Women

Michelle Goh

After her debut in Mee Pok Man and subsequent acting career in Singapore, Michelle Goh left for Vancouver, Canada, and seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. This is what she’s been up to.

BY Wayne Cheong | Mar 16, 2016 | Women We Love

Photographs by Nicky Loh

We will never know what passed through Bunny’s mind at the point of death. Did her life flash before her like a haphazard flicker of an improperly fitted film reel? Was she enraptured in the embrace of the man who housed her after finding her unconscious and hurt? Did her body tingle as though electrified, the sea surf of pleasure in tune with her lover’s rhythm, or was it the death throes of her failing heart? Her idiot paramour noticed the heat leaving her motionless body. She was unresponsive to his cries and touch. The visions in Bunny’s eyes became pinholes, as she faded from this waking world into a deep ocean of sleep.

***

The death of Bunny did not herald the end of Mee Pok Man. Played by Michelle Goh, Bunny, the erstwhile prostitute with the prosaic heart of gold, continued to function as a prop for Joe Ng’s character, the titular Mee Pok Man. Despite her advanced state of decay, he dressed Bunny in a scarlet top, and confided in her his past as a failure in other people’s eyes and his dislike for cooking mee pok.

“I knew that Mee Pok Man was about love,” Goh says, sitting across from me, smiling like she’s recalling some long-lost fling. “From the first day of shooting, the movie was beautiful to me.”

Even with the whole keeping-Bunny’s-body-as-it-decomposed angle?

“That’s the thing with me.” The purse of her hairpin lip. The purr beneath her words. “I’m a diehard romantic.”

She is not who you might expect. Twenty years after her debut in Mee Pok Man, Michelle Goh, probably in the better end of a Faustian deal, looks younger than her actual age of 42. Different from her screen roles, in person, Goh is animated. One moment her answers are measured; the next, she’s mimicking other people’s voices. This is so far removed from the sexualised roles that she usually plays.

“Ah, I didn’t like that,” Goh says, “Because that’s not how I see myself. I’m actually a funny, goofy girl.” But she enjoys seeing herself on, say, a magazine cover. She enjoys the process of being beautified. “Well, pros and cons, y’know? Now that I’m older, I’m like, Think whatever you like. It takes seconds to pigeonhole someone, but if someone is willing to take their time to get to know you, isn’t that great?”

"It takes seconds to pigeonhole someone, but if someone is willing to take their time to get to know you, isn’t that great?"
 

So, let’s get to know Goh. After finishing her education in Vancouver, as the story goes, she was transiting in Singapore en route to Australia where her mother lives, when she was approached, while tearing up the dance floor with her cousin in Zouk, to act in a movie. Goh was wary of the offer, and with good reason; the film industry in Singapore at the time was almost non-existent. She finally acquiesced, taking on the role of Bunny in Mee Pok Man as a favour to director Eric Khoo. “I swear that it felt like a high school project,” Goh recalls. “It didn’t feel real—not that I knew what a film set was—but it was a bunch of us clowning around with a camera, and that was it.” 

After rewatching Mee Pok Man, I’m a little embarrassed by the uneven pacing and the lack of closure of certain characters’ arcs, even the acting comes across as a little ham-fisted. Through no fault of the actors, the blame lies squarely on Khoo’s direction. It was indeed a high school project with a budget. But Mee Pok Man was brave in its approach. The little movie that could broke the curse of Singapore’s faltering film industry. It paved the way for the funding of Singaporean films, and most notably, became the cornerstones of the careers of Khoo and Goh.

After appearances in TV shows and movies like My Grandson, The Doctor, VR Man and Dreamers, Goh gave it all up in 1998 for a slice of happiness. She uprooted herself and returned to Vancouver with her then-boyfriend, Edmond Wong.

She went back to school, and a semester in, received a call from Andrew Ooi. “He was at my aunt’s house and spotted me on the cover of a magazine that she had kept,” Goh says. “She gave him my contact details and he got in touch with me. We became friends and he asked if I wanted to return to acting.”

The offer was enticing. To Goh, it was easy work for a lot of money. In those days, the pay for an acting gig in Vancouver differed from that of Singapore; a day’s work was enough to cover a few months’ rent in Singapore.

“I guess that I was reluctant, but I was living with this out-of-job actor, and the opportunity to act arose—well, one of us had to bring home the bacon.”

In between thumbing text into her BlackBerry, Goh and I start talking about how the churro trend has exploded in Singapore and the merits of the particular churros that we have ordered at The Coffee Academics.

This is very good, I say, prodding a stick with my fork.

“Well, I don’t know a lot of things, but when it comes to food…,” she trails off as she slowly breaks into a wry smile.

But when Mee Pok Man was released in theatres, did you know that you wanted to act?

Goh shakes her head. “At 19 or 20, I didn’t think that far ahead. Life was exciting and I just wanted to live it to the fullest,” she continues. “A smart person plans 10 steps ahead; I didn’t. I just went with the flow and let life take me wherever it wanted to go. It’s very surreal. It’s not something that I think about often.” Goh speaks in an unusual cadence probably brought on by her extended stay in Vancouver. “It was really fun during the entire week of the Singapore [International] Film Festival, and it was fun revisiting that life for a short while, seeing old faces. It was sort of like a reunion.”

"A smart person plans 10 steps ahead; I didn’t. I just went with the flow and let life take me wherever it wanted to go."
 

As the festival drew to a close, Goh decided to quit acting. After years of ups and downs, the instability of her career got to her. She resented certain aspects of her job. As a young girl, she was placed in situations where independent thinking was absent. It was part of the package of being an actor in those days: you were fed lines, you were directed in a certain way at photoshoots, and stylists dictated what they wanted you to project in a spread. She admits that the money was good, but also concedes that she was “too young to handle a lot of things”.

“And sometimes, you need to get out of an environment to gain a different perspective,” says Goh. “Acting was all I knew at the time and I needed to get out.”

So she returned to Singapore (“the chances of getting a job in Singapore were much higher”) and found herself a job in marketing for a medical group. She refers to it as a “real job”, not that acting wasn’t. It still requires labour, but to her, after being cloistered in a superficial environment, the outside working world was a curiosity waiting to be explored. What was it like, and more importantly, could she do it?

She took to it easily. It was refreshing and signalled a new challenge. Learning a lot from the experience, her foray into the white-collar workforce would tickle her fancy for the next 10 years. She still gets the odd stare or two from people in her marketing field. Are you…? The question forms on their faces before it’s dismissed entirely, as a false recollection. Sometimes, the confident will approach her, and validated by her confirmation, will rattle off her shows to her. So much for going incognito.

Goh crossed over to Citibank, and contrary to how the universe was expanding, she bumped into her co-star from VR Man, James Lye. “We worked on the same floor. He was doing offshore banking and I was doing onshore at the time. I was like: Did you know that VR Man is on the same floor as me? It’s hilarious that the world is so small.”

After that, she did recruitment for the bank before taking a year off. I ask half-jokingly if her sabbatical was to find herself à la Eat, Pray, Love. Goh takes a beat and looks like she’s wrestling with something before ’fessing up: “Actually, I was in a relationship so I could afford not to work.” She takes a bite of her churro.

I suppose, it, uh… I search for an appropriate word.

“Ended?” she interjects. A small squeal escapes her as she notices the heat rising in my face.

Yeah, well. That.

Goh shrugs. She sips her drink.

Life goes on, I offer.

“Oh, indeed,” Goh says, “and we learn.”

Still single, Goh carries this fear that she won’t find her other half. Each roll of the year and her fear, like a wolf, intrudes upon a battened door. She cringes at her admittance. “It sounds cheesy, it sounds stupid. But I’m so fortunate that I’m surrounded by amazing friends who want to take care of me. I’m lucky that way.”

After the relationship faltered, Goh retreated to Vancouver. “Two summers ago, I had enough of Asia. I wanted to go back, take it easy, do some soul searching, return to wholesome, healthy living.”

The wide, open spaces in Vancouver allowed Goh opportunities for hiking. She’d crest the top of a hill and survey her surroundings like a frontiers person. When she’d indulged in nature’s bounty, she’d take a moment and read up on spirituality. Goh was raised a Christian, but she identifies with Buddhist teachings. “Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote so beautifully about it,” she says. “What I like about Buddhism is that it’s not the 10 Commandments. It’s common sense. You don’t need a religion or God to tell you not to do bad things.”

Then, a skiing accident left her with a bout of sciatica. This led to creeping insomnia that robbed Goh of a week of sleep. The chilly Vancouver weather didn’t help either. She tried anything that could alleviate her mood, from infrared saunas to acupuncture and massages. One night, aching and in pain, Goh got out of bed. It was 3am and she turned to the Internet for help. She ended up reading about a place that had sensory deprivation tanks. “I thought I’d try it out and booked a 5am appointment at this place that was open round the clock for three days a week,” she adds.

When she arrived, the proprietor gave her a rundown of her float therapy: an hour in the tank; it would be dark and silent; she would be buoyed in saltwater at skin temperature. Without any expectations, Goh stepped into the ivory pod, the lid closed on her, and then nothing. It was like someone hit pause. Without any stimulation, the storm in her mind quietened to a still pond. “It sounds so morbid: it felt like you had ceased to exist, but in a good way,” Goh says. And when her hour was up, the music came on, rousing her from her sleep. She was languid and relaxed. It was the best bliss that she’d ever had and she would feel that way for the next five days.

“Everybody’s experience with a float will be different and I’ve never been able to get that experience again,” she says. “My first time was the best float for me ever.” And this is why Goh brought the concept to Singapore. Called Float Singapore, she wagers that since stress among people in Asia is at its highest, a session in her sensory deprivation tanks can help alleviate the pressure. “It’s healthier,” Goh says. “It relaxes all the muscles in your neck and back; it helps you with muscle recovery and the magnesium salt is good for your skin. If you have eczema, it’ll clear up.”

With her float therapy business now in its second year, Goh feels that itch once more. This time, the pull is back to acting. During last year’s Singapore International Film Festival, the original cast of Mee Pok Man was invited to attend a screening commemorating its 20th anniversary. Watching the film play out in the dark elicited the same joy that Goh had felt when she acted: the chance to portray a separate entity, to play act.

“Weird, right?” Goh says. “We go through different stages and we look back to evaluate our choices. I was in the [acting] industry in my twenties. In my thirties, I wanted to know what it was like to join the workforce and live a normal life. Now, after having tasted both sides, I sort of know the pros and the cons, and I’ve decided to be open to the possibilities of acting again.”

"We go through different stages and we look back to evaluate our choices. I was in the [acting] industry in my twenties. In my thirties, I wanted to know what it was like to join the workforce and live a normal life. Now, after having tasted both sides, I sort of know the pros and the cons, and I’ve decided to be open to the possibilities of acting again."
 

After the interview, Goh will head home to record herself for an audition for a role. Having received the sides late last night, this will be her first audition in the longest time. Is she nervous? If she is, she doesn’t show it. She mentions later that she doesn’t give her audition any more thought than is needed.

No post-mortem? I ask.

“Nope,” she texts back. “Let it go.”

And I do.

We discuss her reading list. Sheepishly, Goh mentions that she’s currently reading something from Thích Nhất Hạnh. It was a gift from her sister two years ago.

I ask if there are any other books.

The Alchemist, believe it or not.”

The Alchemist?

“Yeah. Don’t you think that’s a book you can read every couple of years? I read that, and then the rest of Paulo Coelho’s work. When I’m done, I go back to living, and then, for some reason, I’ll return to The Alchemist once more.”

I feel The Alchemist resonates with different people.

Oh, go on.”

Some identify with it because they have goals and really want to believe that “the universe conspires to help you achieve them”. And then there’s the other camp that feels betrayed by the book because their lives didn’t turn out the way that they expected it to. (Realising the small bit of emotion peppering that statement, I stop.)

“But doesn’t the book give you hope?”

Well, for them, maybe hope fizzles out when their world shatters. Maybe it’s from a great failure or the death of a loved one.

“I went through that with my dad four months ago,” Goh says with relative calm before continuing in that fashion. “He had cancer. He was in the hospice for the longest time and I saw how he passed on, but you don’t have to think of it like that. I believe we’re born into this body, this imperfect shell, and it doesn’t dictate who we are. Our existence on earth may be tough, but we return because of the experience. There will be questions when you get hurt, but it’s fine to explore.

“At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself: what do you have to take with you? Who loves you? That makes your life special at the end of it all.”

***

And Bunny wakes. At first, the daylight is a sliver to her eyes, but as she adjusts to the morning, it becomes a warm welcome. The rest of her senses take in the cool balm on her skin, the sounds of a distant market have the makings of a choral. As she shakes off the final dusting of sleep, Bunny recalls a dream that she had: it was a life less ordinary; she was in pain; she found love and was loved. Did she die? She can’t rightly recall. But if she did, what is death but a lapse into a long slumber? She stretches, pulling her supple muscles taut. The dawn of the day presents so many opportunities. What will I do? she wonders and automatically the thought drops into her head: anything that she wants.

From: Esquire Singapore's March 2016 issue.