Joe Sidek

George Town Festival Director

Text by Jeremy Tan

CONCEIVED as a celebration of a city and its UNESCO World Heritage listing, the George Town Festival has since gone on to garner acclaim and repute across the region. And the man behind it all, believes it can only get better.

Festival director Joe Sidek hopes the annual month-long extravaganza will make its mark on the international scene in the coming years, and be on par with the many renowned arts and culture events hosted by various cities across the world.

He never envisaged such a rapid, upward trajectory when he first took on the post in 2010 when the Penang state government wanted to start a festival, and had an open call. Several groups came forward with proposals, but due to the short lead time there were ultimately no takers.

Enter the 56-year-old, who was roped in by George Town World Heritage Incorporated’s (GTWHI) then general manager Dato’ Maimunah Mohd. Sharif. Having been involved in the creative arena throughout his life – with spells in landscape gardening, running a modelling agency and owning a restaurant and revue club – he was the perfect candidate.

“My initial reaction was of fear and excitement, but it was a challenge that I am very glad I undertook. It turned out to be the most difficult, but enjoyable journey of my life.”

“Starting the Festival, I did a little homework about other existing arts and culture events in Malaysia, like in Kuala Lumpur, Johor and Malacca, and set about creating our own unique identity that highlighted all that was special about Penang,” he recalled.

Despite being born in Johor Bahru, the son of a former Northern Region Director of Customs has the Pearl of the Orient very much flowing through his veins, having spent most of his life on the island.

He was educated in Francis Light Primary School and then Penang Free School, before jetting off to London for his A-Levels, and subsequently the University of Manchester to study Town and Country Planning.

“My fondest memories of growing up was associated with my late father, whose career took him, me and my six siblings, travelling to all parts of Malaysia. We were constantly exposed to different cultures and traditions,” he noted.

But naturally, George Town inspires him the most. The sights, the sounds, the communities and their energy constantly fascinate him and spark ideas of how to use, promote, enjoy, showcase and be proud of what the city has to offer.

“It’s a journey that involves being creative, and sharing it with many different people – from my staff to participants and audiences at the festival, in particular school children who are an integral part of our programme as we want to make the arts accessible to anyone and everyone.”

“For the first three years, my focus was to brand the festival, so I set about curating its content with that in mind. After that, I felt comfortable to look into an ASEAN direction and roadmap, and strategise accordingly.

“In the coming years, I feel the festival should build further upon its local flavour, to sell to the international market. That would be my goalpost if I am retained as festival director,” adds Sidek, whose contract to run the festival expires after the 2015 edition.

Through the years, funding was and still is, the biggest challenge. He hopes more individuals and corporations would come forward and support the festival, as it a great platform to reach out to the masses.

Nonetheless, it has been an extremely meaningful journey that still continues to inspire him, and open up many cross-border opportunities. Since the festival started, he has been invited to cities like Yokohama, Seoul, Taipei, Edinburgh, Brisbane, Cebu, Chiang Mai and Yangon, some multiple times, to share his experiences and engage with like-minded parties.

“I never imagined that it would be that well-received,” quipped Sidek, who unbeknownst to many, is also an industrialist, having run a factory that has been producing and marketing textile chemicals since 2001.

In the midst of all the attention and accolades, he also sounds a note of caution about what’s happening with the city, and what the future holds. There has to be long-term planning and strategising, otherwise it risks being rail-roaded into a commercial product bereft of soul and character.

“George Town is a beautiful and delicate city, that belongs to the people. We need to continue looking after it.”

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