Goh Poh Seng (1936–2010)
Goh Poh Seng (b. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) began writing poetry while studying medicine at University College in Dublin, Ireland, where he lived for seven years in the 1950s, forming friendships with the writers Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan, an experience he recounts in his last, posthumously-published book, Tall Tales and Misadventures of a Young Westernised Oriental Gentleman.
He returned in 1961 to Singapore. Here Goh became committed to developing the art and cultural policies of post-independent Singapore, founding the literary magazine Tumasek, and co-founding Centre 65 to promote the arts. Goh chaired the National Theatre Trust and was vice-chairman of the Arts Council from 1967 to 1973, and was integrally involved in the formation of cultural institutions such as the Singapore National Symphony, the Chinese Orchestra and the Singapore Dance Company. He also opened Singapore’s first theatre disco lounge, Rainbow Lounge at Ming Arcade, and Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec at Tanglin Shopping Centre for live jazz and poetry readings, organised Singapore’s first David Bowie concert, and headed movements to conserve and culturally re-envision Singapore River and Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market in the 1980s.
Goh’s first play, The Moon is Less Bright (1964), is set in rural Singapore just before and during the Japanese occupation. His subsequent plays, When Smiles Are Done (1965; subsequently retitled Room With Paper Flowers) and The Elder Brother (1966), were distinguished by their pioneering use of Singlish in drama.
Goh’s first novel, If We Dream Too Long (1972), is considered by many as the first English-language Singaporean novel, and won the inaugural National Book Development Council of Singapore Award for Fiction in 1976. His later novels include The Immolation (1977), A Dance of Moths (1995; which won the National Book Development Council Award for that year), Dance With White Clouds: A Fable for Grown-ups (2001), and Tall Tales and Misadventures of a Young Westernised Oriental Gentleman (2015).
Goh has authored five volumes of poetry: Eyewitness (1976), Lines from Batu Ferringhi (1978), Bird with One Wing (1982), The Girl from Ermita & Selected Poems, 1961-1998 (1998) and As Though the Gods Love Us (2000). He was an active participant in numerous poetry and literary festivals throughout his life, reading in India, Russia, the Philippines, Korea, the United States, Mexico and throughout Canada. His works have been translated into Russian, Tagalog, Japanese, Vietnamese, French and Macedonian.
Goh received the Cultural Medallion for Literature in 1982. He emigrated to Canada in 1986 and continued to practise medicine until 1995, when Parkinson’s disease forced him to retire. He lived in Vancouver and Newfoundland and was working on a chronicle of his family’s emigration from China to Malaysia when he passed away on January 10, 2010 of complications due to Parkinson’s Disease, at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. His last completed work, Tall Tales and Misadventures of a Young Westernised Oriental Gentleman, an account of his formative experiences as a student and aspiring poet in Ireland, has recently been published by National University of Singapore Press in 2015.
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