It is a grey and sticky afternoon when I pause at a busy food cart heaped with samosas, vadai, halwa and other fried snacks. It’s hardly the weather to eat any of this, but I am soon juggling a scalding hot samosa. A jaunty Tamil tune fills the street with its catchy rhythm as I stroll through Little India, in Penang island’s capital, George Town.
A steel rod cartoon sculpture on a wall catches my eye, an animated piece showing two men talking, a bus and a bullock cart in the background. My mouth is agape, partly from the samosa but mostly in delight at the artwork. One of the cartoon characters is Sir Francis Light, the British explorer who established George Town as a trading port hub in 1786. I am on Chulia Street, one of the streets laid by Light, now popularly called “Backpackers Main Street” because of the budget hotels around.
Light is dressed in formal attire, wigged and vested, alongside a flip-flop-wearing backpacker. I recognize the piece as one of 52 “markings” of George Town, a fun series that describes the people, places and traditions that have shaped Penang. And so begins my journey along George Town’s walls, which read like a comic book with steel sculptures and murals.
Hawker stalls and shophouse architecture are highlights in Penang, but over the last decade street art has flourished, with local and international artists leaving their visual stamp on George Town. The steel rod sculptures are the result of a 2009 initiative where the Penang state government invited ideas to physically brand the George Town UNESCO World Heritage site. Artist Tang Mun Kian won the commission with his idea “Voices of the People”, working with other artists to showcase the history and people of Penang through local humour.
At Muntri Street, I see a little boy and an older man standing by a stilettoed pump, an eager lady customer at the side. The description reveals designer Jimmy Choo’s origins in Penang, where he reportedly worked as an apprentice at the nearby Hong Kong shoe store. I pass under a portly man in his underwear barely concealing his backside, the sculpture placed below an actual window where he is hiding. Located on Love Lane, which derives its name from when Chinese businessmen housed their mistresses in the area, “The Cheating Husband” is one of several pieces that use real objects or existing features on the wall, like the window, within the artwork.
Penang’s multicultural makeup is shown through several pieces. Like the one featuring the parrot astrologers who brought the Indian tradition of fortune-telling, the humour apparent in the woebegone expression of the customer as the startled fortune-teller watches his parakeet escape into the air when the cage is opened. A generously proportioned piece, “Yeoh Only”, strikingly framed around a red door, shows a group of Chinese immigrants arriving in Penang. Mounted on the façade of the Yeoh clan house, the building was made for the them in 1836. Laden with their possessions, including sleepy pets and gurgling babies, they respond to the lady host calling out names from a list to identify the group, all of them responding in the affirmative when she calls out “Mr. Yeoh”, since they all have the same name.
It’s a veritable treasure trail, from the singing boatman on the Prangin Canal, a waterway formerly used for shipping goods from the dock area, serenading a married lady while her husband yells “Oi, you tackle my wife, ah?!”; to the frantic looking policeman flanked by a real rifle and water hose, showcasing the “double role” served by the law enforcement officials until 1909, filling in as firefighters.
This project led to the opening of new public art works, some of the most popular by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. Whimsical and nostalgic, Zacharevic includes physical objects like motorbikes and furniture in his pieces, making them immersive and interactive. Two carefree kids on a bicycle, and a fading red door with a little boy on a motorcycle, are some of his most famous works here, drawing a queue of tourists to be photographed sitting on the bike. There's also a series advocating compassion towards stray animals, “101 Lost Kittens”, with feline murals peppered across the city.
It’s a thought-provoking, nostalgic and absorbing trail, each image adding a new dimension to the picture book that is George Town.
Delhi-based Reem Khokhar writes on travel, culture and social trends and issues.