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Raising the bar

Joe Sidek

The Edge Malaysia, May 2 - 8 2011

When it comes to things he is passionate about, Joe Sidek can really talk your ear off. He shoots off 143 words a minute, based on the transcript of my interview with him. Key words include George Town Festival, the people of Penang, ownership, pride, heritage and unity. This should give you a clear indication about Joe, George Town Festival director, is talking about the annual month-long celebration of George Town’s inscription on the Unesco World Heritage Site listing on July 7, 2008.

For those of you who missed the inaugural event last July and the ensuing media coverage, it was an amazing cultural festival that featured over 80 local and international programmes across 27 venues within the heritage zone of the Penang capital. There were street celebrations, opera performances, screenings of films, art installations in public spaces, food markets, and so on. It drew visitors from 43 countries who, with the locals, made up an audience of approximately 600,000 people for the duration of the festival.

It turned out to be a successful event considering that it was put together in six weeks on a budget of RM400, 000 – a laughable sum for an event of such a big scale. But thanks to sponsorships, partnerships and other channels of support, Joe and his team managed to pull it off.

Even then, Joe the entrepreneur, impresario and perfectionist feels that it could have been better.

“Looking back, I would say that I hated 60% of what came out. I don’t blame anyone except myself because we didn’t have the time, I didn’t have the knowledge,” observes Joe, 52. “I did enjoy the learning process and now that I have been given six months, I’ll have a better chance of doing so much better.”

As the teas is in the process of planning the festival’s second edition, Joe, as director is working hard to court sponsors and partners for the event to ensure that the show will go on as planned. Once again, he is working with a limited budget.

As he runs me through the proposal for the upcoming event, George Town Festival 2011 sounds like an undertaking more ambitious than the last. There are various components of art, talks, film opera, dance, music, theatre, fashion, food, photography and even going green, but always centred on George Town, the place the faces and the heritage.

It is obvious the festival director has been using the six months he has been given to optimal use. He has already managed to rope in personalities such as Loh Siew Tuan, noted opera performer and vocal arts teacher, and Yeohlee Teng, acclaimed award-winning fashion designer, who were both raised in Penang. Joe has also managed to confirm the involvement of the UK-based Akhram Khan Company, led by founder and celebrated choreographer Akhram Khan (noted for his work in the blend of classical Kathak and modern dance). Otehr artists include Singaporeans Kaylene Tan of Spell#7 theatre company and actress Tan Kheng Hua. These do not include the 80 plus proposals he has received from the artistic outfits from as far as South Africa, Australia and India.

   Armenian Street during George Town Festival 2010

An enriching experience

In July, we can look forward to an amazing feast for the mind, body and soul, beginning with a host of programmes dedicated to Peranakan cultures. Entitled “Peranakan Penang”, it comprises a food fair with participation from local chefs, restaurants and the Peranakan community. A photography exhibition of Peranakan women, a display of their history, lifestyle and portraits, will be held at the Peranakan Mansion. There will also be a staging of Bilek Roda Hidop/Bedrooms, a contemporary Peranakan play by Adrian Koh and Peranakan Association Singapore, and a gala dinner-cum-Peranakan jewellery and fashion showcase. The showcase will be a collaboration with leading jewellery houses in the region, including jeweller to the starts Mouawad, internationally acclaimed fashion designers Yeohlee Teng and Zang Toi, shoe couturier Jimmy Choo and international model Ling Tan.

Joe calls this “the big show” and says, “It’s a focus not just on Nyonya Peranakan but also Jawi Peranakan, which predates Nyonya Peranakan. I want to showcase the beauty of Jawi Peranakan, the food, the fashion, the history...”

Due to the success of last year’s Street Opera, this vocal art will again be celebrated, this time under the label Promusica. It is made up of a 10-day master class course for a select number of students from Malaysia and Thailand to study under vocal arts and repertoire masters Loh Siew Tuan, Ronny Lauwers and Hein Boterberg, and a gala concert featuring four rising stars in Europe.
“We’re not putting on a show for the foreigners, it’s for the locals. It also has to be educational,” says Joe. “It’s still very difficult for most Malaysian parents to accept their children studying the arts, creative writing or music. This is because they can’t envision the career path. They love you and they fear that if you go into these creative fields you would not be able to learn enough.

“This programme is set to inspire and I’m hoping we can raise enough money from the gala concert to start an endowment or scholarship fund for the most deserving student to continue his or her musical education.”

Another highlight for the festival is the Light Show 2011: Tossed & Found. This is an exhibition of contemporary functional art and light installations by 10 artists from Penang and KL made with recycled items. It is to be held at a disused warehouse on Victoria Street and will run for two weeks from July 23. A theatrical play entitled #7 by Singaporean director Kaylene Tan and actress Tan Kheng Hua, based on the seventh wife of Cheong Fatt Tze. There will also be a screening of films that were shot in Penang, including Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve, Beyond Rangoon starring Patricia Arquette, road to Paradise starring Glenn Close and Ang Lee’s Lust: Caution starring Joan Chen.

There will also be several photography exhibitions scattered around Goerge Town. There will be a street exhibition displaying photographs of Little India by Dr Ooi Cheng Ghee (a member of the Royal London Photographic Society) taken in the last 25 years. My Beautiful Women is a series of portraits of 12 beautiful Malaysian women, curated by Olivier Henry. Visitors will see the faces of Sharmini Thiruchelvam (who once modelled for Pablo Picasso and Pietro Annigoni) and actress Maria Menado, among the 12. Another interesting photography project is Blending of Blood by Unity Project, a collaboration between Joe and a Berlin-based Iranian artise comprising pictures of 1000 Penangnites of every race, colour, and creed, showcased in a circular space. Scent of an Island is also set to be a highlight, a marriage of photography by Ismail Hashim and poetry by Cecil Rajendra.

For a touch of spirituality, there is Rihlah: The Islamic Influence in George Town, an exhibition in the Islamic Museum at the Syed Al-Attas Mansion by the Malay Chamber of Commerce, Khazanah Nasional and the George Town Festival team, which will include Qawali Music showcase in the venue’s park.

The environment gets a share of the attention as well with the Festival Goes Green component. Three vertical gardens will be installed within George Town’s inner city are as part of the Greening of George Town Project and there will also be an outdoor dance event entitled 12 Monkeys & More, which sees Ghaffar Purazar (director of Beijing Opera), Zubin Mohamad (one of Malaysia’s leading dancers) and Jitti Chompee (Thai choreographer and director) come together and blend their dances. The story is based on the journeys of Hanuman, also known in various cultures as the Monkey King or Monkey God. Help at the Penang Botanical Gardens, the ideal backdrop for a subject like this, it will be an amazing collaboration between these dance gurus.

These are just a few examples of a very long list of programmes that Joe has in mind for the festival. As previously mentioned, it is indeed a very ambitious endeavour and the team is in need of every assistance.

“I’ve never had to beg. My mother used to tell me, ‘You come from a long line of nobility, Datuk Syahbandar, you never beg’. But because of this festival and our limited funds, I’ve had to beg,” reveals Joe. “We’re the new on the block, nobody knows us...hopefully, by next year, companies will approach us and say, hey, this is a really interesting project to get involved in.”

It is not just money that the team needs, says Joe. “I need corporation to indulge us, not just in Penang but everywhere. Help the non-mainstream arts because they are struggling. The government will help the mainstream arts. We should follow the examples of institutions around the world which give to the arts without asking for much in return. But it’s business at the end of the day and you need return on investment. The collateral we can offer is you will be mentioned in Time magazine, you’ll be on billboards, you’ll be on buses in Singapore...I am turning this into a business so that there are returns,” he says. “To the people of Penang especially, this is your festival. It doesn’t belong to (Penang Chief Minister Lim) Guan Eng, it doesn’t belong to the local or federal government, and it doesn’t belong to me. Come and tell me what you want to do, come and share, come and help us – give us a wall, give us your rooms, give us your family portraits , give us your ideas.

There’s no political agenda here. It’s celebrating the richness of our home, our family, our space, our history which is George Town.”

George Town Festival 2010 performers

A creative passion

“I have two companies, Chemdyes Sdn Bhd and I Hygiene Solutions Sdn Bhd. If I didn’t own these two companies or sit on the boards, I’d probably have got sacked by now,” quips Joe, when asked about just how much of his time is taken up planning for the festival.

Chemdyes is a licensed BASF textile chemical manufacturer and distributor while I Hygiene Solutions is a subsidiary and specialised vehicle of Chemdyes’ that develops and markets products for the special needs of healthcare, in particular infection control products.

The world of chemicals and manufacturing seems pretty far off from the creative world we’ve just heard Joe speak about, but he explains that they are businesses he inherited when his father passed away nine years ago.

The warm and affable Joe has always had a strong creative nature, something his father who was director of customs before starting up his own business, didn’t know what to do with.

“I was sent to study in England where I read town and country planning because my dad thought I was a serious young man. I hated it,” confesses Joe. He lists the string of businesses he had started in his working life and how he left or ended each one once he got bored or felt there was nothing further he could learn from the experience. There was landscaping, a modelling agency, a club called Babylon Boom Boom, a restaurant called Beach Blanket Babylon, a talent management company and so on.

Joe puts them down to being part of the journey he’s had to take to grow up. “I have done a lot of things. I have been there, done that, and i don’t want to do them anymore. There no more challenge, you know?”

So when his father passed away, the good son took over his businesses and discovered quickly that he quite enjoyed the work.

“In the end, I really am my father’s son. He gave me a good head and a good heart,”says Joe. “But at the end of the day, people are your best assets. Nurture your people and you’ll get 120%. Respect your staff, and you’ll get 120%.  In that respect, I’ve been very, very lucky that all my life I’ve had good people working for me. My father did it. I have it now.

“My father did the right thing. We used to argue because I wanted to go art college. I understood that he loved me and he thought I would never make a living out of the arts. It has taken me 30 years to get back into the arts. He did the right thing, and I’m enjoying my life right now.”

It is evident that running Chemdyes and I Hygiene has honed the business acumen that Joe is now applying to the planning of the George Town festival. Putting on both his creative and business hats simultaneously allows him to shape the festival as a viable component of any business strategy. He even documented the spill over effects of last year’s festival as evidence that a little effort towards the event can enhance brandings or earnings.

“Last year, I think I was the only one who wasn’t paid,” he laughs. “Everyone who worked on George Town Festival, from hotels and restaurants right down to the interns, trishaw peddlers, painters, washerwomen, set designers...they all benefited. So that’s a very interesting view of the business side of the festival. I’m a businessman. I sell industrial chemicals. I’m fortunate that I have the ability to marry art and culture with business because I’ve realised that you cannot keep begging or asking, you can’t depend on what you can get.

“If the government took away funding for arts and culture in Malaysia, where would they be now? If the funding for Istana Budaya was taken away, where would it be? It’s a very unnatural way for arts and culture to go on if it’s always funded. So with George Town Festival, I’m trying to show that a balance can be struck, the way opera houses overseas are being funded but have also learnt to make money through merchandising. This year, the team will focus on creating merchandising for George Town Festival.

“If you go to the New York Metropolitan Museum or Museum of Modern Art or any of the big museums around the world, it is their gift shops that make money for the museum. That’s why I’m hoping to make money through creative merchandising, which means I can employ young creative people to start working on it.”

After pondering for a second, he adds, “Like I told the chief minister, if I were to put a price tag on working on this project for six months, it would probably have been in the region of RM500,000...when I used to organise shows, Rm500 an hour was my conceptualizing fee.”

It was the Penang chief minister who solicited Joe’s talents. Over the years, although working full time with his businesses, Joe has proved to the George Town business community that he is the go-to guy when it comes to staging shows. When the Unesco World Heritage site was declared, he was sought out to organize a celebratory showcase. In eight days, he had designed a musical tribute to Penang which included a performance by Malaysian soprano Syafinaz Selamat, a 40 piece choir, a few bands and so on. He was also recruited for all the ensuing showcases, until last year when it was decided that the celebration was to be made bigger than a one-day event.

“The tender was open and three organizations pitched for the festival. They all had different ideas but nobody wanted to drive them until Puan Maimunah (Mohd Sharif, George Town World Heritage Inc general manager) said to me, “Why don’t you just do it? Do you have any ideas?’ I told them I had some ideas for a series of events and the CM said ‘Okay, you have six weeks, we really don’t have the money but we’ll give you this’,” Joe recalls. “I love the CM. He’s one of the few politicians and I’ve worked with that I like. I’m not sure if I’m a DAP man or if I’m for or against the local or federal government but I like the man. There’s integrity there. That man stood by me and said, ‘Look, if you really need a bit more money, come and see me’, and I believed him.

“I ask myself to look around us. Where are we? Are we positioned in the world? Where is our KL International festival? My benchmark is that I want to beat the Singapore Sun Festival. They import their content, they have no soul. They have money. We don’t have money but I’ll tell you where we can get content. I hope this year we are able to match the Sun Festival. It’s a tall order. It’s almost an arrogant goal to even mention but I think we’ll get there.”

Joe is serious when he says that he’s aiming for sustainability. And it is admirable that he puts his whole heart and soul into the project although there is not monetary incentive there for him. How many of us would give up six months of our lives to build a cultural legacy for future generations? Joe may have been born in Johor but Penang is his home, and George Town is his passion.

‘We were cultured and cosmopolitan since the 1700s, way ahead of KL or Singapore, and we’re in the process of reclaiming that status,” he says, beaming with pride.

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