The Man Behind The George Town Festival

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George Town may be dripping with history, but it was only in recent years that UNESCO awarded its official stamp to the city and made the world aware of what Penangites have long known; “GT” is a special place. To help mark the anniversary of the date – 7 July 2008 – that George Town received its World Heritage Site status, a citywide festival was conceived and started two years ago to give the city a chance to showcase its artistic talent while hosting international performers in a celebration of culture. The George Town Festival continues to grow every year, and, thanks to being spearheaded by the endlessly energetic Joe Sidek, has once again secured a whole range of local and international artists with a passion to assist in marking this special anniversary.

From the moment he was invited to lead the inaugural festival, Joe has had to think on his feet and work within the constraints of a being a young festival on a tropical island. “We don’t have the money or the spaces,” he says, “but we do have history, we have walls, buildings, and people. And everyone I’ve met has just been so amazing. I cannot believe how helpful people have been.”

In his quest for locating big names for the festival programme, Joe has been fearless in contacting artists from all over the world, and his pluck has paid off. One of the biggest names performing at the festival is Roysten Abel and his piece The Manganiya Seduction from India. The performance is currently on a world tour, having performed at such prestigious venues as the Lincoln Centre in New York and the Melbourne Arts Festival.

“Oh that was just amazing,” he says with his large smile getting even wider. “I just sent a message on Facebook to the man in charge and suggested they may like to come to our little island and they got in touch straight away!”

Listening to Joe talk so enthusiastically and knowledgably about the theatre scene, both local and international, it would be easy to assume that he has been in the profession his whole life. “I run a factory actually. That’s my day job. I make textiles chemicals.” He laughs delightedly at my surprise. “I wanted to go to art college when I was 18, but I was afraid of my father. He wanted his young son to do something serious, so I studied Town Planning.” Joe may have set aside his dreams of pursuing art professionally for the sake of his formidable father, but the passion has never left him, and he has been involved in creative industries in whatever way possible during his life.

“I’ve had a modelling agency, I’ve curated exhibitions, I’ve made costumes for opera,” he lists. “If you love something and you want to do it, it has a way of coming back to you,” he explains with a cheery smile. “I don’t regret giving in to my father; I did what I had to do.”

His positive, upbeat attitude gives him the aura and energy of a younger man, but at 53, he is already philosophical about life, and admits that this joie de vivre was not characteristic of the youngster he once was. One of seven children, Joe junior was decidedly uncomfortable in his own skin, to the point of destroying all the photographs the family had of him. “I thought I was ugly,” he says, “so I threw them all away.” It was only during his time in San Francisco, after his studies in the UK, that he finally found his inner peace.

“I went to America to landscape a garden,” he says – yet another string to his bow – “and I decided to stay on in San Francisco for a few months because the theatre was just so good. This was 1986, the city was buzzing and I just felt I could fly! I think I experienced what the meaning of life was: be a good person, do good things, and good comes back to you.”

It is a mantra that continues to inspire him, and one that he credits with the sweep of good fortune that has brought him to the one of the happiest times of his life, despite the large amount of stress that organising a major festival inevitably brings.


“Yes, it’s worrying because of the deadlines and the money. I wake up in the middle of the night worried but, on a daily basis, how can I not be happy? I am being fed the food of the soul!”

The George Town festival satisfies Joe on such a deep level because it combines his passion for culture and theatre with his deep-seated devotion to his homeland. Although he wasn’t born on the island, Joe moved to Penang at the age of eight and has had an unswerving adoration of it ever since.

“Anyone who comes to Penang feels like they belong to Penang. You arrive and feel like you’re coming home. I love everything about it,” he says.

In his lifetime, he has seen the island begin to change, and while the George Town Festival ultimately aims to attract the world’s attention to this top tourism site, Joe also hopes that Penang will manage to retain the charm and simplicity that makes it so beloved.

“It will change – you can’t stop change – but you just hope that the people take ownership and won’t change it too much.” His optimism allows him to place his faith in the people who surround him. “I think the people of Penang will keep it real. George Town belongs to the people.”

George Town is a city that can be proud to have a keeper as committed and passionate as Joe Sidek. The next two months will see the heritage city transformed into the cultural and theatrical paradise he has envisaged, and he invites everyone to join in the fun. “Come and see George Town,” he says, beaming. “Come and see the George Town moving picture show!”

The George Town Festival runs from 15 June-15 July. More details can be found at www.gtfest.com.

This article was written by Sarah Rees for Senses of Malaysia.
Source: Senses of Malaysia July-Augt 2012
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