To the well-versed traveller of Asia, the colonial Malaysian island of Penang is usually associated with just three words: food, food and food. However, those who have been paying attention to the island from closer quarters will have noticed the rapid development of another sector to rival that of its scrumptious street cuisine: the arts.
The awarding of UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008 to the city of Georgetown, at the heart of the island, was a shot in the arm for local creatives. Buoyed by the award, Penangites have been actively renovating shop houses of all types into all manner of funky bars, cool restaurants and art galleries, whilst making sure to retain the rustic and real quality that so typifies the feel of the city. The cases of China House, whose 100-metre long building was turned into the home for a mish-mash of bars, concert venues and restaurants all within a barely-even-painted façade, and Sekeping Victoria, which was transformed by a well-known local architect into a zen, reductionist retreat, are just two illustrations of the potential of Penang’s heritage as a platform for invention.
At the same time, Georgetown began to be known as the capital of festivals in South East Asia. It all started with the George Town Festival, which was launched on the first anniversary of UNESCO’s awarding. The festival quickly caught the imagination of locals and foreigners alike thanks to performances which brought out the true quality of the city: photography exhibitions in the scrubby back lanes, dance performances in the ‘five-foot-way’ arches so special to the city’s architecture, and even graffiti-style street art painted en masse on the city’s streets.
The work of Ernest Zacharevic, whose drawing of two kids on a bicycle in Armenian Street has now become iconic to Penang, was just one of many individual projects that collectively grew the island’s reputation as a hub for the arts. Artists from all over the region began to flock to Penang, attracted by a spirit of collaboration and the inspirational canvas, which the old city provides. In 25 January 2014, Georgetown hosted the first Asian edition of Tropfest, the self-styled World’s Largest Short Film Festival.
Beyond the well-crafted marketing message, the festival seems to have some real chutzpah. Launched in Australia 20 years ago as a platform for amateur filmmakers, the event quickly morphed into a cultural phenomenon with crowds of up to 100,000 people flocking to the parks of Sydney for one day each year to witness the country’s most talented filmmakers and crown the genre’s next rising star. Given the festival’s influence, it came as no surprise that it began to exert a great influence on the world of professional filmmaking, with Tropfest providing the proving-ground for hundreds of documentaries and feature films, expanding to four continents, and helping to launch the careers of Hollywood stars Joel Edgerton and Sam Worthington.
Understandably, hopes are high that Tropfest can do the same for the film industry in this region of the world. South East Asia has long been seen as a hotbed of creativity, especially given its cultural heritage, which is still very alive today. But a combination of relative poverty and reluctance from major companies to invest in the arts has meant that this potential could never be truly harnessed and brought to the attention of the world.
In contrast, Tropfest South East Asia is anything but shy. The festival is due to be held on the wide open expanse of Esplanade Penang – the former cricket grounds of the British in their heyday – and promises to be a day full of fun and revelry, with the screening of the films to be accompanied by a music concert held just before, plus public catering from a range of well known Penang food outlets.
More importantly, however, Tropfest offers a level of exposure to South East Asian talent, which is hard to rival, even in any other part of the world. After all, nowhere else can a mere amateur filmmaker have his or her film screened in front a crowd so large and so public, plus stand a chance to win a full week of immersion in the Los Angeles film scene. If there is any one thing that will inspire filmmakers of this region to break the glass ceiling, this is it.
With the festival due to be a mainstay in Penang for the next few years, it looks set to play a major role in not only bringing artists and tourists alike to it shores, but also helping the island make that huge yet intangible leap from an up-and-coming destination to being seen as a bona fide hotbed of innovation and progress. While the gradual success story of this island since 2008 has largely flown under the global radar, this could just be the event that places it on the global map for good.