The Business Times, Singapore, 8 July 2016 - MajesticTheaterPenang
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The Business Times, Singapore, 8 July 2016

INTO its seventh year, the George Town Festival (GTF) continues to see substantial Singapore participation and support – with artists who see it as a chance to expand their horizons, not to mention sinking deeper into their family roots, if they have any in Malaysia.
“The Singapore component really enriches the festival – we’ve collaborated with Singapore almost every year with the staging of plays, showcasing its creative crafts, food, music, comedy and art. It has helped build a Singapore link, especially our collaboration with artist Tan Kheng Hua,” says Joe Sidek, GTF’s artistic director.
“It’s great as we get to see how Singaporean standards are applied to the way they work and how much we need to catch up as Singaporeans tend to have better working structure and production standards,” adds Sidek.
This year’s headline show by Singapore artists is Pearl of the Eastern & Oriental, written by Lim Yu-Beng and produced by Tan Kheng Hua. The husband-and-wife duo staged the sold-out play, 2 Houses, in GTF 2014, housed in a 20th century mansion. This year’s play – Lim’s second in a trilogy of odes to Penang – is also site specific: It will be staged at the E&O Hotel, originally built by the Sarkies brothers who later also built Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
For Tan and Lim, it has been the chemistry and respect that they have for Sidek that has made this festival the one that she has been involved with the longest, outside of Singapore. Lim’s parents are also from Penang – hence the close ties.
“We are interested in a similar sort of world – of the shared history and culture between Penang and Singapore – and telling stories from that world,” says Tan, who had also acted in No 7 (a monologue about the favourite wife of a tycoon in Penang) in GTF 2011.
While Tan and Lim might have seen themselves more distinctly as Singapore artists in the past, they have evolved to become just a group of artists (from the two countries) working on a project together. “The amalgamation is well-oiled,” she quips, especially since many Malaysian actors have also gone to work in Singapore. The cast of Pearl, for example, is all Malaysian, but two are based in Singapore. Rehearsals begin in Kuala Lumpur this week – so the production will end up spanning three cities.
For Lim, researching and writing these plays have been a way for him to dig more into his own family’s roots, and he sees Penang as his second home. So this play, which is slightly more political than his previous one, has been harder to write as he is trying to be more respectful and sensitive to local sentiments and the viewpoints of Malaysians.
Another Singaporean artist who is taking the opportunity to research her family history while presenting at the festival is Sim Chi Yin, a former photographer with The Straits Times now based in China for the past nine years.
She says that she has been looking at GTF and Obscura Festival of Photography with interest from afar for a couple of years. “Penang is my father’s hometown which we used to visit annually; I have lot of fond childhood memories. To see it become a cool town with jazz, theatre and a photography festival with a growing reputation in South-east Asia made me quite excited.”
Sim was already planning to use Penang as a base to travel to Perak for a family history project, when she was introduced to Obscura co-founder Vignes Balasingam, who asked her to lead a workshop and curate a film night showcasing her short documentary and other films by her colleagues in the New York-based VII Photo Agency.
“As an artist/practitioner, I’m modestly hoping to give back what I can to my own backyard as it were, having become one of a few (women) documentary photographers from Asia working in the international space,” she adds.
She also thinks that Singaporeans overall can feel quite divorced from their South-east Asian neighbourhood. “It’s a good thing to have more interactions both ways.
“Specific to Singapore and Malaysia, as a first-generation Singaporean with Malaysia-born parents, I sometimes am embarrassed by my own lack of knowledge and exposure to Malaysia, and I wonder how two countries that used to be one are not closer. The project touches ultimately on our identities as Malayans – and now Malaysians and Singaporeans – and our common past, and common traumas.”
Singapore art gallery Objectifs co-founder Emmeline Yong was also invited by Obscura. Yong has curated a slideshow of works of 12 photographers and two filmmakers in Masterplan, alluding to the Singapore government’s 1958 land use plan which is updated every five years. The fast-paced changes in recent years however has unsettled a population with a nascent national identity. Singapore-based photographers and filmmakers have been responding to this sense of loss and change in the past decade in their works.
Meanwhile, a highlight in GTF this year is a new venue: the restored Majestic Theatre, the third phase of Singapore company 1919 Global Sdn Bhd’s restoration activities in Penang. The interiors are done by Singapore’s Ministry of Design. The 800-seater Majestic was one of the oldest in a neighbourhood of theatres that included the Odeon, Rex and Capitol on what was Penang’s theatre row of the 1930s and 40s.
Company CEO Jonathan Foo says: “The current owners of The Majestic want to revive the ‘Grand Old Lady’ by restoring it to its former glory and bringing back entertainment and events into the building. The restoration works have taken two years, and the final product will be a celebration of Penang’s colonial heritage and its future relevance in design and entertainment.”
While this will be a “homecoming” for some, ultimately, Singapore artists are also looking forward to a more down-to-earth festival celebrating the arts of all sorts. “Less posh and fussy than we might get in the hallowed halls of Singapore or Kuala Lumpur,” says Sim. And of course the food, declare Sim and Yong.