What is a Creative City, though? What separates a drab concrete jungle from a kaleidoscope of streets sprawling with originality? Is it a maze of world class museums, whose corridors span with the works of the greatest artists throughout history? Or is it, above all, the ability to market those unique selling points of a city, into strategic economic advantages which encourage the growth of a rich creative economy?
According to the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, it seems that socio-economic developments are the defining factor when determining what makes a city creative one. Created to “promote cooperation with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development”, UCCN has awarded 116 cities such a title, for successfully developing their creative and cultural industries both locally and internationally.
Georgetown Penang is just one of the cities across the world hoping to gain this accreditation; the city’s inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, marked the beginning of its transformation into a creative and cultural hub.
Yet according to UNESCO formal criteria, Georgetown doesn’t make the cut. And I wonder, if this is entirely fair. For when I really thought about it, retracing boundless steps through the cities I have visited across the world, it was not Barcelona or Rome, nor the city lights of Singapore, or Sydney nor Dublin – all of which have gained acknowledgement for their dedication to creativity, which sprung to mind. It’s Georgetown, in the little north-eastern corner of mainland Malaysia that defines a Creative City for me.
Colourful Chinese shop houses blend with Western sky-scrapers and old colonial architecture, wherein a jumble of old-world Asian influences collide with an increasingly cosmopolitan urban centre. A truly unique cultural vibrancy has been made possible through the influx of migrants from China, India and Indonesia in the 19th century, allowing for a diverse local identity.
The winding roads of Little India, littered with trishaws and roadside restaurants, brims with gusts of Indian spices and fragrant incense. Turn a corner, and the towering Mosques and Sari shops give way to Chinese temples and red paper lanterns, which line the chaotic cobbled streets of Chinatown. Hidden within this eclectic mix of cultures, is an organic artistic scene which sets Georgetown apart as a diverse and unique centre for arts and culture.
In terms of economic opportunities, maybe Penang has work to do if it’s to successfully shape the rich identity of its capital city in line with the economic objectives of the global market. But I can’t help thinking that such financially charged initiatives may diminish the rawness of the place I fell in love with, wherein cosmopolitan western influences will inevitably seep through the narrow lanes, overshadowing the street murals and the wrought iron structures which scatter the walls and tell the stories of the city’s past with sleeker, more polished forms of art.
The summer months are defined by the infamous Georgetown Festival, which veils the city in a month-long celebration of world-class arts performances and local community initiatives. My time here brimmed with endless street parties and performances, sitting amongst locals in roadside plastic chairs as the sun went down, and queueing at the infamous hawker carts for the most authentic cuisines.
We wandered through rusty doorways to find art exhibitions in unlikely spaces. Canvas sheets hung from the ceiling, inked with poetry encapsulating the raw emotion of the human heart in Malaysian, Chinese and English; the intricacies of Penang’s cultural identity tied together in a string of sprawling words. As I crept through this shadowy abandoned building, running fingers through foreign symbols, I smiled at the poignancy of those poems which defined the vulnerabilities of human condition, no matter the language, or the culture.
Georgetown made me feel, it made me question; it made me curious and inspired. For all these reasons and so many more, Georgetown is a Creative City, irrespective of the accreditation it is yet to achieve.