July 7 marks an important anniversary for Penang. On this day nearly five years ago, the island’s capital Georgetown was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, confirming its position as one of Southeast Asia’s best preserved and most culturally significant historical towns. On the back of this distinguished accolade, it has since established a strong reputation for the arts and the annual George Town Festival, which culminates on July 7, is a fitting anniversary celebration, showcasing as it does the town’s vibrant heritage and burgeoning cultural scene.
Now in its fourth year, the upcoming festival runs for a month from June 7 and during this time the whole town becomes even-more-than-usually alive with a vast array of events: formal concerts, staged dance, theatre, cinema, art exhibitions, open-air musical performances, Chinese puppet shows, stand-up comedy, traditional dance on Georgetown’s streets, poetry readings, open gardens, street art, storytelling and all manner of celebrations to mark Penang’s rich and varied culture.
There are too many events to be able to list them here comprehensively, but here’s our selection of some of the best bits:
June 7: The Dewan Sri Penang, Georgetown’s main concert hall near to the Esplanade on Lebuh Light, sees the launch of the festival at 20:30 with a concert of Italian masterpieces from internationally renowned classical chamber group, I Musici. Tickets are 60/80/100 ringgit.
June 8: The festival literally takes off at its official opening ceremony at the Esplanade, between 15:00 and 19:00, when hundreds of kites will take to the air and fill the sky with colour. Percussion groups will entertain the crowds and help get the party started.
June 7 to July 7: Whiteaways Arcade on Lebuh Downing plays host to contemporary paintings and sculptures by leading Malaysian and Malaysia-based artists.
June 7 to July 7: Building on the huge success of last year’s street art trail, the Secret Gardens of Earthly Delights will showcase a series of green spaces and installation art, in and around the heritage zone. A walking tour map will be available by the beginning of the festival.
June 13 to 16: Men in Tutus is exactly what you might expect from the title. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if male ballet dancers and drag comedy are your thing, it’s worth booking tickets soon as this is one of the festival’s most eagerly anticipated events. Penang Performing Arts Centre, 20:30 on 13, 14 and 15, and 19:00 on June 16, plus afternoon matinees on June 15 and 16. Tickets 105/135/165/195 ringgit.
June 21: Be transported to Mumbai with a night of Bollywood hits, starting at 20:30 at the Dewan Sri Penang and featuring a 15-piece orchestra and some of India’s top vocal and instrumental talent, including Abhas Joshi, the winner of 2012 TV singing contest Star Voice of India. Ticket details to be confirmed.
June 21 and 22: Poem on Autumn Leaves is a Hainanese Opera performed in Hainanese, Mandarin and English, based on the classical Chinese novel and staged at the Yap Kongsi on Lebuh Armenian. Performances start at 20:00 and admission is free.
June 28: Tropfest comes to Penang, with this day-long film symposium featuring a series of conversations with top directors and producers from the Southeast Asia film community. 9:30 to 18:00 at Penang Performing Arts Centre, tickets cost 30 ringgit.
June 29 and 30: Directed by Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and with a set designed by British artist Antony Gormley, Sutra is an intensely physical yet spiritual dance work featuring seventeen monks from the original Shaolin temple in China and set to a new score by Polish composer Szymon Brzóska. Dewan Sri Penang, 20:30, tickets 60/80/100 ringgit.
July 6 and 7: The official UNESCO Heritage anniversary celebrations will take place throughout many of Georgetown’s main streets, with traditional arts, craft and food for sale, as well as performances representing many of Penang’s races and cultures, including Teochew rod and shadow puppet shows, boria (Malay street theatre), menora dance from northern Malaysia, Hokkien poetry and classical Indian Bharatanatyam dance.
It is also worth checking out smaller venues for fringe performances and installations, including the A2 Gallery at 27 Bangkok Lane, and the Canteen at China House, which plays host to bands and singer-songwriters throughout the festival period. The George Town Festival website includes full listings and details of performances and events, as well as online ticketing. Tickets can also be bought at the venues, or visit the festival office at 90 Armenian Street.