George Town's arty August
DECKED out in futuristic suits with neon stripes, the agile dancers of Japan's Wrecking Crew Orchestra dazzled on the darkened stage.
After a shadow-play extravaganza by Thailand's Bunditpatanasilpa Institute enthralled the audience, thrills and spills came in the form of the highly skilled Shanghai Starlight Acrobatic Troupe and Finland's gravity-defying Race Horse Company.
These four international acts, performing with aplomb under the show title of Circus Circus, kicked off the latest edition of the George Town Festival (GTF) on Aug 1.
All action unfolded amid gasps and wild applause in Dewan Sri Pinang, a multipurpose hall that seats over 1,000 people, located in the heart of George Town on Penang Island.
The month-long festival boasts a vibrant and eclectic line-up that pays tribute to the city's multicultural heritage while also asserting its emerging prominence as an arts and cultural hub of the region.
Festival director Joe Sidek, 56, said: "The spirit of the festival is still very much about George Town itself, celebrating the spaces and people of the city. However, we've expanded our focus from strictly a 'heritage' viewpoint. We now see the city as a stage for local and international acts to interact and exchange creative expertise."
The cross-border exchange of creative ideas was, perhaps, best embodied over the first weekend in a fashion show featuring four designers from South-east Asia, including Malaysia's Khoon Hooi, Indonesia's Nita Kenzo and Singapore's Ong Shunmugam.
The colour scheme of haute couture on display within the blue walls of the iconic Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was inspired by one of the festival's main exhibitions, Indigo: The Blue That Binds, where indigo-themed paintings, batik textiles, and jewellery handcrafted from shipwreck artefacts are shown in a conserved bungalow house in Farquhar Street.
It is obvious GTF has expanded over the years from its 2010 inaugural edition, which Mr Sidek was given only six weeks to put together to celebrate George Town's listing in 2008 as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
This year's programme of almost 150 events includes 2 Houses (Aug 28-30), a site-specific play at Soonstead Mansion written and directed by Singapore's Lim Yu-Beng, and a Penang Hokkien play, Hai Ki Xin Lor (You Mean The World To Me) (Aug 28-31).
"Last year, we had around 200,000 attendees, of which roughly 25 per cent were from outside Penang," said Mr Sidek, a Johor-born Penangite who is the managing director of his event management company and textile business.
"What makes us unique is that we stage the festival throughout the entire city, which means we also work closely with private venues, councils and NGOs to make the most of the city spaces," he added. "And we keep prices accessible - nowhere else could you get tickets to world-class shows for just RM20 (S$7.80)."
While George Town, the capital of the state of Penang, is a year-round tourist destination, the festival period does offer visitors the excuse to combine arts events with sightseeing and the sampling of memorable cuisine.
For example, you can visit the exhibition Unpack-Repack, a homage to Penang-born photographer Ismail Hashim (1940-2013), at the Whiteaways Arcade, a charming two-storey colonial building in Beach Street.
After that, you can get a cuppa at The Twelve Cups, a trendy cafe within the same arcade. A short stroll away is Auntie Gaik Lean's Old School Eatery at 1 Bishop Street, where its excellent mixed herbs rice, nasi ulam, can be sampled with other authentic Peranakan dishes.
Just a little further away, the 18th-century Fort Cornwallis beckons with history and scenic views of the sea.
Founded in 1786 by the British East India Company, George Town reflects - according to Unesco's website - "the coming together of cultural elements from the Malay Archipelago, India and China with those of Europe, to create a unique architecture, culture and townscape".
So even if you are there just for the festival, it is worth spending time exploring the city's streets and alleyways, which are lined with pre-war shophouses, old temples and churches, and stately colonial buildings.
Aside from housing traditional coffee shops and longstanding family businesses, many shophouses have been renovated and transformed into stylish cafes, restaurants, guesthouses and boutique hotels.
In addition, a street-art project by GTF 2012 has also given rise to many painted murals across the city that are popular with camera-snapping tourists - from Kids On Bicycle (in touristy Armenian Street) and Kung Fu Girl (Muntri Street) to Trishaw Man (Penang Road).
Such artistic flourishes, together with the annual festival with its bevy of shows and exhibitions, certainly add to the fun of exploring this heritage city.