If you’ve ever doubted the positive influence of art, you might wish to reconsider. I’m in Penang, Malaysia, where street art has helped revitalize and create a cool vibe for travellers and locals alike.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t immediately taken with Penang; the street art was bridging a gap until I started peeling away the layers of history that make this island so fascinating. It’s a living testament to its multi-cultural heritage and unique architecture.
Wanting first impressions of Georgetown, the inner city of Penang, I sought out a tri-shaw. Considering the vast number of these well-traveled, three-wheeled contraptions, it felt like the natural way to orientate myself.
“See street art?” the tri-shaw peddler asked as I sunk into his passenger seat, a welcome respite from the long day of travel.
“Sure, one hour please,” uncertain as to how long it would take to see the murals. The vast array of them was a complete surprise. And I couldn’t have known how delightful and engaging they’d be.
The images depict scenes of everyday Malaysian life, with local people and heritage as the inspiration. They’re honest and often fun, a combination of paint and installation; a strategically planted bike, swing, or motorbike, completing the painted scene. Wonderfully, the pieces encourage participation as people pose with the images, creating their own interpretation.
My tri-shaw chauffeur, Mr. Goh, often encouraged me to hop off his ‘chariot’ to take photos and pose. He expertly manoeuvered his three-wheeler through the hectic narrow streets and threaded it in and out of alleyways to find some of the more hidden away murals. Unfortunately, his limited English prevented conversation, but he pointed out each mural with a smile in eager anticipation for my reaction.
We stopped at a popular mural where people waited patiently to pose on the bike while a young couple created their own ‘masterpiece’. They became the star attraction as we all took their photo and chatted amongst ourselves. It’s clear that street art encourages interaction.
Mural after mural was revealed as we made our way through this Unesco World Heritage Site. Named after George III, Penang was ceded to the British East India Company in 1786 by the Sultan of Kedah, in exchange for military protection from Siamese and Burmese armies. The golden age of Penang was soon ushered in with tin, rubber and shipping industries. Other Europeans followed the British, as well as Arabs, Armenians, Burmese, Thai, Japanese and Indians to name a few. The most prominent group were the Chinese and still today, Georgetown reflects the rich layers of culture that they and the other settling pioneers brought with them.
As Mr. Goh navigated through the narrow streets, I soaked in the street scenes of Chinese mansions and shophouses, many having been restored since the Unesco World Site designation. Chinese lanterns decorate most entrances, often intricate, always colourful and steeped in meaning. I peeked inside long, narrow go-downs (warehouses), marvelled at colourful Chinese temples and admired statuesque Colonial-style buildings. Diverse peoples have given Georgetown its fascinating mix of culture and architecture. The street art is a modern extension.
I learned that a young painter, Ernest Zacharevic from Lithuania is credited for many of the installations, but I find out a little more when I have lunch with some new friends today.
Of course some of the conversation touches on Penang and I mention the street art.
“Yes,” says Geokling, “it’s a good story. And it’s done so much to bring life back to Georgetown, but it wasn’t entirely planned.”
I had been told that Geokling has the inside story of just about everything one needs to know here. Her enthusiasm is evident as she relates the tale.
“This young backpacker comes to Penang and decides to stay awhile. He does some busking and asks if he can paint something on one of the walls.”
I could understand his mindset as many of the buildings are a little ‘worn’ with faded layers of plaster and paint hinting at years gone by. That first mural drew attention but has since faded. Ernest returned the following year which happened to coincide with the
upcoming Georgetown Festival in 2012 and was commissioned to create more installations. They triggered an overwhelmingly positive response from the locals. The artist said he “was thrilled to unleash the creativity tucked away in the streets.”
“Ernest is a celebrated muralist these days,” Geokling tells me as she scrolls on her phone to show me his latest installation in a Singaporean hotel.
We both agree it’s wonderful to hear a story where a simple passion creates opportunity, when a little luck changes a life. And for the local people and those who visit Penang, the street art is an endearing, welcome addition to the rich culture of Georgetown.
After lunch, I’m given a ride along the waterfront by one of the young fellows who had been in the lunch group. As we pass back along Beach Street, I happen to see my favourite tri-shaw peddler on the corner, just where I had found him.
“Gosh there’s Mr. Goh,” I say out loud, “I’d love to take another tour.”
“Should I let you out here?” Frank asks.
“No, I really shouldn’t, I have a blog to write. Would you mind dropping me off at China House please .”
And so I find myself in the trendy, impossibly long China House that I had been told I must visit. It comprises three heritage buildings linked by an open courtyard that houses a cafe, restaurant, wine bar, galleries and a stage. The atmosphere is indicative of a new direction in this centuries old trading settlement that cherishes the past, but knows it must also embrace change.
“Young people are coming back to Georgetown to hang out,” Geokling had told me. That’s evident this late afternoon as candles are lit and animated chatter floats my way.
This is the kind of place in which I love to write; embraced in the whispers of the past but alive in the exuberance of today.
I look forward to returning next year and peeling back more layers of this treasure that is Penang.