By George, the streets are alive

By George, the streets are alive
Hin Bus Depot Art Centre - Though not technically part of the George Town Festival 2014, this beautifully run-down building (walk past Komtar from Jalan Penang), a 20-minute walk from the start of Jalan Penang, is truly worth visiting.

PENANG - Picture this: disco lights are flashing and a man dressed in a blue checked shirt, with a little chest hair exposed, is belting out Stevie Wonder's evergreen hit, I Just Called To Say I Love You, accompanied by a flautist and a guitarist.

This is not a club, but a laid-back coffee shop called Asia Cafe on Jalan Kapitan Keling in George Town, Penang. On the walls are vintage enamel signs. A bird cage hangs from the ceiling.

The mood is convivial. Patrons spill out on the streets, content to drink their beer standing up.

This is Konsert Kopitiam, a series of free concerts held in coffee shops as part of the returning George Town Festival, which runs until the end of the month.

Penang, for many Singaporeans, calls to mind street food delights and a nostalgic vibe reminiscent of 1970s and 1980s Singapore, thanks to their historic relationship as fellow-port cities in the British Straits Settlements.

The annual George Town Festival, now in its fifth year, breathes fresh life into the city's well-worn charms - using the humble kopitiams, restored prewar shophouses and colonial homes of the state capital as a backdrop for a slew of arts events by Malaysian, Singaporean and international acts.

"It has always been about the realness of the spaces," says festival director Joe Sidek, 56, in an interview at Sarkies, the sea-facing eatery at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel on Lebuh Farquhar.

The month-long festival activates the entire city with 147 events held in more than 20 venues. Organisers hope to attract a crowd of about 200,000, the same as last year.

It helps that the festival has gained plaudits internationally, with the New York Times recently calling it a "major Asian arts event". The programme is wonderfully eclectic, ranging from poetry readings to plays to traditional and contemporary dance.

While bigger acts take place in formal theatres such as Dewan Sri Penang, the majority of events are held in unconventional spaces such shophouses and cafes.

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