a close recently with much acclaim and aplomb. It once again highlighted the country’s rich dexterity in the world of culture, performing arts, and heritage.
Some 80 events were completed in locations all over the island state. Despite concerns over a resurge in Covid-19 cases here, people came in droves and stayed.
Foreign tourists were also spotted taking in the performances, such as the ones from the jazzy Shang Sisters ensemble.
Veteran divas Colleen Read and Kathleen Rodrigues were also attention grabbers when the duo brought yesteryears’ tunes to the younger generation.
The GTF marks Penang’s assent as one of 1,154 World Heritage Sites globally, which it shares with its twin counterpart down south in Melaka.
The programme was also designed to celebrate the outstanding universal values (OUV) of its multicultural heritage and traditions as well as its diverse arts scene with the masses.
To cement its status, Penang wants to showcase its OUV as a heartbeat that pumps its diverse heritage, culture, and arts backgrounds.
All of it blended into the township which has one of the oldest ports in the region.
The organisers also want GTF to be enduring to the communities here.
The balancing act for them is now to hold sway to the allure of commercialisation while protecting the heritage interests of the community it represents.
A Penang social commentator has also called for revenue earned from GTF to be reinvested into the heritage enclave, which now suffers from a “state of neglect”.
The decades-old repeal of the Rent Control Act has driven the working class out of the heritage enclave to other localities, so it would be laudable if the authorities can find ways to bring back the people to reside in the heritage site, said Alan Teh.
Paul Augustin, the curator of the Penang House of Music, shared his views of how more efforts can be held on a regular basis, using GTF as a big finale of sorts to enhance the state’s performing arts scene.
Augustin organised the debut of the two divas, Read and Rodrigues, to perform before enthusiasts here.
“We could get them to perform regularly. After all, the pandemic has crippled the performing arts scene in Penang. If we hold more events, it can act as a catalyst towards reviving the performing arts scene here.”
Augustin pointed out that having them serenade a crowd in an enclosed setting other than the regular entertainment outlets, is a different experience for the performers and audience altogether.
He also called for more discussions or discourses to be held on the future of the performing arts scene. He cited that such avenues can also be a place for nation-building where artists of diverse backgrounds can gather to promote their arts and crafts.
Penang received a jolt last year when the sponsors for the Performing Arts Centre of Penang (PenangPac) decided to withdraw, leaving the centre at Straits Quay in a lurch.
The state authorities have yet to offer any long-term solutions to the issue.
Amid this, Augustin has called for the organising of more events other than GTF, which is usually held for two weeks every year.
It can be a boon for tourism, too, the music activist says.
Malaysian Association of Hotels vice-president Khoo Boo Lim chips in here, saying that the question is how sustainable the shows in GTF can be if they are done regularly.
“The show or event needs to consistently reinvent itself to create the interest and the crowd.
“Unless it’s a Penang cultural show that it’s been bundled together with a dinner like what Chiangmai does then it can be repeated daily as the tourists’ arrival every day are different and the travel agents need to push and sell the shows.”
Again, what is exactly an authentic Penang show?
Thailand shows always emphasises the historical culture of Thai royalties or fables, said Khoo in an interview.
Teh, meanwhile, continues with the proposition of expanding the GTF to the mainland part of Penang.
It was previously done through the Butterworth Fringe Festival, but the support was lukewarm as the epicentre of heritage remains island-centric, Teh says.
“It will take time to engage the mainlanders, but it is worth an effort. Penang consists of both the island and the mainland,” said the Bukit Mertajam-born Teh.
He lamented that the GTF is a good cause but the residents where the majority of the events are held seemed to be dwindling after the repeal of the rental legislation.
With the repeal, the property prices in George Town have skyrocketed, for both purchases and tenancy. So it is a sore eye to see many abandoned pre-war buildings in the heritage enclave, he noted.
Teh suggested that the GTF might be the tonic to bring back the residents by perhaps subsiding the rental in the area.
As the GTF looks ahead to its 14th edition, it has made a mark. As in the words of Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, it has the makings of becoming a top regional arts festival.
But as the critics have pointed out, it is also good that GTF starts by sparking an interest among the residents, who are supposed to be the direct benefactors of the OUV.
This is a poser for future event organisers to ponder about, the critics say.
For the former GTF organising chairperson Joe Sidek, this year’s edition has many good shows – attesting to the fact that credit must be given when it is due.
source – The Vibes