This year’s George Town Literary Festival was a culture-fest of all my favourite loves – food, coffee, shopping, hot debate and some powerful poetry. By the end of my trip, I left Penang feeling energised and ready to pen my own moody lyrics. But hold on a minute… perhaps you are surprised to learn that I am now a poetry enthusiast? If you had asked me a year ago I may have said “poetry is for sentimental suckers”. Well, it is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind.
Where and When in George Town
The George Town Literary Festival is an annual affair spanning four days. This year, the festival was from 21-24 November although I only flew in for Saturday and Sunday from Singapore. The event featured many workshops, panel discussions, book launches and readings, plus plenty of opportunities to rub shoulders with literary glitterati. The poetry events attracted the most hype. Spoken word poetry is undergoing a revival in South East Asia right now due to oppressive censorship, political tensions and an urgent desire for self-expression.
I stayed at the Muntri Grove Hotel, a heritage building that once housed the wealthy families of Penang during the 19th century. I paid less than $90 a night for a room that was nothing short of magnificent. From colourful tiles and rich wooden paneling, to the luxurious king-sized bed with fluffy pillows and veil-like mosquito net. I felt like an Asian princess sleeping in this little nook of Malaysian history.
Let’s Start with Drinkypoos
I landed 8pm on Friday night and I was quick to dump my luggage so I could catch a few drinks before shuteye. Penang is the perfect place to get drunk because alcohol is cheaper than Singapore. The city also has an eclectic collection of drinking haunts. Whether you like swilling spirits from the side of the street or lapping it up at exclusive clubs, you’ll find your nook in Penang.
I’m into anything quirky so my first stop was the Out of Nowhere speakeasy. This bar is a copycat of The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town in London, whereby you enter via a fridge door. The cocktails are inspired by local flavours and cost around RM30 a pop. I ordered a pink-coloured concoction of gin, lemon, egg white and a few other mysterious ingredients.
Next up was the Junk Cafe. The decor here is, as the name suggests, junk! Second hand books, dolls, sculptures, paintings and other bits and bobs jut out every which way. But as they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and this odd ensemble of junk creates a charming feel. Order a Jackfruit Mojito for a fruity and refreshing tipple.
Creative Vibes and Brekkie in Penang
I had a leisurely sleep-in until 9.30am on Saturday. I thoroughly enjoyed a warm shower in my grand hotel room before venturing outside. What I love most about Penang is the architecture. Many houses in the old town are adorned with colourful Peranakan tiles. The door and window frames are equally elaborate.
This is juxtaposed by modern street art. Around every second corner, there is a wall mural or welded iron caricature. My favourite murals were the fiery dragons along Chulia Street and the astronaut with binoculars on Lorong Stewart. If you are a fan of Ernest Zacharevic’s street art, of which you can find plenty in Penang, check-out my previous blog here.
I went to the Mews Cafe for some seriously sloppy-yet-sweet bircher meusli with yogurt, honey and seeds and a glass of milky coffee. I enjoyed slurping on my repast whilst refining the poetry I would recite later that day.
Literary Event Highlights
At midday, I dived headlong into the George Town Literary Festival events. First on my agenda was a panel discussion on “Women Writing the Body” with authors Hiromi Ito, Ameena Hussein, Kim Yedeum and Regina Ibrahim, moderated by Dina Zaman. Hormone replacement therapy and menopause dominated the discussion! I found Regina’s insights most fascinating. She has lived as a transgender woman for more than 20 years and is affectionately known as Mama in Malaysia. The audience were also treated to readings of two Korean-translated poems by Kim.
Next, I attended a discussion titled “Give me your tired, your huddled masses” on the topic of refugees . Young poet Mwaffaq Hajjar spoke about his own experience migrating to Malaysia from Syria. It was heartening to hear that Malaysia will soon be amending its legislation to allow refugees to work, which will help them better integrate into society.
Local Lunch and Some Dessert
After such serious discussion I had worked up an appetite. I headed over to the Chew Jetty for a local lunch. I enjoyed a bowl of zesty seafood with pineapple laksa at the Tan Jetty Assam Laksa stall and some wok-fried noodles with prawns from Ah Sun Char Koay Teow.
Just a short walk from the jetty is the Black Kettle, a sponsor of the George Town Literary Festival. They make fantastic coffee and mouthwatering sweets. I couldn’t resist ordering a buttery pastry filled with custard to go with my latte – pure heaven!! By now I was starting to get why people go on binge-eating holidays to Penang… everything here tastes marvellous.
Time to Poetry Jam
The highlight of the day had finally arrived… it was my turn to get up on stage and represent LASALLE College of the Arts by reciting my own poetry. Check out the sweet mention my fellow students and I received in the official George Town Literary Festival 2019 Programme!
I recited two poems to a crowd of 30 people. My reading was met with quiet ovation. The experience was exhilarating! After a celebratory glass of wine, I stayed on at the Black Kettle to watch the pros perform. The best spoken-word poets and wrappers from Malaysia and Singapore performed a two hour set that was highly confessional and confrontational. Their poetry touch on topics such as discrimination, homosexuality, the environment, displacement and food. I loved the angsty poetry of Nana as well as the melodic words of Mwaffaq Hajjar, who recited in Arabic with English translations projected.
After an evening of invigorating poetry my blood was pumping. I needed a stiff drink or two to get myself to sleep. We went to Gala House for some fragrant Redang beef curry served with fried naan bread (not very authentic) as well as a couple of sugar-laden Caipirinhas. The cocktails were watery but the atmosphere was pleasant. We sat on the pavement outside in the cool breeze – far enough away from the pounding music of Chulia Street.
A Coffee-Market-Cake Kinda Morning
The next morning I made a beeline for The Daily Dose Cafe and for RM11 I enjoyed the best cuppa coffee I’ve had in a long while.
I then walked 20 minutes to the Hin Bus Depot pop-up market. The market is a labour of love, promoting local artists and encouraging creativity. There are many independent stalls selling cutsie accessories, textiles, arts & crafts and organic food and drinks. I bought two pairs of unique earrings for RM30.
The market is setup in a previously derelict bus depot and has a great vibe with lots of bright green plants amid curious wall murals.
For a mid-morning snack I indulged in a traditional Chinese egg tart at Ng Kee Cake Shop and bought some famous Penang White Coffee to bring back to Singapore.
Festival Goes Awry
In the afternoon I headed to the screening of Pok Ya Cong Codei, a Malaysian movie that came out last year. The film tells the story of a Kelantan man named Pak Ya. He is tasked with rescuing Aina, the kidnapped daughter of a well-to-do lawyer. The movie was praised for its rare portrayal of the Kelatanese people, who hail from a rural state in northeast Malaysia. I found the movie’s depictions of women and obvious gender stereotypes deeply disturbing. I left before the movie was finished.
It wouldn’t be a proper visit to George Town without a walk down Love Lane for some boutique shopping. I bought myself a quaint little travel diary before ducking over to the Char Koay Teow stall behind Chulia Court for one last plate of yummy noodles. With a full belly, I jumped in a Grab and headed to the airport to go home. I believe they call that a wrap!
What a great weekend and I hope to be back again for the 2020 George Town Literary Festival.