‘… a strange and magical mix of the personal and the professional’
PechaKucha is an exercise in Japanese precision. In twenty slides at twenty seconds each, an evening of precisely timed presentations ticks by like clockwork. The speakers have to keep up or they will be out of synch with their slides. It takes multiple practice sessions. These presenters are not paid speakers, just ordinary people sharing one of their passions or professions to an appreciative crowd of friends and strangers who are given a peek into individual worlds beyond their own. They can come away with an idea about anything from Sarawak tattoos to storytelling, told by a true enthusiast who has given up time to share.
Started by a pair of architects in Tokyo in 2003, the formula has spread out across the world. According to Jeffrey Yeung, himself an architect and one of the pioneers of PechaKucha in Kuching, the timing was not a product of Tokyo culture but more of its origins among architects. “Give an architect an hour and they will talk for an hour and a half”, he jokes. The result, however, is a series of clean and concise presentations; bite-sized chunks of someone else’s life work and people are clearly fascinated. In 2012, Kuching became the 562nd city in the world to stage its own PechaKucha night and now the event is held in 1,100 cities across the planet.
Jeffrey himself hails from Hong Kong, one of the world’s great megacities. He first came across PechaKucha while living in Melbourne and he was hooked. But Kuching, whether for PechaKucha or for professional life, presented him with its own set of problems to solve. He describes his first extended stay here in 2004 with his Sarawakian wife when he wondered to himself where an architect would even start in this small city. Would he be consigned to the architectural hell of an eternity of shophouses? Five years later, however, with family life in Kuching on the cards, he saw that things were starting to look a bit different in this once tiny town and IDC Architects was born.
But the creative landscape of Kuching eluded him. Used to the big city where art is offered in an array of gallery spaces and staged performances, the Sarawak scene was very much underground. The professional artist was a rare species, with most prioritising financial survival over self-expression. Creativity often occupied a private space, accessed through associations and personal assignations. But a decade can make all the difference and PechaKucha has played its own part.
As he lived and worked in Kuching, Jeffrey described how he came to meet more creative people and the memory of PechaKucha popped back in his mind. Instead of complaining about the lack of creative spaces, he decided to create his own to give a platform for the hidden talents of the city. With his collaborators on the project from IDC, they aimed to bring Kuching’s creative scene out of the closet.
“If you cannot find any galleries in Kuching, PechaKucha will give you some hope that this stuff is going on in the city”
Six years on, PechaKucha Kuching is going strong. The Granary bar is a lofty, uber cool, industrial space (unsurprisingly an award-winning project by IDC Architects!) and the ideal venue for the mixed crowd of urban hipsters waiting for the event to start. But, on the night, the personal was still very much in evidence as everyone seemed to know each other. This is not just PechaKucha but very much Kuching where you usually can’t go five minutes without bumping into someone you know. But it makes for a unique, capacity crowd. As the lights went down and the first speaker went up, the character of Kuching became clear. The feeling of supportiveness was palpable. This was no big city, let me entertain you atmosphere. These were friends and acquaintances who were genuinely interested in seeing all the speakers succeed, even those that they hadn’t met yet.
The presentations themselves were a strange and magical mix of the personal and the professional, weaving in the stories of their lives with just a hint of a plug for their venture. A bag designer shared how relocating to Kuching for personal reasons impacted on her business; Sarawak’s first finalist for Masterchef Asia gave a glimpse into the family life which put her on the path to television fame; a Thai architect amused the audience with his study of Bangkok’s sex hotels, from a purely ergonomic perspective of course. Family photos filled the screens next to product shots and the audience was rapt.
Arthur Akal is a Sarawak tattoo artist. His only experience of performance has been appearing in a band. He had never done public speaking before and he stood outside in the shadows going through his notes. As he took the stage, his rapport with the audience was immediate and even when he got lost at one point, his name was called out in encouragement. The images of his work projected behind him drove him forward and he finished to a roar of approval from the crowd. He was invited to do PechaKucha by a friend. Of course, he aimed to promote his business but deep down, he said, he just wanted to share his love for one of Sarawak’s oldest art forms. “It has been a humbling experience, learning new things,” he said. “But I think I would like to do more. If I worked on this, I think I could be a really good speaker,” he laughed. A new passion is born! Gabriela Roa had come from Holland to visit a friend and found herself volunteered to share her Happy Explorers Project in the middle of her holiday. Immediately she found a place in the fabric of this city.
Over the years, PechaKucha Kuching has put up weavers, photographers, graffiti artists, designers, educators and, of course, plenty of architects. It has featured heart-wrenching tales from cancer survivors and uplifting stories of people’s hometown connections. Jeffrey shares that several amateurs have turned pro as a result of their exposure, some spurred to move into a creative profession by the support that they received. He says: “I hoped it would be like a nuclear reactor – throw in some particles and let them expand, creating networks and contacts, meeting new people.”
The challenge now is to keep things fresh. He worries that they will become the old guard of Kuching’s creative communities and so he is reaching out to teenagers. The next PechaKucha on 6th July, entitled Kuching Spark, will feature young creatives, grooming talent and giving them a platform to shine. He also wants to do a PechaKucha All Stars, bringing back a few senior statesmen to see how far they have gone.
For the visitor to Sarawak, PechaKucha can plug you into the creative life of Kuching – a moving gallery space in twenty-second bursts. But equally, it is a chance to see how a Kuching crowd acts. It is a truly personal example of supporting the arts, face to face, up close and intimate. So if you happen to coincide with the next event, come down and make friends with Kuching’s creatives at PechaKucha Kuching.