100% Penang

100% Penang
Stand Up And Be Counted

17 September 2015

The opening show of the 2015 edition of Penang’s annual Georgetown Festival was an unlikely crowd-sourced performance, directed by German-based documentary theatre company Rimini Protokoll

100% Penang is a performance not just for people, but with people. One hundred residents came together to present statistics of both personal and communal issues as a microcosm of the city. 

When the first resident, Ong Bee Leng, was cast, she had just 24 hours to select the next person, setting off a chain reaction until the 100th individual was reached. It wasn’t easy though; there were specific search criteria to be met including age, gender and marital status, to ensure that each person symbolically represents 1% of Penang’s populace.

As denizens of Singapore, this was a performance that definitely could not have happened in our country. The questions asked were not just private, they were also politically sensitive and at times, even shocking. The veil of anonymity quickly wore thin, but along with that came a sense of togetherness, as the performers and the audience locked together in laughter, gasps of shock and even tears. 

As the performance moved on, the questions grew both bolder and more intimate and the forms of response shifted, and at one point, it was just a mass of torch lights pointing to the giant circular mirror when the question, “Do you think the federal government is corrupt?” was asked. 

Occasionally, people stood alone in response to particularly polarising questions. And in these moments we gained an empathy for the forgotten stats of the ‘Other,’ simply because here, they were given a face and a space to stand and be counted. But, there was no condemnation; just a conjugation of emotions. 

Life, after all, is not a series of questions of defined pockets of existence. All of us live in multiple circles of overlapping answers, and that’s what makes life complex, and gorgeous. At the end, the audience walked away with renewed belief in their fellow islanders, and with more than just a little pride that nowhere else in Malaysia could this have been possible. 

In a way, this set the space for us to experience Penang in the following days. Georgetown has become more and more expensive, overwhelmed as it is by a constant stream of mural tourists. 

But certainly, whether in the warmth of the locals, the richness and diversity of the local cuisine or the fascinating architecture, we found ourselves believing 100% in Penang. 

Text & photos: Marc