A tribute to Emil Goh

By Wendy Gan
Associate Professor School of English, University of Hong Kong
9 September 2009

Emil was like the brother I never had. It was the similarity in our upbringing – coming from middle-class English-speaking families in S.E. Asia and going to a similar kind of school. It was also the similarity in our instincts. We had both felt in our youth the need to leave Asia and spread our wings. We both loved cities and when we net in London in 1997, it was that city that cemented our friendship – walks through Islington, Portobello, Notting Hill. This being Emil, the food of London also played its part. Brick Lane for bagels and baked cheesecake, Borough market for the wholesale food stalls, Tower Bridge to eat at one of Conran's restaurants during a special lunch offer. We spent three happy months enjoying London, food, art, music and each other's company.

Even though for most of the 12 years that I have known Emil we have never been in the some place at the same time, our friendship has endured and indeed grown. He famously typed with two fingers but nonetheless the emails would arrive, as would the birthday cards and presents. He was a consummate gift-giver; that was how he showed his love to his closest and dearest. In London, my pigeonhole would be stuffed with my favourite bun from Chinatown; in HK I would find delightful, unique presents each time he came to stay – a wooden mooncake mould, an old HK cookbook, a blue ribbon modem cable, delicately flat as sheet of paper. They were often small presents but significant in the amount of thought he had put into them. I have never known a better present-giver than Emil. He knew his friends and loved ones and he gave gifts that showed how well he truly knew us all.

Though it breaks my heart to think of Emil gone, I am glad that he left us in the city that he loved probably the most. For Emil was an urban animal. This was his milieu. He had no interest in beaches and country hikes but in the city, he came alive, becoming an urban botanist, hunting down the city's unique flora. He could always make me see my own city anew, spotting an interesting urban detail that I had often ignored, investing it with the magic of the ingenuity of humankind. In HK, it was the handwritten ads on signpost poles advertising the skills of a handyman or the strange markings that looked like a child's drawing of a house on the pavements. I learnt much from him. He had the curiosity and wonder of a child but with an intellect so sharp that it could dissect the mundane to reveal the extraordinary. This was his gift and it shaped his art and design work as well as his approach to life. 

There was no doubt Emil was special. Anyone who met him even for a few minutes could see that. That niceness, that sunny, infectious enthusiasm that could win over the hardest of hearts, that love for the banal but quirky beauty of the everyday. He had humour, joie de vivre, an enormous appetite for food and life and an ability to draw everyone to him. He has been so often the life of my dinner parties.

We are here thankful that we each had a chance to enjoy his many, many gifts. We wish that there could have been more years to enjoy them but though that has been denied us, we remain deeply grateful to have humbly shared part of Emil's vision and world. He blessed us with his life and, in his going, we bless him in return. Thank you Emil for letting us see through your eyes.