While a city’s development can be judged by its age, time is by no means an absolute measure of a city’s progress. So often, art plays a major role in a city’s gentrification and the dynamic scene that usually facilitates such a period of evolution. However, the concentration of art culture at a point of time in any city that gives rise to trendy bars, chic accommodation and a gravitational pull transforming an area once called rundown into one known as ‘hip’ is circumstantial. It depends on the accidental conference of a group of important assets: artists.
The 232-year-old city of George Town in Penang, Malaysia, only recently – dans son ensemble, as one body of people governing, living and working within it – agreed, insisted even, on the city being called “George Town”, instead of the mistaken appellation of Georgetown used regularly before. It is hard to pin down exactly when this happened, but eyebrows began to rise and corrections politely offered around 2014, when the city was accelerating – in second gear! – towards its newfangled image as Southeast Asia’s most exciting art hub.
It had arrived: ART! Truth be told, it had not just arrived. Art had already focused interest in and steered policy on George Town for two – arguably four – years by 2014, filling a void of artistic motivation that had been found lacking decades, generations – you had better believe it, centuries! – before. Therefore, the city’s name was all-important. The name – in the face of such unparalleled potential fortune and notoriety where previously none ever grew – would be the first impression, the hoarding, the façade of this new art hub, and it had to be right!
To say that George Town found its self and was ‘found’ by others as late as 2014 is not an exaggeration. That old fop Alan Whicker visited George Town and Penang Island in 1976, and left with barely a romantic notion of the place as “a first rate place for second rate people.” In Whicker’s World, Penang Island was a remnant of a bygone era, a graveyard for rotting colonialists desperately clinging onto their dwindling power by saving what little was left of their entitlements, like having their shoe laces tied for them. Whicker also referred to an the island as having a “charming” local population – albeit as an apparent afterthought.
Thirty-eight years later, George Town had very little quaint left about it. Now a hub for street art in Southeast Asia and the location of the George Town Festival, it had become a mecca rivalling Kuala Lumpur, Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang for tourists looking for the Oriental experience. It had also resurfaced onto the global stage in its moniker of “The Pearl of the Orient,” attracting retirees looking for a second home and even Malaysians searching for a better quality of life.
Of course, it was still small by city standards – but getting bigger, you see? It had conserved to the best of its ability the historic Straits Settlement architecture; it still bristled with temples, mosques and churches. Trishaws peddled by antique men still roamed the city centre offering their dreamy mode of transport. Areas of the city – Little India, Campbell Street and Komtar – continued to act as clusters for trade and commerce much like they always had.
But now, in 2014, thirty-eight years after Whicker visited, six years after being accredited as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, four years after the inaugural George Town Festival and two years after street art first blanketed the city’s archaic walls, George Town and Penang Island had become a destination, a place finally actualizing… becoming the best it could be and, not only a place of interest, but of envy.
This thanks in large part to a group of young artists that for reasons immediately unexplainable decided to converge on the city in 2012 – unexplainable beyond some sort of cosmic design. These artists from Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Lithuania, Spain, Germany et al. fell in love instantly with George Town and, together with art curators who found themselves beginning their careers in the business – fate again! – embarked on a campaign to “have some fun” with the place and turn what was expected of art inside out… actually, outside in.
Ernest Zacharevic from Lithuania started a series of murals that were incorporated into the 2012 George Town Festival, a showcase for the festival called Mirrors George Town. Rumah Studio, an artist collective made-up of artists who had migrated from Kuala Lumpur, formed in George Town soon after. More murals followed, painted by any artist connected to the burgeoning scene on the great online web of interconnectedness and willing to “have some fun.” The Hin Bus Depot gallery-come-space-come-studio-come-hub-come-experimental complex opened its doors in 2014 with an exhibition by Ernest Zacharevic – that man again! – that coaxed excited whispers from the public alluding to an art revival… references to New York!… not that many had been there. For a couple of years, Urban Xchange, a new festival headed by three young and ambitious women, brought international artists to George Town on tap to baste more walls with fresh murals, like package tours… package art! The George Town Festival grew from strength to strength, becoming what the New York Times described as, “… a major Asian arts event.” George Town and Penang Island were suddenly described, in 2016, by the likes of Lonely Planet, as “the crucible of an artsy, modern Malaysia.”
Until, that is, the machinations of bureaucracy and “good taste” intervened to pull on the reins of the proliferation of street art that some thought was getting out of control. Under stiff pressure from UNESCO to maintain the city’s historical elements or lose the heritage accreditation, pressure that had increased after the city’s historical legacy had been slowly eroded by a series of illegal demolitions and renovations, the Penang State government and its subsidiary offices found street art to be part of the problem of what was perceived by UNESCO as George Town’s diminishing cultural heritage. Notices were put up and application forms were sent out; indiscriminate vetting would apply to any proposed street art by groups of people who had no relation to art whatsoever.
Urban Xchange ceased operating. Artists went elsewhere. The George Town Festival’s director would soon step down. Culture, at least the new culture of art in George Town, started to evaporate. But what they had left behind had a momentum that would not be reduced easily. Come May 2018, Penang State and George Town were not only a shining beacon of opportunity for Malaysia but also under the purview of a new federal government – the first time since Malaysia’s inception as an independent democracy in 1957.
George Town serves as a poignant example of not only how art has changed cities in the past, but also of what can be expected of cities open to change through art in the future. The region of Southeast Asia is a boomtown of development and modernization, becoming increasingly more competitive with older, Western economic territorial blocks. The effect of art on cities in the West is still ongoing – nobody should deny it. However, in Southeast Asia, we can expect the effect of art on cities to instill a more dynamic change, in an area of the world that is highly adaptable and highly ingenious in how it moves forward, given the experience of distant neighbours it has to draw on. If nothing else, the contemporary global fixation of art and culture will no doubt be translated by Southeast Asian cities into development that has never been seen before.
Written by James Springer
James H. Springer is the author of Malaysia’s Canvas, a non-fiction novel describing the rise of George Town’s art scene from 2010 to 2018. Through utilizing in-depth interviews with artists, curators and organisers, Malaysia’s Canvas lays bare the realities of using art as a conduit for change from the point of view of the people involved in the industry – with no holds barred.