Almost unanimously, the most frequent question posed by most of our Facebook friends and blog readers is “How’s the weather in Malaysia?” Always responding “Hot and Humid”, the next thing they want to know is “How do you get used to the heat?”. Generally speaking, you don’t. Those born and raised in Canada or other cold weather climates never really feel comfortable walking around with piles of sweat beads dripping down their faces. Frequently turning down my offer of afternoon walks around our town, Diane often chooses the afternoon balcony breeze while I endure the blazing heat. Remembering my childhood summer days in Brooklyn, an August afternoon stroll around Batu Ferrenghi often beckons memories of the “Triple H Days” (hazy, hot and humid). Unfortunately, I’m the antsy type and unless I’m sick, there’s nothing worse to me than sitting in the condo from the minute I wake up until the moment I go to sleep.
Thankfully, Malaysia gets a handful of days in any given year that defy the norm. Occasionally blessed with a crystal clear blue sky accompanied by lower humidity (by tropical standards), the other day we enjoyed startlingly low 58% humidity and a sky similar to the most beautiful western Canadian summer days. Granted the temperature still hovered near 90 and the “real feel” was higher but when you’re used to sweating every day, any small reprieve is always appreciated. Usually empty even on weekends, the beautiful skies brought out throngs of sunbathers to our condo pool and I even opted to lay in the sun. Coincidentally, the day coincided with the opening of the annual month-long Georgetown Festival and after basking in the sunshine like normal westerners on a glorious mid summer day, we headed off to the festival’s first event, The Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow. Making its second appearance in Penang, the 2015 version was surprisingly funny and they held it at the beautiful Performing Arts Center of Penang so we anticipated an entertaining and fun-filled evening.
Unfortunately, the festival planners as well as the roadshow producers hastily rushed to get this year’s chapter into a shiny new renovated but much smaller theater in the heart of Georgetown and failed miserably with both planning and talent. Opting to promote the comedy show as the premier event for the festival’s first full weekend, the promoters failed to release the name of a local venue until a few weeks before the show. Leaving a void at the end of roadshow’s schedule, Penang’s link on their website remained “TBA” for weeks and despite signing up for email announcements about the comedy festival, nothing I received later bothered to tell anyone the venue once they finally figured it out. Choosing a building in the heart of the “not-so-big-city“, organizers raced to clean up The Majestic, a venue that’s been abandoned for over 20 years. Shiny and new from the outside, some genius decided to use “open seating” and not assigned seats which forced patrons to arrive early and stand outside in the heat (the humidity began amping up again by the time the show started).
Arriving with a group of friends, we all crammed into a minivan because unlike last year’s modern venue with its car park, (garage in British-speak), there’s no hope of parking in Georgetown on a weekend night. Approaching the venue we found lots of festival volunteers outside but they weren’t letting anyone inside even though show time was about 20 minutes away. Looking confused, ticket holders piled together in the doorway anticipating competition for seats. After 15 minutes of waiting, an older woman who appeared to be in charge told everyone to move out of the doorway and when asked where the line is, she replied with the answer that typifies Penang’s total lack of organization when it comes to almost any type of event. Telling everyone “There is no line” she explained they need the doorway clear but not because of the potential fire hazard (a nonexistent term in Southeast Asia). Apparently the show wasn’t even close to sold out, mostly since they didn’t promote it properly and they needed the doors clear “to allow potential latecomers” a chance to buy tickets.
After a few minutes they finally decided to let everyone into the theater and having formed two half-ass lines on each side of the entrance, we ventured inside and couldn’t believe the food court style plastic seats draped with white covers like the type you’d see at an outdoor wedding. Squeezing into the uncomfortable seats, Diane and I opted for the third row while our friends chose seats separated by an open aisle. Gazing at the unfinished spaces, I walked past construction crews near the back and entered the bathroom. Probably the highlight of the night, the bathrooms were shiny and spotless (extremely rare for Malaysia) and even had soap, paper towels and toilet tissue. Wanting to savor the amenities, I consider bathrooms like this in Penang almost as good as enjoying a posh hotel room at a five-star hotel and I washed my hands repeatedly while savoring the clean smelling urinals. As the show was about to start we looked around and saw dozens of empty seats. An auspiciously horrible start to their annual festival. we at least anticipated laughing for an hour or two.
Last year’s comedy roadshow’s participants clearly did their homework. Being an Australian event, we worried the jokes and the accents would sound as foreign as the Hokkien Chinese dialect spoken in Penang (Diane speaks Cantonese). Churning out a hilarious mixture of both Australian and Malaysian cultural one liners and spoofs, last year’s comedians kept it just raunchy enough not to be censored but understood the audience well and even kept a large group of giggly school girls from a conservative Malaysian city laughing all night. But this year’s line up proved as disappointing as the unorganized promotion of the event. Billed as the world’s third largest comedy festival behind Montreal’s Just For Laughs and The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the comedians they sent this year seemed like ones you’d see at an amateur mike night at the local pub.
Emceed by Sharull Channa, a Singaporean Indian woman, she spoke fast and made way too many references to Singapore which might resonate well with a more sophisticated Kuala Lumpur crowd but didn’t draw too much fanfare from the mostly young Hokkien Chinese audience. (Expats didn’t really find it funny either). First up was Sam Taunton. Sounding unrehearsed, he made a few one liners and way too many references to Penang’s local food without really sounding like he understand the locals. Up next was Malaysian born Asian comic Phil Wang. Given the large number of Brits in Penang, this should’ve been to his advantage but mostly he talked gibberish about his hot British girlfriend and none of it made anybody laugh. Whizzing by quickly, they announced a 15 minute intermission and believe or not several patrons left the show already. Not a promising start.
Continuing the mediocrity, the evening’s best act was Bob Franklin, a writer, director and actor. Sadly, the best humor involved a low talking sarcastic set of jabs mocking how he was so delighted…to be in Georgetown…on a Sunday night. You get the point and the rest of his act was mostly dry one liners that didn’t remotely attempt to acknowledge the local audience. It wasn’t funny and lacked interaction. Unsure if the last act was actually a “headliner“, the evening finished with a strange act from newcomer Ivan Ariastiguieta. Having emigrated to Australia from Venezuela, nobody except Diane and I understood anything he was saying because Southeast Asians know more about rocket science than Latino culture. Throwing in one reference to Donald Trump and a thousand references to Penang being “juicy” (hot as hell), his act was more of a thank-you fest for getting the hell out of South America. Ending his act with a strange hip hop rendition of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, American hard rock 80’s bands mixed with salsa music made as much sense to Penangites as the Republicans nominating a lunatic for president. Recommending you skip this last stop of the tour if you find yourself in Penang next summer, the producers and comedians should’ve spent less time wandering the streets and done some research about their audience. Two stars out of five.
As for the rest of the Georgetown Festival, don’t expect anything close to a world-class festival, especially if you grew up in the cultural capital of the nation like I did (New York City) or the place billed as Canada’s Festival City liker Diane (Edmonton, Alberta). Last year my friend Jamie visited during the festival so we all attended a dance performance from Spain. Billed as a combination tango and hip hop, they listed it as the premier show of the entire festival but we all found it blase with average choreography and semi professional dancing at best. This year’s marquee shows don’t look better and after living in Penang for 13 months, we’ve determined that it’s a convenient and comfortable place to live but that the festivals, cultural events and performing arts are just OK. Which is just fine by us because we’d rather spend our limited cash traveling.
Having already visited Thailand twice as well as Myanmar and Australia since arriving, we’re heading to Cambodia this fall and then making a one month return to Canada for the holiday season so we’d rather enjoy the pool, play with the monkeys and cook inexpensive dinners using fresh and healthy ingredients. With another Thai referendum around the corner, the US and Canadian Embassies issued yet another travel alert urging tourists and expats to exercise vigilance and avoid public demonstrations. While Thai coups are nothing close to more volatile hot spots like Turkey, the military government’s quest for more control continues to give Malaysia a decided advantage when it comes to political stability. Given how Thailand’s visa rules constantly change, we wouldn’t relinquish our MM2H visa even if we make a move to Chaing Mai next summer. But I think we’ll skip most of the 2016 Georgetown Heritage Festival.
Cheers from a very dry and hot Pilau Pinang.