If there is one thing that excites me when hitting a new town, besides trying street food, it is definitely checking for street art, as I explained in 8 reasons to love street art. When you can combine them, and both of high quality such as in Penang island, well that’s paradise for me.
I’ll say it clear, without Penang I probably wouldn’t have gone to Malaysia. I met too many travellers praising it – “it’s a food heaven!” – so I couldn’t miss it! But it’s fame for street art was already calling me. Therefore, I arrived there with great excitement and high expectations. And they were fulfilled.
Penang is a melting pot, Malay, Chinese and Indian have been living here together for centuries and this mix is well reflected in its extraordinary rich cuisine and architecture. Georgetown – Penang island main city – is a Unesco word heritage for its colonial building and Chinese temples and houses. And there is a great added value: murals, nowadays a main attraction.
The most iconic murals are by Ernest Zacharevich, a Lithuanian artist who brought the world’s attention to Penang street art since 2012. Boy on a Bike, Children on bicycle, Reaching up, Children on a swing, Kids playing basketball are the murals where everyone comes for an interactive picture. His the little girl in blu (aka the kung fu girl) and The awaiting trishaw paddler are also very popular. The latter is just a few meters away from a trishaw station where paddlers look exactly the same, lol.
Other artists worked here such as Russian Julia Volchkova (e.g. the boatman) or the Malaysian – Thai group who in 2013 developed the 101 lost kittens project, mostly around Armenian street. Local institutions clearly boosts the phenomenon and promoted the Marking Georgetown 52 welded iron caricatures as landmarks telling stories about the city.
A great plus of a street art tour in Georgetown is that you have lots of inviting food to try. I had mostly Chinese food, local specialities such as chao kuey teow (stir-fried noodles with prawns and duck egg), Hokkien mee (strongly prawn flavoured noodles soup), wan than mee (noodle soup with dumplings and roasted pork), assam laksa (a sardine noodle soup combined with spring rolls), chondol (also called chendul, a dessert with coconut, soy beans and ice), as long as a great classic as dim sum. Getting to Indian side I tried the nasi kandar (rice and curry) with king prawns, while on the Malay-Penang side I had the rojak (a strange sweet-sour salad with fruit, squid and a thick nutty sauce), the only thing I didn’t like in this (uncomplete) list of the delicious food I tasted while in Penang.
What I particularly love about Penang street art is that it’s boosting the locals to do more. Local business often finance it or want to create their own. The Lion dance and the Purple boy teaching Hokkien dialect (spoken in Penang island) are just beside a stall selling ice kepal. It is an ice ball covered with fruit syrup, who used to be popular here in the 70s. I had one with blackcurrant and loved it! It reminds vaguely an Italian granita. A coffee shop has its own love tank and even an old fashioned business seem to have been influenced by the mood.
As you probably noticed from the pics, several murals are deteriorated. Two famous ones by Zacharevich (Old man and Kid in a boat) are completely vanished. I was in Penang in january 2016, most of those murals are less than 4 years old. No surprise as any street art form is affected by weather. But when I was watching them during my visit in Penang I couldn’t help making some speculative thinking.
In Western societies we have a conception of art as meant forever. Museum are temples for preserving items hundreds or even thousands years old, that – ironically – often the artist made thinking they would hopefully last for years or decades. At the same time our society is uncomfortable about death and gives us the illusion we will live forever (medicine progress having given a big support on this belief). But obviously this is not real. I therefore learned a couple of life lessons from those vanishing murals:
– Street art with its fragility is recalling us that we are not eternal. A mural I love will soon vanish forever. I will do as well some day. Time is limited.
– Street art, which is there now and soon may be not, is urging to live now. Don’t wait for seeing in real street art. Don’t wait for following your passion, do it now.
In conclusion, I came back from Penang with two more reasons to love street art. I couldn’t ask for more.
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