Having been declared a UNESCO heritage city in 2008, it is no surprise that Georgetown is now capitalising on this status and establishing a strong reputation for the arts. The Penang Island Jazz Festival and the George Town Festival have become international events, and you don’t have to wander far through the streets of Penang’s heritage zone before you come across all sorts of small galleries, antiques shops and arts cafes.
However, the most prominent new addition to Georgetown’s cultural scene is its street art and, in particular, the wall murals of a young Lithuanian-born artist and Penang resident, Ernest Zacharevic. The series of paintings, known as ‘Mirrors George Town’, was commissioned by the George Town Festival in 2012, and the artist’s bold, realistic depictions of the town’s street life have gained attention far and wide. In fact, they are fast becoming one of Penang’s most popular attractions.
The murals reflect Penang’s living history by connecting the town’s heritage buildings to everyday images of its inhabitants, evoking a sense of old Penang but also mirroring life as it still exists in Georgetown’s quiet backstreets. Painted on imperfect, crumbling walls, the images are honest and down-to-earth, and have already become an integral part of the town’s fabric.
The artist incorporates three-dimensional objects into some of his work, and the life-size depictions of two children on a real bike (Lebuh Armenian) and the boy perched on an old motorcycle (Lebuh Ah Quee) are particularly realistic. Don’t be embarrassed if you have to do a double take – you wouldn’t be the first. Others are more abstract and irreverent, including the boy with his pet dinosaur (Lebuh Ah Quee) and the broken heart (Love Lane).
Some, such as ‘Kungfu Girl’ (Lebuh Muntri) and ‘Trishaw Man’ (Jalan Penang) are larger than life and cover the sides of entire buildings. The subjects of the paintings are often modern-day residents of Georgetown, and the ‘Old Man’ depicted in Lebuh Armenian is in fact a clog maker who has lived on the street his entire life.
Helpfully, the murals are concentrated in two main areas of town and if you are keen to see the artwork for yourself, there is now an established street art trail. The Tourist Information Centre, which goes under the name of Penang Global Tourism, has produced a very useful map, which you can pick up from their offices (10 Whiteways Arcade, Lebuh Pantai; T: (04) 263 3456). Your self-guided tour should take between an hour and an hour-and-a-half, depending on your mode of transport and how often you stop along the way.
It is very easy to walk the trail, but if tramping your way around Georgetown in the sun doesn’t appeal, you could do what the local tourists do and hire a bike. Many of the hostels around town will rent these by the hour, but our tip is to seek out Chin Seng Leong (84 Armenian Street; T: 012 5533 553), which is – conveniently – right on the trail itself. They hire out bikes at a flat rate of 10 ringgit, no matter how long you choose to stay out, and this gives you some flexibility to stop off for a drink or lunch along the way. Don’t expect any modern bike technology, however, since these contraptions look almost as old as the town itself – although to be fair, you don’t really need gears or suspension for flat urban terrain.
Quite apart from the artwork itself, the trail is also a great way to see some of old Georgetown’s fascinating living heritage, from the other-worldly clan jetties on the waterfront, to the narrow backstreets and imposing clan houses around Lebuh Armenian, and finally to sedate Lebuh Muntri, with its impressive shophouse architecture.
The route also takes you past, or at least very near, some of Georgetown’s major attractions, so it is worth making a detour for these. They include the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion on Leith Street, the Hainanese Temple on Muntri Street, and the clan houses around Lebuh Armenian, including Khoo Kongsi, Hock Tiek Cheng Sin Kongsi and Cheah Si Hock Haw Kong Kongsi. If you are in need of refreshments, check out the trendy cafes and bars along Muntri Street and Love Lane.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 28th November, 2014.