The Pearl Comes Alive

You know the George Town Festival. Now meet the man behind it.

Penang – culinary haven, historical state, and more recently, artsy hotspot. Now in its sixth year, the George Town Festival (GTF) is a celebration and display of arts, heritage and culture, gathering both local and international performances and exhibitions into the state capital. Occupying the whole of August, this year’s GTF is bound to have something for you, regardless if you’re into installations, plays or even workshops.

Joe Sidek, Festival Director, George Town Festival

The head honcho of this month-long event is Festival Director Joe Sidek, who has been helming the project since Day One. He gave me an abridged version of the Festival’s origins in 2010. The gist of it: the state government called for event proposals to celebrate George Town’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately (or fortunately, in this case), the parties who submitted the proposals backed out due to lack of prep time. Enter Joe and his, in his own words, “crazy” idea of a series of events. “I said ‘yes’, we worked on a very limited budget, and we had six weeks to start the first Festival… Ambitious, isn’t it? Or crazy. Or both.” From a one-man effort, Joe now has a team of thirteen full-time staff.

Aside from his staff, Joe also credited the state government in building GTF. “For the last five years that we have run this Festival, he (the Chief Minister) has always responded [to e-mail] within a few minutes. A good boss to work for.” The state has been supportive of the effort in terms of financing and programming, without requiring Joe to paste a large invasive state logo in GTF’s publicity handouts.


“For six years, I have been given total freedom, which is unrivalled anywhere in Asia – even the world.” In fact, that freedom afforded to Joe is part of what makes GTF successful – without obligatory quotas and prerequisites to meet, Joe is able to select shows and events he thinks will benefit, engage and inspire the attendees.

The Festival is all about making art accessible to the people, enabling them to enjoy international performances without burdening them financially.

It should be for the people – the locals.

“Tell me, how many people can afford to see a show in Istana Budaya? How does a young student, who thinks he loves the arts, watch a show there?” With entry prices for some shows starting from a low RM20, GTF is a good point of entry for the budget-conscious art lover. “It should be for the people – the locals,” he commented on recent trends where festivals were just used as a means of attracting tourists.

Despite being a major arts event regionally, Joe lamented the lack of support from major corporations.

That said, Joe’s approach of making the event appeal to the everyman is not well-received by some. Detractors have said that GTF is “not clever enough, not intelligent enough, not doing the right programming… not serious enough”, but Joe maintained that GTF should be for the general populace, and not an exclusive event.

“I want people to come and touch and feel… not [for the Festival to] just display clever art.” As the Festival is using the locals’ space, Joe wants them to participate as well.

Another obstacle to GTF, like a lot of projects, is the stuff that makes the world go round. When asked, Joe promptly replied with six words (just “money” six times), and lamented the lack of financial support from corporations. If it’s hard data to back their funding applications, they have it on hand.

“We have all the figures to match a business project, whether it’s ROI, eyeballs or footfalls, and yet they don’t support us.” He mentioned that it’s odd that corporations would gladly sponsor sporting events and concerts, without any visible ROI, but would not even respond to his e-mails requesting sponsorship.

What’s next for Joe and GTF?

“Being happy. I’m [currently] happy, but if the funds come in, I’ll be happier!”

He has no lofty goals for the Festival – no “bringing this to greater heights” clichés – but believes in what he calls the “ASEAN journey”, as well as continuing to inspire, share, teach and expose people to the arts, which is what GTF is about. “I’m still enjoying it, and I’ll probably enjoy it for quite a while,” he said. The 57-year-old is certainly showing no signs of slowing down.

Looking at its calendar, the George Town Festival has something for everyone. From exhibitions and workshops to getting an android to perform, this year’s GTF looks to be another interesting one. Time to block off some dates! ◆

Watch the trailer:

Video credit: George Town Festival

For more information on this year’s George Town Festival as well as a complete calendar of events, head on to You can also connect with GTF via Facebook (, Twitter ( and Instagram (

George Town Festival is sponsored by the Penang State Government and supported by Tourism Malaysia