“All great truths are obvious truths. But not all obvious truths are great truths.” – Aldous Huxley, “On Art and Artists,” 1960
George Town, Penang, is in its adolescence. For the past 250 years, the island has wrestled out of infancy, limbs of culture developing fully to suddenly find itself half grown-up and with some idea of what it wants from the world. Even though the growing pains have come to an end, there now remains a teenage hormonal imbalance ready to pick things up and then drop them at an alarming rate. Emanating from this dizzying catena of fads – art, galleries, coffee shops, boutique hotels, cocktail bars and wine bars – comes an energy largely incomparable elsewhere in South-East Asia.
The change has come suddenly. Only 5-6 years ago George Town was described as sleepy, the heritage area so quiet you could hear the hidden trickles of water tinkling through street drains and falling onto corrugated iron rooves. The relative abandonment of then was clearly made worse by the unimportance attributed to George Town by local Penangites, obvious in their poor knowledge of George Town’s geography and street names (one friend at the time even admitted to not knowing where Kapitan Kajeeling Mosque was).
So, on the surface at least, it looked like George Town was catatonic – set to remain a backwater and ready to stew in its own unique dilapidated elegance. However, for those privileged to be in touch with an inner circle of cultural advocates, it was clear things were anything but stagnating. Behind closed ornate double-doors and within stained walls, work was being done on laying the foundations for an artistic explosion. These advocates talked of a revival in hushed tones as if not to jinx it, with a reverence expected from those at an altar. It seemed like the subject of revival had been on the cards for a long time, and was actually past its due date, hence the reason it was being treated as delicately as possible for fear of it splintering into a broken dream and being lost.
Today, a series of small sparks have given life to a flame that only needs more fuel in order to grow. And the fuel has been harvested in abundance. Murals have erupted onto George Town’s walls off the back of Ernest Zacharevic’s initial trendsetting, a – now – long-running George Town Festival of five years has exposed the city to international acts, new galleries, such as the Hin Bus Depot, are now regular fixtures for exhibitions as well as nightlife, street markets provide an innocent mornings fun, eateries and restaurants are taking their trade more seriously and striving for real quality through authenticity – especially in Western cuisine. In general, George Town’s long strips of abandoned shop-houses are now bustling with life, particularly Armenian Street and Lebuh Kimberley.
Yet, for me, the greatest change over the last five years seems to be more psychological than material. George Town has come to realise the importance of its rising status as art hub, most evident in the insistence of many that it be written as ‘George Town’, and not ‘Georgetown’, separating it from Georgetown in Washington or Texas or Kentucky or Colorado in America – a difference that was largely ignored in its sleepy days, much to the confusion of expatriates determined to know its correct spelling; it didn’t seem to matter to many locals because nothing of note was happening at the time. This kind of self-conscious exactness is surely direct proof of the city coming to terms with its own identity. It is, of course, as important as calling things for what they actually are and protecting their integrity; a cat is a cat, not some over-grown hamster for example.
Perhaps, the greatest change has developed within myself. With its rise in art and subsequent backing from the state government, George Town has changed my perception of Malaysia, as well as the state itself. My first impression of Penang, vis-à-vis Malaysia, was one of entrenched conservatism. Compared to other countries I had been to in Asia – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam – Malaysia seemed more rigid, less willing to express itself without worry. For a large part of the country, I don’t think this view has changed, but Penang seems now to be a small bohemian glade in deep conformist forest, largely due to the people contributing to its artistic identity.
In essence, Penang seems to enjoy more freedom. Naturally, with the country’s current political turmoil, it stands out even more. The political connotations of why the Penang State Government seems to be so supportive of the arts and freedom of expression can be left for another time, but you only need to remember an opening act of the George Town Festival this year to realise how distanced Penang is becoming from the rest of the country. At the event ‘100% Penang’, 100 volunteers were asked a range of questions on race, sex, religion, politics and finance in front of a crowd including the Chief Minister. It was lauded as a true example of what freedom of speech really means and was no cut-off mid-flow Mahathir-style, so to speak.
For anyone concerned with keeping up to date with Malaysia’s position in the world, we are witnessing history in the making. For better or worse, Malaysia is now recognized as an actual place – recognisable to even the most sedentary people around the world – and not only as some long-forgotten colonial remnant; its fame is finally becoming its own. What Penang and George Town is contributing to Malaysia’s new world image is liberalism, moderation, effervesce, excitement and expression. My advice is to get up here while the getting is good, help contribute to an energetic crowd reviving the arts and leave your own positive mark before it gets swallowed by inevitable globalisation and modernisation. The world waits for no man.