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Penang Street Art – The Story behind the Success (in 10 parts).

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A visitor posing on the motorcycle. This is part of the Penang Street Art in George Town.

A visitor posing on the motorcycle. This is part of the Penang Street Art in George Town.

 

“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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. A brief history of Penang

The Blue Mansion or Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (http://myfacesandplaces.co.uk/blue-mansion-feng-shui/): winner of the year 2000 Most Excellent Project – UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. The Mansion is a hotel and high-end Chinese restaurant (http://www.cheongfatttzemansion.com/) and there are daily tours.

The Blue Mansion or Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion: winner of the year 2000 Most Excellent Project – UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. The Mansion is a hotel and high-end Chinese restaurant and there are daily tours.

 

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.

 

  1. UNESCO World Heritage Site

 

Khoo Kongsi is a magnificent Chinese clan house with highly ornamented architecture. It is the grandest clan house in Malaysia.

Khoo Kongsi is a magnificent Chinese clan house with highly ornamented architecture. It is the grandest clan house in Malaysia.

 

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.

 

  1. Culture and Heritage of Penang

Lee Beng Chuan (Stewart Lane) - Joss stick maker. Mr Lee, the artisan, uses sandalwood from Western Australia for his handmade joss sticks, also known as “The Incense of the Gods”.This is one of the traditional artisans working in the World Heritage Site.

Lee Beng Chuan (Stewart Lane) – Joss stick maker. Mr Lee, the artisan, uses sandalwood from Western Australia for his handmade joss sticks, also known as “The Incense of the Gods”. This is one of the traditional artisans working in the World Heritage Site.

 

 

Seang Hin Leong - Wicker basket maker. One of the last remaining rattan and bamboo artisans working in the World Heritage Site.

Seang Hin Leong – Wicker basket maker. One of the last remaining rattan and bamboo artisans working in the World Heritage Site.

 

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.

 

  1. 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.

 

"Jimmy Choo", the internationally renowned luxury couture shoe designer, was born in Penang. This steel rod art creation in Muntri Street marks the spot where he worked as an apprentice in shoe making. Image of Jimmy Choo - courtesy of Jimmy Choo. Text “This is the place where the famous shoe designer Jimmy Choo started his apprenticeship. Kadai Kasut – (Shoe Store)

Jimmy Choo“, the internationally renowned luxury couture shoe designer, was born in Penang. This steel rod art creation in Muntri Street marks the spot where he worked as an apprentice in shoe making. Image of Jimmy Choo – courtesy of Jimmy Choo. Text “This is the place where the famous shoe designer Jimmy Choo started his apprenticeship. Kadai Kasut – (Shoe Store)

 

 

"Love Lane": A man clings onto the drain pipe outside the window of his mistress’s room. His wife has just made a surprised visit looking for him: “Where is my husband?” “The local Chinese say the rich men who lived on Muntri Street kept their mistresses here, hence the name “Ai Cheng Hang or Love Lane””.

Love Lane“: A man clings onto the drain pipe outside the window of his mistress’s room. His wife has just made a surprised visit looking for him: “Where is my husband?”
“The local Chinese say the rich men who lived on Muntri Street kept their mistresses here, hence the name “Ai Cheng Hang or Love Lane””.

 

 

  1. 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.”

 

"Little Children on a Bicycle" (Armenian Street): It depicts a little girl taking her younger brother on a real bicycle ride. From the expressions of their faces, you can see the joy and happiness which brings a cheer to anyone looking at them.

Little Children on a Bicycle” (Armenian Street): It depicts a little girl taking her younger brother on a real bicycle ride. From the expressions of their faces, you can see the joy and happiness which brings a cheer to anyone looking at them.

 

 

"The Awaiting Trishaw Peddler"(Penang Road): An elderly trishaw peddler resting in his trishaw for customers. It is a fitting tribute to the trishaw peddlers who congregate at the trishaw station across the road, in front of the St Francis Xavier Church.

The Awaiting Trishaw Peddler” (Penang Road): An elderly trishaw peddler resting in his trishaw for customers. It is a fitting tribute to the trishaw peddlers who congregate at the trishaw station across the road, in front of the St Francis Xavier Church.

 

"Boy on the Bike" (Ah Quee Street): This mural on a side door shows boy hanging out on his motorcycle as he watches the traffic passing by along the street. He looks bewildered!

Boy on the Bike” (Ah Quee Street): This mural on a side door shows boy hanging out on his motorcycle as he watches the traffic passing by along the street. He looks bewildered!

 

 

 

  1. 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.

 

"The Boat Man" (Stewart Lane/Klang Street). This painting not only shows an Indian man, one of the races in Multicultural Penang but also reflects this area’s association with Sea Faring. This alley way had the nickname of “Boat Alley”.

The Boat Man” (Stewart Lane/Klang Street). This painting not only shows an Indian man, one of the races in Multicultural Penang but also reflects this area’s association with Sea Faring. This alley way had the nickname of “Boat Alley”.

 

Julia completed a series of murals in Balik Pulau in early 2016. Balik Pulau is a rustic village in the centre of Penang island.

 

"The Old Fisherman". It depicts the traditional craft of fishing in small boats and the fishing villages in Penang.

The Old Fisherman“. It depicts the traditional craft of fishing in small boats and the fishing villages in Penang.

 

 

“The Hakka Dancing Girl”. Julia was mesmerised by the photograph of Pang Yi Chuen doing a “merry twirl” in a Hakka traditional dance. She painted it on the walls in this pre-dominantly Hakka village.

The Hakka Dancing Girl”. Julia was mesmerised by the photograph of Pang Yi Chuen doing a “merry twirl” in a Hakka traditional dance. She painted it on the walls in this pre-dominantly Hakka village.

 

 

  1. Penang Street Art: Charity & Commercial

Charity:

 

"Skippy Comes to Penang" (Armenian Street). Skippy is a resident cat at the Bon Ton Resort in the neighbouring island of Langkawi (http://www.bontonresort.com.my/). He has a “detached paw” and walks on 3 legs and hence his name Skippy. In Skippy’s image on the right, it can be seen that his paw is detached from his left leg. He was rescued by LASSie (http://www.langkawilassie.org.my/), an animal shelter run by the owners of Bon Ton Resort and China House (http://www.chinahouse.com.my/) in nearby Beach Road, Penang. Image of Skippy – courtesy of China House.

Skippy Comes to Penang” (Armenian Street). Skippy is a resident cat at the Bon Ton Resort in the neighbouring island of Langkawi. He has a “detached paw” and walks on 3 legs and hence his name Skippy. In Skippy’s image on the right, it can be seen that his paw is detached from his left leg. He was rescued by LASSie, an animal shelter run by the owners of Bon Ton Resort and China House in nearby Beach Road, Penang. Image of Skippy – courtesy of China House.

 

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.

 

Commercial:

 

“I Want Pau” at Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop (Gat Armenian Street)

I Want Pau” at Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop (Gat Armenian Street)

 

“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.

 

Attitude:

 

Using humour in Penang Street Art to make a point rather than a stern warning of “Cars parked here will be towed away”.

Using humour in Penang Street Art to make a point rather than a stern warning of “Cars parked here will be towed away”.

 

 

Recognition and Acknowledgement:

 

A mural of the famous Mr. Bean character on a bicycle on a wall along the alley to Grand Swiss Hotel in Chulia Street, George Town. This art work was done by Yakuzart Creation. It depicts an internationally recognisable personality in the property of an established Hotel Chain. This shows the recognition of Penang Street Art by the business community.

A mural of the famous Mr. Bean character on a bicycle on a wall along the alley to Grand Swiss Hotel in Chulia Street, George Town. This art work was done by Yakuzart Creation. It depicts an internationally recognisable personality in the property of an established Hotel Chain. This shows the recognition of Penang Street Art by the business community.

 

 

  1. The best way to experience Penang Street Art

 

"Reaching Up" (Cannon Street) by Ernest Zacherevic depicts a little boy reaching for a hole in the wall. He appears to be standing on a chair and inching himself as high as he can. This is one of the most popular works with visitors taking photos with it. It is a definite stopping point for groups on the walking tour route.

Reaching Up” (Cannon Street) by Ernest Zacherevic depicts a little boy reaching for a hole in the wall. He appears to be standing on a chair and inching himself as high as he can. This is one of the most popular works with visitors taking photos with it. It is a definite stopping point for groups on the walking tour route.

 

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.

 

 

The most recent developments can be found in the Penang Street Art Facebook group page.

Another is “Penang Street Art Painting Step by Step Walking Guide”.

 

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.

 

 

  1. 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”.

 

The entrance to 23 Love Lane, an enchanting boutique hotel.

The entrance to 23 Love Lane, an enchanting boutique hotel.

 

I have come across at the Street Art in many cities of the world especially London, the city that I live. This is the first time I have seen Street Art used to tell a story of the place, let alone a UNESCO World Heritage Site. All credit has to given to Penang Global Tourism and its previous CEO Ooi Geok Ling for developing this concept of storytelling with a very small budget.

 

 

 

 

It is 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

Related Posts on Malaysia

 

 

©MyFacesAndPlaces 2016

5 Comments
  • Nostalgic street art in George Town | Velvet Escape | Aug 25, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    […] Read more about Penang on Velvet Escape or this comprehensive article about street art in Penang. […]

  • A weekend in Penang – eat. fly. drive. | Jul 18, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    […] this, Penang is Malaysia’s top destination after Kuala Lumpur. Ever since George Town became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008, cultural tourism in the city […]

    • Michael Oon | Jul 18, 2017 at 4:08 pm

      Penang has been the visitor’s list for quite a few decades. This new addition of Penang Street Art is a new attraction and a really popular one. Together with the UNESCO world heritage listings, this will improve the attraction of Penang to the visitor. Michael Oon

  • Histoire du street art à Penang et parcours dans la ville – Sorry for my English | Mar 27, 2018 at 10:05 am

    […] Infos supplémentaires sur l’histoire du street art à Penang (en anglais) : https://myfacesandplaces.co.uk/penang-street-art/ […]

  • Michael Oon | Mar 27, 2018 at 10:11 am

    I am so glad that other bloggers are covering Penang Street Art as well.

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