10 things about: Joe Sidek, father of George Town Festival

Joe Sidek is excited at the prospects of making Malaysia the centre of South-East Asia and is working hard in that direction. — Picture by K.E.Ooi
Joe Sidek is excited at the prospects of making Malaysia the centre of South-East Asia and is working hard in that direction. — Picture by K.E.Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, June 15 — Joe Sidek, 55, is known as the man behind the highly successful annual George Town Festival (GTF). The festival started out as a celebration of George Town’s heritage status, but has since evolved into an international showcase of arts and culture.

This year, GTF takes place throughout the month of August and as usual will feature both international and local acts, exhibitions, workshops, etc. Many of these events are actually free.

Here, Joe shares his passion for his hometown, George Town, his “secret” and of course, his brainchild, GTF.

In his own words:

I’m very much in love with George Town… the spaces, the realness, the eccentricities of the people of Penang, the new energy, the communities, how the local people take ownership of their spaces and how real Penang people are in every sense of the word;  arrogant, rude, confident. They are proud of who they are.

I’m very grateful. Managing GTF is the most difficult but enjoyable journey of my life, I’ve never found so much happiness in discovering new things, working on new things, meeting new people, getting staff that’s brilliant… I’ve been very lucky with people. I’m very excited about the future because this year I’m able to find a direction, to connect South-East Asia and to make Malaysia the centre of South-East Asia. The ideas of projects that keep coming are very exciting for 2015 and I can start working for the GTF 2015 now.

I love my mother. My father and my mother are the ones who have shaped me into who I am. I am grateful for what they’ve done for me, they’ve given me their head and their heart, they have given me the confidence of who I am today.

My passion is people, really, really people. I love the creative side, I can’t deny that. The whole last five years, I discovered the nicest thing GTF has given me, it’s connecting with people.

I love the walls of Penang. If you look at every wall, every wall is so interesting, like an artwork. That’s how we got started with the Ernest Zacharevic wall murals. It’s continuing because I like looking at the exciting canvases that George Town offers, whether in the form of a wall, an old door, a window or corridors.

Maybe a lot of people don’t know this. Joe Sidek is very shy. It’s true, people don’t realise this. There’s always a duality in personalities, there’s a side of me that plays the role of GTF character and because I play the role, I have to adapt to it. Sometimes…I don’t like public speaking for one, but I do it because I need to, it’s a job. It’s not something I really enjoy or am good at.

I think this love for culture and the arts is inside all of us. For me, I certainly think it comes from my father and his love for the arts. We are surrounded by it. If you open your eyes, you see everything that is culture, we have an abundance of culture, we have traditions that are rich in culutre. A lot of people think that culture comes from Western performances or shows but in Penang if you look around, our rituals and traditions, food, creativity, artwork… it’s full of culture, it’s fascinating.

I sometimes worry about the future of George Town. If you don’t control and rein in this really fast growing energy, we may disturb the balance of George Town. It is a sensitive fragile place, it is small, delicate, it belongs to the people. If you start rail-roading it into a commercial product, you will lose its soul and you certainly don’t want to go in that direction.

Sometimes I question whether I should continue doing GTF, I question why should I be doing it, why not give someone else a chance, but my job is not done. The more I do it, the more I find very interesting new subjects to do, about George Town, about the people, about the places, about the history.

The only setback in the last five years is funding. I don’t know what to do anymore. It’s something I fail at miserably, I don’t know why I fail or how I fail. You see people do it easily, you see telecommunications companies spend RM600,000 and RM800,000 on Chinese New Year shows, on New Year’s Eve shows but there is no return on investment. I don’t understand why they don’t want to support GTF when they can reach out to so many people. I don’t know... I think it’s me, maybe it is something I’m not doing right.