“Penang Street Art is causing a stir in George Town” said Alan, my guide.
Restored buildings, construction sites, tourists wondering the streets, live music, streets crowded with people! George Town is so different from my last visit in 2012. What has happened?
Tourists walking purposefully in the mid day sun with a smart phone in one hand and a check list on the other. They stand looking carefully at the buildings and recognise something. Tick the box and move on.
Groups on walking tours follow their guides. They stop frequently. The guide explains, photographs and selfies taken and they move on.
Families are cycling in a convoy, weaving through the crowds in the narrow lanes.
What is happening in George Town?
I asked Alan, “Why are there so many more tourists walking around in George Town now?”
Penang is Malaysia’s top destination after Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city. Penang is famous for its beaches, food and Heritage culture. George Town, Penang’s capital was once like a forbidden or “no go” area – only for the brave and curious. It was a sorry sight of old crumbling buildings.
Alan replied: “George Town became a UNESCO world heritage site 2008 as it is a living museum – the culture (intangible) in the existing buildings (tangible). It is a living museum where people can be living in the manner of a century ago. The properties are original.”
Since George Town became a world heritage site, the city’s profile has been raised so much that the state tourism bureau (Penang Global Tourism) has to make plans to cope with the additional visitors. It has to provide facilities in the heritage site so tourists can have a good experience. Other than the infrastructure like hotels, cafés, restaurants, one of the highest priorities was to tell the visitor the story of this living museum in a creative and subtle way.
A brief history of Penang
Penang was founded by Francis Light in 1786 on behalf of the East India Company. The British administration brought both political and economic stability to the region. People from the surrounding areas came to trade. This in turn brought traders and labourers from China and India. George Town was the centre of this economic activity and grew to become the trading hub of the northern part of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. Spices together with the commodities of rubber and tin were collected for export to the West. In turn, manufactured goods like textiles and machinery were imported. George Town prospered from this trading activity. Grand houses such as the Blue Mansion, Peranakan Museum, Khoo Kongsi (a clan house) and other palatial buildings are testament to the wealth and prosperity of the town from that era.
In the 1960s, rents for properties in George Town were frozen under the Rent Control Act. Landlords were not able to raise the rent and consequently, they could not afford to maintain their properties. At the start of the 21st Century, George Town was neglected. The city had narrow and crowded streets with dilapidated century-old shop houses, temples, clan associations, medicine shops, street vendors and hawkers and a variety of other traditional trades.
Penang is the top tourist destination in Malaysia since the 1970s. The main tourist area is Batu Ferringhi, the coastal part of the island, attracting visitors to its sandy beach. There were no major attractions in George Town then to attract tourists other than for historical curiosity.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
A World Heritage Site is a place be it a building, city, complex, desert, forest, island, lake, monument, or mountain that is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) of special cultural or physical significance.
The programme catalogues, names, and conserves sites of outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common culture and heritage. As of August 2016, 1052 sites are listed: 814 cultural, 203 natural, and 35 mixed properties. According to the sites ranked by country, Italy is home to the greatest number of World Heritage Sites with 51 sites, followed by China (50), Spain (45).
The Heritage status becomes a huge advertising draw and a lure for tourists. The local economy changes to adapt to the greater number of visitors. This can be hotels, cafés, restaurants or artisans producing their traditional craft. There is also an attitude change by the locals. They have greater attachment and become prouder of their hometown.
This is part of cultural tourism where people visit fascinating new places for immersive experiences of a foreign culture. This accounts for some 40% of global tourism and said to be one of the more sustainable and eco-friendly models of tourism.
Culture and Heritage of Penang
George Town was awarded a UNESCO heritage site status in 2008 as a living museum under the intangible culture aspects in the existing the tangible buildings.
George Town is the most complete surviving historic city centre in Asia which has a multi-cultural living heritage originating from the trade routes. The thriving port attracted traders from the neighbouring countries like India, China, Middle East and as far as Europe and Britain. It is a living testament to the multi-cultural heritage of Asia and European colonial influences. The myriads of culture from its rich heritage created a unique architecture, character and the urban landscape of Penang.
Penang Street Art: Wrought Iron Structures
With the UNESCO award, the City needed signage for this “living museum”. The heritage site could not have simple “name boards” to mark the places; it had to do something unique and creative.
An Art Challenge was organised by State Government in 2009 called the “Marking of George Town”. It was won by “Sculpture at Work” with 52 steel rod caricatures called “Voices from the People” which had designs to reflect the character of George Town. The streets of the city are named after the trades, people and events that give a unique spin to each street. This puts the story back into the city by having the arty structures located at pertinent parts of George Town.
Penang Street Art: Ernest Zacharevic
The next stage in the development of the living museum was to add illustrations to reflect the multiculturalism and diversity of the inhabitants of George Town. This was to create an open air gallery that can be viewed by visitors exploring the heritage site. The George Town Festival 2012 commissioned Ernest Zacharevic from Lithuania for the “Mirrors George Town” project. It had some innovative exhibits together with several large scale murals.
The large murals transformed the perception of George Town. The old narrow streets were transformed to a lively and engaging area. The small “live” innovative exhibits really brought worldwide interest in the Penang Street Art and George Town. They have become favourites. I overheard a visitor from Europe saying “I have come all this way to see the Little Children on the Bicycle. You can see the happiness of the children.”
Penang Street Art: Julia Volchkova
A Russian artist, based in St Petersburg, was invited to paint murals in Penang in 2014. Julia came to paint scenes of the ordinary people that depict the essence of the community.
Julia completed a series of murals in Balik Pulau in early 2016. Balik Pulau is a rustic village in the centre of Penang island.
Penang Street Art: Charity & Commercial
This is one of 12 murals depicting cats and dogs that grace the walls of George Town in conjunction with George Town Festival 2013. The mural is a project called 101 Lost Kittens, the work of a group of artists which calls themselves “Artists for Stray Animals”. The Giant Cat mural is one of the murals being painted to create awareness of the need to protect animals and get people to foster a love for pets.
“I Want Pau” was drawn by WK Setor and is billboard for the Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop. It shows two children stretching their hands from inside a window towards a parked bicycle carrying a stack of rattan stays, laden with pau (steamed buns) or the shop’s signature egg tart.
Recognition and Acknowledgement:
The best way to experience Penang Street Art
There are many different ways to experience the Penang Street Art.
A map of the Penang Street Art covers the 52 wrought iron sculptures and 8 works of Ernest Zacherevic. It does not cover the more recent work of the others like Julia Volchkova and the local artists. However, it is a useful starting point.
An excellent web site on Penang Street Art is Timothy Tye’s Penang-travel-tips.com and with an introductory video.
Another is “Penang Street Art Painting Step by Step Walking Guide” and a Facebook group page.
There are guided tours organised by the Penang Heritage Trust. Penang Heritage Trust was the primary campaigner for Penang and Malacca to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
We travelled with Discovery Overland Tours, an established tour company in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. We were accompanied by Alan Chew who did an excellent job guiding us.
The Heritage site is a large and diverse area. The centre of Penang Street Art is in Armenian Street and it can be very lively at weekends.
A good place for refreshments or a break is China House. It is a fusion of both Eastern and Western cultures with excellent food, especially the desserts.
Penang Street Art – The Changes
Since being listed as UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, George Town has evolved into a world- class attraction famous for its heritage, culture and street food.
Publicity and prestige associated with the UNESCO award has changed the attitude of Penangites to their George Town. They take great in their city and welcome visitors to share their precious legacy.
The publicity that has been amplified by the quality of work on the Penang Street Art has spread the word around the world of this living open-air art gallery.
Many existing old buildings have been renovated and converted for commercial uses such as the lovely boutique hotel called “23 Love Lane” from a colonial house. Yeng Keng Heritage Hotel was previously “A Men’s Association Club House”.
It was refreshing to see the exhibits not defaced or vandalised. All credit to the Penangites for looking after the Penang Street Art of George Town.
I am really looking forward to my next visit to the Heritage site. It will be soon!
Visit another post on another UNESCO world heritage site in Melaka – Melaka River Cruise