By Carolyn Hong
Walking along the traffic-clogged Pengkalan Weld in George Town on Penang island, you’d never imagine that a quirky urban garden is hidden inside a grim abandoned house with only its shell left.
“Hello”, a speech bubble pinned to a wooden post calls out to passers-by. A garden of edible plants and herbs with useful notes, arranged as the house of Ah Soh, has been created out of a patch formerly filled with trash.
Its creator Alex Lee, 23, said he made an edible garden to combine his interests in urban issues and food heritage. After all, he said, Penang is famed for its food.
“In the past, these plants were planted in the back lanes and the kopitiams used their coffee grounds for the plants,” he said.
It took Lee and his team a week to manually clear the plot to make it safe for a garden. It became an immediate hit with visitors and also its neighbours who volunteered to help make and maintain the patch.
Ah Soh’s Garden is one of the “Secret Gardens of Earthly Delights” which have popped up in hidden corners of the town since June 7 for the George Town Festival.
The month-long festival is being held to celebrate the fifth anniversary of George Town’s listing as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008. It features theatre, dance, music, art installations, food fests, open houses of places of worship and of course, its trademark street art.
Last year, street murals sent visitors on a hunt to seek out the nostalgic paintings in the oddest corners. This year, it’s the secret gardens that are getting visitors out. Disused patches filled with weeds, some too small to be of any use, have been turned into magical urban gardens.
No map is provided as visitors are encouraged to stumble upon them.
Such street events are the star of the George Town Festival. It’s a deliberate move.
“That is the magic of the festival, the people and the outdoors. We want to make art accessible for people to discover. It doesn’t need to be intimidating; if they don’t like it, they can just walk away,” said festival director Joe Sidek.
The festival is not a sleek glitzy show as it is meant to celebrate George Town, its living heritage and natural raw beauty. It’s made as accessible to the child as to the classical music buff.
And it’s this philosophy that has made the annual festival one of the best-known events despite its tiny budget of just RM3.5 million. It has helped turn George Town into one of hippest destinations in the country, giving an arty edge to this town of crumbling buildings where people still make trishaws and joss sticks by hand.
Since its inscription on the Unesco list, George Town has seen an influx of tourists and investors who have turned its shophouses into chic guesthouses and cafes.
The festival, which brought about an arts revival, received over 200 proposals from 45 countries for this year’s edition. For the first time, it also received a big entourage of performers, art, pop-up stores and more from the other Straits Settlement of Singapore.
Most events are kept free, many outdoors, and ticketed events are as cheap as RM20 for students.
Joe said they believe that the arts is for all, and not just limited to people of a certain social class or wealth. He said arts should inspire the local people to raise their creative standards.
He credited Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng for giving him absolute free rein which gave the event an air of a fringe festival without the heavy hand of official agenda.
But most of all, he said it’s George Town and its people that are the biggest assets. Because of a lack of sleek performing venues, many events went outdoors with the gorgeous buildings as a backdrop.
“George Town is a festival all year round,” he said.
The festival ends July 7 with a street celebration of its living heritage but the secret gardens and a giant art installation ‘The Theatre of Ships’ by Indonesian artist Joko Avianto will remain for at least a year.
Photo credit: Carolyn Hong