Travel & Places Asia Pacific

Penang"s George Town Festival: Malaysian Art Overload

The culture vultures that descend upon George Town, Penang's picturesque assemblage of historic townhouses now not only have a what and where to consider, but a when - the whole month of August has been set aside to celebrate this historic Malaysian city's cultural identity.

Starting as a modest anniversary celebration held one year after George Town's 2008 acclamation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the George Town Festival has since grown in scale and ambition.

The festival lineup now includes the world's cultural up-and-comers showing their best new works alongside those of Malaysia's most accomplished modern artists.

Penang: The City as a Canvas

Since its 2009 iteration, the George Town Festival has annually found new ways to engage Penangites and out-of-towners in the arts.

A dizzying slate of music acts, dance performances, photography exhibitions, film programs, and theater stagings fill the Festival's month-long schedule. Some of these require paid admission (the hottest among these sell out weeks before the actual festival launch), but the majority of acts in the Festival can be seen for free, either in George Town's historic buildings or in public spaces along the George Town streets.

The Festival itself might be viewed as a work of art on its own, albeit a massive one that uses the whole city as its canvas, from the narrow kaki lima (five-foot-way, or sidewalk/arcades) to modern theatrical venues like the Penang Performing Arts Centre.

Showcase for Malaysian Art

More than just a showcase for the world's best avant-garde art, the Festival is also designed to put the spotlight on Malaysia's world-class art and artists.  

"By commissioning a work, especially about the people in George Town, about a special house, about a special people, it makes it your own," festival director Joe Sidek told a Malaysian newspaper. "You take ownership of the festival and this is very important. There is no use buying big acts, because any festival can do that."

Thus tourists get to explore Penang's history and culture (and by extension, that of Malaysia itself) in a completely immersive way: what better way to understand George Town's Peranakan roots than by watching a drama about Peranakan families, performed by actual Peranakan? What better way to understand one of Penang's historic residences, than by seeing an art performance based on its history playing out within its walls? 

Seeing the George Town Festival

The George Town Festival takes place from Aug 1 to Aug 31 around the historic city of George Town.  For a complete calendar of events, visit their website:

George Town has a food and culture scene that you can visit entirely independently of the goings-on over at the Festival. Just within the old city limits, you can sample the nighttime street food scene at Lebuh Chulia, a varied selection of hawkers at Sri Weld Food Court, and the ever-popular Nasi Kandar Line Clear.

Check out this overview about where to eat in George Town, Penang for more information, or look at this list of top Penang Food Finds.

Looking for a place to crash? Consult this list of Hostels in George Town, Penang.

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