Closures and new beginnings: how Penang's creative industries weather through varying stages of lockdown.

Closures and new beginnings: how Penang's creative industries weather through varying stages of lockdown.

In an industry where human interaction is essential, here are some of the ways Penang’s creative industry has changed, and how the professionals are dealing with it.

By Eeyan Chuah

As with anything these days, COVID-19 is still the number one conversation opener. This article is no different, I am afraid. The pandemic has shed light on our economic and social systems and we are realising the economic implications of relying on minimum wage “essential” jobs. But what about people working in the creative industry? This is an industry where human interaction is essential, and for some specialities, collaboration is the foundation of it all. Here are some of the ways Penang’s creative industry has changed, and how the professionals are dealing with it.

Customer is King

If you are shopping for a craft lover and design enthusiast in Penang, two shops would be the first on anyone’s recommendation list: Chai Diam Ma, operated by local artist Queen Lee at Hin Bus Depot and Shop Howard by local designer and photographer Howard Tan on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling or its branch, Studio Howard on Lebuh Armenian. These are shops that specialise in local design items from bags and clothing to postcards and stationeries. Lee announced in April 2020 that she would be shutting Chai Diam Ma for good while a short few months later Tan followed, announcing that he is closing the shop on Lebuh Armenian.

It was simply a conclusion that had to be made.

Chai Diam Ma at Hin Bus Depot.
Photo by Yew K.H

“90% of my customers are foreigners,” Lee says. “I wouldn’t say that my items are catered especially to tourists. I mean, George Town has a huge crowd of local tourists but they are not buying from my shop. They would rather buy a cheap image of the bicycle mural on a fridge magnet. I would say this shows the level of art and craft appreciation in Malaysia is fairly low and without foreign customers, my shop just can’t survive.”

The interior of the remaining branch of Shop Howard on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.
Photo by Howard Tan.

“We are facing a lot of uncertainties with the unpredictability of the enforced lockdowns,” Tan says. “We don’t really have enough business in our shops with the international borders still remaining closed. I can only afford to keep one shop going for now.”

Two streets down from Shop Howard, was Sinkeh, an architecture and interior design marvel. I said “was” because it too has closed its doors due to the lack of tourists in George Town. However, the shutdown has another meaning for Sinkeh’s owner, Chee Sek Thim, who is a theatre director and a stage performer. Sinkeh was a joint business operation whereby the guesthouse generated the income to sustain the theatre/studio space running within it.

Most of the staff in Sinkeh were theatre practitioners, working to earn money while practising their craft. For Chee as well, it was not a choice to shut down. Circumstances in the tourist and theatre performance industries forced his hand.

A rehearsal session for Pearls for the Picking in 2015. From left to right: Lim Sheh Torng, Ho Sheau Fung, Hilyati Ramli, Chee Sek Thim.
Photo by Paul Gadd.

The Digital Experience

Art reflects time. In a time where the need for connection and communication is amplified whilst maintaining physical distance, massive digitalisation coupled with emerging technologies have created new forms of cultural experience. With the lockdown, many public and private providers moved content on-line for free to keep audiences engaged. “Show Penang”, a state government-initiated funding to support local artists amidst the pandemic, is one such platform.

The Penang State Government set up Show Penang for local artists to showcase, display, publish, and/or air their works using an online method. A budget of RM200,000 was allocated to enable successful applicants to showcase their work via zoom to a “virtual” live audience.

Press image for Plastic City’s shadow play ‘Di Luar Bayangan’.
Image taken from Show Penang’s Facebook page.

“Such funding is a commendable way to help artists, especially those in theatre and performing practices, during the lockdown,” commented Tan Lay Heong, a Penang-based visual and performance artist whose theatre troupe, Plastic City, received funds.

Unexpected Gains

When the first MCO was implemented roughly a month after Chinese New Year, local event photographer Beh Lay Huang from Yellow Duck Studio simply thought this would be a good opportunity for her stay in the studio to catch up on all her accumulated editorial work.

Through the quiet months when weddings and celebrations were cancelled, Beh kept in touch with her customers and learned that during a pandemic, there is something that people yearn for more than ever—to preserve happy memories with their families and loved ones. Slowly, requests started coming in: newborn baby photos, maternity portraits, children’s graduation photos (remembering that all graduation ceremonies were cancelled).

Beh Lay Huang at work during the year-end holidays 2020.
Image taken by Chin Pei Holl

As the year progressed, Beh discovered yet another influx of new business. As people adapted to the new normal, more and more trades moved to operate online and professional shots of their products were required to stage their online businesses. Her profession may have been affected in the beginning, but now Beh says that she has never been busier and grateful for her profession, and that of her husband, a self-employed graphic designer. His job has not been much affected as well and together they are coping very well while caring for their 3-year-old daughter at home.

Silver linings

When in the dark, it is instinctive of human nature to keep looking for the silver lining. Even after shutting her business, Lee lost no time brooding. In fact, she found more time to reconnect with her artistic roots and has spent most of the time during quarantine creating artwork. Her solo exhibition aptly titled “Looking for Meaningful Connections” is booked at Hin Bus Depot (whose Sunday Pop Up Markets have been like a ray of sunshine throughout a bleak 2020) for June 2021.

Behind the closed doors of Sinkeh, Chee too has been keeping busy while biding his time. For someone who has worked in the industry for three decades, year 2020 is just a glitch. This is proven by the first session of a director’s workshop he is currently holding in the first week of Jan 2021. The works from this workshop, Initiate, Develop, Perform, will be staged in Komtar Auditorium A in April 2021.

The Flow no.1” by Queen Lee to be exhibited in her upcoming solo exhibition “Looking for Meaningful Connections”.
Image courtesy of Queen Lee.

As for Howard Tan, the businessman in him lost no time riding the tide, bringing in more relevant items such as batik face masks, moving his shop online to @object.object.pg, and organising closing down sales before closing his branch. He too believes this is temporary, however long it drags, and is relishing the time he has on his hands to plan and create future merchandise—for a future branch no less!

As we hunker down for another lockdown in the early weeks of 2021, it helps to remember that a hibernating snail does not necessarily mean it is dead. When it wakes up, it’ll be spring again. 

Cover photo by Howard Tan

Eeyan Chuah—from Penang, lives in Penang. Writing is one of her very few skills.