Penang: UNESCO’s next creative city?

UNESCO founded the United Creative Cities Network in 2004, in the hope of promoting, “cooperation with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development.” 116 cities currently make up the network, although only four cities from South East Asia are represented within the UCCN. Penang, Malaysia with its religious diversity and multi cultural heritage is a creative hub that explores its diversity through a magnitude of festivals, street art and trade which still uses the traditional Straits of Malacca.


Penang’s history is reflected in the city today, with colonial architecture and capital still being named Georgetown, after the British invader’s ruler, King George III. While Penang, like many other Malaysian cities is an assortment of different religions; Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, which all coexist to form the miscellaneous state that is Penang. The array of religions in the region means Penang is always celebrating something in the social calendar, giving the city a cultural and vibrant scene.



In July 2008 the city was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Walking down the streets of Georgetown, the city’s history is reflected on every corner, with Little India and Chinatown, acting as an expression of the various invasions from settlers that led to the formation of the Penang we know today. Although aesthetically colonial Penang does not exist in the past. Penang is known as the Silicon Valley of the East for its industries that are based on 46% manufacturing and 48.2% services. Penang’s history with European colonisers is reflected in Penang vs Malaysia’s economic growth. When global growths are strong Penang outperforms Malaysia in economic growth, however when financial crisis hit the global economy Penang’s economy dropped by 10.5%, while Malaysia as a whole only suffered 1.5% loss.


Penang offers a variety of yearly festivals such as, the Penang Food Festival, Songkran Water Festival (a traditional Thai festival to wash away bad luck by splashing water at each other) and the Vaisakhi Festival (Sikh New Year). Though the most prominent in Penang’s annual calendar is the Georgetown Festival which sees a month long celebration of arts in Penang. The festival explores art and design, film and photography, music and comedy and theatre/ dance, among other things. The festival runs a side project which aims at getting young people involved in the creative industries, in the hope that Youth Ambassadors will promote an appreciation of the arts among their peers; “GTF 2017 proudly introduces the Youth Ambassadors Programme (YA!) to encourage young people (13-25 years old) to participate actively in arts events and activities.” Georgetown Festival events can be followed using the hashtag #GTF2017, highlighting Penang’s movement into greater creative and innovate spaces.

Street Art

Following the annual Georgetown Festival in 2012, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, decorated certain walls of the capital with depictions of Georgetown life. Many of which involve real-life objects, such as bicycles or swings, so that spectators could engage with the art. This street art has given the city a new creative reputation, which sees thousands flocking to the city to locate the art on street map tours.

Next Creative City?

Penang’s connections with the West, along with its cultural diversity and passion for art make it an ideal location to enhance the creative industries in South East Asia. SEA is currently under represented in the UCCN, and with so much cultural opportunities to be discovered, Penang could be the starting point for wider creative exploration in the East.


Photo Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4.