Emil Goh 1966 to 2009 is too frigging short

By Vanessa Bates (L'eggs Up And Laughing)
10 September 2009

Emil Goh

On Monday, my friend Emil Goh died.

I found this out on Twitter, while I was scrolling down through the arts snippets and parental tips and clues for better compost. 140 characters is not very much but the words Vale Emil Goh pretty much caught my eye and stuck in my gut and quite quickly I found the links.

I have argued with people over Twitter before and been given various arguments against - mainly involving the words “stupid” and “narcissism”, but I have to say “you may discover a friend has died” is a fairly strong contender in the Reasons To Hate Twitter list.

There’s already a lot of stuff in the cybersphere about Emil, he created an extraordinary body of work over the past years. He exhibited in Australia and internationally, he curated, published, produced, photographed, documented,video-ed and basically lived a great life. He received an Australia Council residency for Seoul a few years back and he adored the place, there was no better place or time for making art and making friends- possibly his two biggest skills-and the one went with the other, hand in hand.

It is the making friends bit I want to celebrate here because everyone who knew Emil became a friend. Years ago I remember laughing that you couldn’t walk across Newcastle's Hunter Street Mall with Emil in under an hour – so many people would stop to chat with him. That was indeed years ago, before '94 when we still lived in Newcastle – but I bet people said the same thing about Emil in Seoul, London, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Sydney…

We met when we were both at Newcastle University, in the early 90's, and we clicked, apart from anything else because we had both lived in Malaysia (he was Malaysian and I was a RAAF brat) and we both loved the Nonya food. We could drool together over memories of makan cart banana fritters, peanut pancakes and char keoay teow although when it came to the shaved ice desserts, laced with coloured sugar syrup, evaporated milk and various beans, he was on his own. Emil loved these frozen confections, I loathed them.

It wasn’t specifically Malaysian food, we decided once to do a project together about the best cafes in Newcastle; I would write the articles, Em would do the portraits. We never finished, but we drank a lot of free coffee and Em took a lot of shots of me in my black and white REMO shirt. And that was another thing he loved back in the early 90s: the REMO store near Taylor’s Square. And Seinfeld. He loved Seinfeld.

In 1994, the year my mother died, Emil and I were very close. I was attending the NIDA playwrights studio in Sydney and used to bunk on his couch in Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills, once a week. When Emil and his girlfriend broke up and my marriage broke up we were kind to each other and solicitous in the way that good mates are, both concerned about the other without sounding too concerned. Two other friends going through sad, strange breakups of their own joined us and there was this period of caring, bitter, unhappy yet happy companionship that we shared. I seem to think we drank a lot at that time but then probably not, because I don’t really remember Emil drinking more than a glass at openings. But I do remember the food.

The food and the art.

And Emil was always making art. Different kinds of photographs, playing with lomography and those funny plastic split lens cameras that let you take 4 shots in one. More than that, hanging out with Em involved holding equipment, recording a script or posing for him. You could be asked to sing an aria or run on the spot in the half light while his camera clicked and whirred, or just 'be yourself'.

Emil Goh

When I moved to Sydney with my new partner C, Emil was at art college and living in a share house in Glebe. And in quick succession I remember him taking us to a series of great food places we had never been before: Barbeque King in Chinatown, Vietnamese in Marrickville, Frank’s Pizza on Parramatta Road, Prasits on Crown Street, Sailors Thai in the Rocks, Singapore Gourmet in Newtown (authentic char keoay teow at last!) He took us and he took other friends and friends of friends, if you ate more than once with Emil you were pretty much a friend for life. These were all places we would return to again and again until finally we would forget that Emil had taken us there first, they would seem so ingrained in our Sydney lifestyles, we would bring new friends and enjoy their first-time enjoyment. We went with Emil to Tropfest for the first time, to night clubs in the Cross for the first time, to tiny galleries and night noodle markets and Sydney Festival events. It was all new, it was all exciting. Somehow Emil had discovered these things, these things to enjoy and now he was sharing them.

Singapore Gourmet was a tiny, grotty little place on King Street, unassuming, drab but inside such culinary delight! Emil became such a valued customer he had one of his birthday parties there; we had the place to ourselves. We arrived early so we could help him cover the window and tables with butchers paper and then the dishes began emerging from the kitchen… the tables were decorated with tea lights, glowing through simple lanterns of tracing paper with photocopied images of his childhood - his mother, his father, a tiny spiky haired toddler Emil on the sand. These were prototypes for creative works but until perfected they provided a beautiful, quirky and very Emil-like accompaniment to what was already a fabulously unusual birthday feast.

Emil Goh

Then there was the infamous yum cha mornings. Enormous tables of people gathered under his instruction, to eat dumplings, to drink tea, to enjoy life. We would meet these people and then would see them again and again around the lazy susan, blinking the sleep from our eyes and clacking our chopsticks. Emil was strict, there were rules; be at the restaurant at 11am sharp or forget it, that’s when you have yum cha, it’s not lunch! Don’t poke at the food with your chopsticks! Turn the teapot lid over when the tea is gone… I got into big trouble from him when I confused the staff at our favourite restaurant, putting a fifty dollar bill on the table and then waiting for change. No, it wasn’t meant to be a massive tip! Cross waiters made Emil unhappy. It meant finding a new yum cha restaurant…

The yum cha/dim sum love wasn’t all about the food. He bought a dim sum trolley back to Australia with him…and made it into art, an enormous gleaming silver trolley with bamboo steamer baskets towering up to the ceiling.

We did an art piece with him when he was still living in Glebe. C and I recorded a telephone conversation and our friend Helen recorded an aria. The audience, each person clutching a portable radio to their ear, trooped after Emil as he led them along Bridge Road past his house. Along the way they stopped on a corner to watch and listen as C lurked in a phone box and attempted to lip synch his end of the conversation into the receiver. After some sort of dramatic gesture he sped from the box to become another character doing something else. I’m not sure what it was exactly because I was poised between a desklamp and the closed blinds, ready to throw open my arms and lipsynch to Helen’s aria as the audience trotted past, peering up at the window, their ears full of soprano magic.

It was fun, making art with Emil. It was always fun. And thinking back to those times it reminds me that making art should be fun. Should be joyous. Sometimes when I’m crushed down by deadlines or rejection letters or my own insecurities it doesn’t seem like very much fun at all. And that's not very Emil of me.

We didn’t drift apart it was more like, as the years went by, we were all working on our own stuff, Emil on video now and me writing. We visited him when he was at Goldsmiths College, staying in Goodenough House in London, we met more of his friends, had a barbeque in the beautiful fenced garden in the square. We saw some of the work he was exploring, more video work, the camera on the lazy susan balanced precariously on a window sill to record inside/outside. More friends. More yum cha (or dim sum).

He came and stayed with us in Sydney, he and his Melbourne artist girlfriend, sleeping on the loungeroom floor of our one bedroom flat.

He came to my family home in Newcastle for Christmas and swam in the pool with my younger sisters. They called him “Emil Emil Orange Peel!”

For a few years we emailed sporadically, somewhere in there he went to Hong Kong, he spent time in Europe. C and I were having our own dramas, I was diagnosed with MS and suddenly I was on a strict diet and then we struggled to have a baby and went on an even stricter one. The days of Peking Duck to celebrate Chinese New Year or Frank's gelato or any other food adventuring with Emil seemed a long, long way away.

Emil went to Seoul on his Australia Council residency and then he stayed and stayed.

Where’s Emil? We would meet former yum cha compadres in cafes and Chinese restaurants. What’s the latest? Have you heard?

I hadn't, no. There had been an argument, stupid. Rules had been broken and we both needed time to pass. C and I married in 2004 and I finally sent Emil a photo of my sisters and I in all our wedding finery. He was lovely, complimentary, happy and signed off Emmyxxx. Things were going well for both of us and we talked a bit about the art but mostly Emil sent me pictures of food and coffee and chairs and kisses and various very silly photographs “for your entertainment”.

And we talked about Seinfeld, again, which he was reabsorbing in Seoul. He found for me a set of badges emblazoned with classic lines; ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty’. And NO SOUP FOR YOU!

It was nice hearing from him, it helped get my mind off the sad realities of infertility and then, when I was finally pregnant I emailed him the good news at fourteen weeks and then included him in my bog-standard I HAVE BIRTHED!!! email announcing my new son, five months later. (Yes, he did come early.)

Emil met up with mutual friends in Hong Kong, he met new friends, friends of ours when they went to Seoul for the first time and he showed them a good time as he showed everyone a good time, because Emil almost always had a good time.

He loved life. He laughed lots. But we missed him when he was back in Sydney, I'm sorry!!!! he exclaimed in his email. And he never met up with us again.

I’m still processing this loss of this dear friend, this talented artist, this lovely lovely man who was always smiling and fun and who delighted in meeting people and showing people around.

I regret not staying more in touch with him, not making more of an effort to see him when he was in town. But we always say this whenever anyone we care about dies. I should have…

What I do take solace in is Emil’s ability to live life to the fullest, to find the art in everything. The fun in everything. More than anyone else I know Emil knew how to maintain his curiosity, his sense of humour, his generosity of spirit. He was a great host, either in his own kitchen or the streets of a new city, he would take you under his wing, he would show you things. He adored popular culture, kitch, retro – he always seemed ahead of the pack, he found things first, shared them and then moved onto the next discovery.

In the report I read of his death, he was with his girlfriend. And that made me happier. That he wasn’t alone, that he loved someone and that someone loved him back.

But then, we all loved Emil.


Anonymous said...

I was a good acquaintance of emil. I will be attending his funeral tomorrow.

Emil and i never really got to hang out too much, but we had mutual friends and worked in the same line of work, so he was always around. and everytime you see him he was always happy. always down to have a chitchat and tell me about his life in korea. he really was a wonderful and bright person. always friendly with everyone.

He leaves behind many many friends in korea and they all miss him dearly.

Thanks for sharing alittle bit of emil's history. it means alot.

10:15 PM

desmonda said...

thank you for capturing this vision of emil for me/us all. i knew him for only a few years during the early naughties in Sydney, but since moving to London have not enjoyed his company. your words remind me of the treasured times that i spent with him. now they seem much too few. if only to have one more meal and one more laugh with him.
11:36 PM

Mima said...

OG sorry to hear that you have lost a friend, especially one who has been part of your life for such a long time. It is lovely to read what you have written, it is a celebration of him and the good times that you have had together. As you say there will always be regrets, but moving past them will be a credit to him - it really doesn't sound as if he led his life like that! So celebrate and go create some art - use those talents that you have that the rest of us don't!!!!
3:32 AM

jLo said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. This is a wonderful post.
7:02 AM

Rachel H said...

It is really sad to hear about Emil, Vanessa, but thanks for this lovely tribute to him. Strangely enough, when I was recently at the Australia Council they had one of his photos in the room the meeting was being held in and I said to one of the staff "Oh, I went to university with Emil" and she replied "He's very talented". I didn't know him very well but I do remember his humour and his dedication to his work. A much too short a life.
9:38 AM

Billy said...

Beautiful post Venessa. Thanks for sharing your memory of Emil. I only new him for a few days in Seoul (after you kindly introduced Penny and I to him). But those few days were full of smiles, sharing and just downright fun. I reckon we saw more of Seoul's interesting little nooks, crannies and novelty stores than most locals would in a lifetime.

In a strange way those couple of days have had a large impact on me. I remember when we first met him he picked us up in a taxi and told us we were to join him on a personal project of his to discover all of the eateries of Seoul where local taxi drivers would eat their lunch. That afternoon we were eating authentic Seoul taxi driver cuisine and it was wonderful. I owe a lot to this experience as I am just finishing the post-production on my short documentary film about a Melbourne restaurant where many of the Punjabi taxi drivers go to eat after their late-night shifts. I have often thought of Emil whilst working on this project. It is an tragic shame that such a wonderfully inspirational person has left us so early.

Thanks again for sharing your memories.

10:09 AM

javajive said...

So lovely to read your thoughts and memories of Emil, and through them allow myself to remember my little moments.
12:31 PM

Anonymous said...

The sweetest kindest soul.
9:11 PM

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for this account of your life with Emil. Change the names of some of the cities and eateries and venues for photographs and it would reflect the experiences of so many others. I was one of the hundreds of people that Emil befriended in Newcastle. I met him in 1989, then later I met my husband at one of his famous "studio dinners". He was even our wedding photographer! On meeting him he became an instant friend, and anyone I knew became his friend as well. Indeed, he befriended whole households of students, and whole families of local Newcastle people. Then that extended to Sydney and to Melbourne. I last contacted him 4 years ago on the birth of my second child, and he sent a gorgeous email saying "congratulations on the babbbyyyyyyyyyyy!" and similar text written just as he would have spoken it. He also included a huge review of his recent work, great photos etc.

He always had the hugest smile. he was so warm so alive so vibrant. He was so giving and driven and funny. The brightest spark, a true treasure, and I loved him. Wendy Blyth.
9:21 PM

steph said...

Oh, no. I am so very sorry that you lost your friend. He sounds truly divine, and now I feel like I knew him, a little, too. It is never long enough for those we love.
1:49 AM

lucky #2 said...
So sorry for your loss. He sounded like a wonderful person and friend. This post is such a loving tribute to him.
6:04 AM

tchoi said...

thank you for the tribute. I only got to hang out with him few times, but always found him in strangest corners in Seoul.. full of curiosity, taking pictures, eating funny things, he was such a good fit for the strangest city. we all miss him.
2:50 PM

granny p said...

What a wonderful tribute. But you'd rather have still had the friend. Sorry V. These things are so painful.x
8:41 PM

Anonymous said...

hi v,
was heartened to read this. i realised even though i hadn't seen emil in years that we still had things in the house that were directly connected with him. the best photograph we have of us is a polaroid he took. his cartoon likeness on a postcard is still pinned to the back door. glenn came down to melb. and we three remembered emil together. glenn took us to a secret little cocktail bar in a bourke st lane at 10pm... he did what emil would often so enthusiastically do for us - show us around our own city.

hope you're well, take care,
6:26 PM

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry V for your loss. Your tribute to him is very moving and will last forever. I feel the loss to the world just in reading your words.
12:09 AM

Andrew Frost said...

My apologies if my posting of the news of Emil's death via Twitter was for you insensitive or inappropriate - that wasn't my intention. Shocked by his passing I simply wanted to communicate that news to his many friends here in Sydney - which I have done via the Art Life blog and other social media outlets.

Thanks for your post - he will be missed.
6:12 PM

OvaGirl said...

Thankyou everyone for these beautiful comments, the kind wishes and sympathies and the memories. I really appreciate others' memories of Emil, you and I know that Emil was a great person to have in your life - in any capacity.
Richard - email me!

And Andrew, no apology necessary.. It's the first time something like that has happened to me, ie tragic news via tweet, and really there is no nice waytolearn that kind of news. It was a shock. Thankyou for your comment.

I (and some others) are trying to discern if there is any official recognition or celebration of Emil planned thry ozco or similar. If you hear anything on this I would really appreciate it if you could pass that on.

6:49 PM

Betty M said...

Really moving tribute to your friend. He was clearly the sort of person who light up a lot of lives.
5:48 AM

Anonymous said...

HI Vanessa.

I am so sad and shocked to hear Emil's passed away. It's such a terrible waste of a brilliant, bright, beautiful person. It is so unfair. He was gorgeous and amazing. A smiling, sparky genius. One of a kind. and so adored by all.

You might remember me...I was his girlfriend for a little while (June01-May02). and I adored him. I was completely, utterly besotted. and it was heartbreaking to break up with him. anyway, enough about that/this is not about me. But he is still very much in my heart and in my mind.

I just really wanted you to know that I am thinking of you and all his many friends and sending my love and wishes and thoughts and prayers.

Safe travels Emil.

xClare (from Melb)
clare_fs (at) yahoo.com.au
7:44 PM

Andrew Frost said...

I have heard that Gallery 4A is planning something. As soon as I know I'll pass it on.
4:01 PM

abbie said...

On behalf of Madam Sylvia Lee Goh ( Emil Goh's mother), there will be an anniversary memorial service for Emil Goh in Singapore, details as follows:

Address: Church of St Mary of The Angels, 5 Bukit Batok East Avenue 2, Singapore 659918
Date: September 4, 2010 (Saturday)
Time: 3pm

Should you have any enquiries and to confirm your attendance, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
9:23 PM

Don Stephens said...

I found about Emil passing yesterday from a face book photo with him. We were in the same boarding school in Singapore, he was a year my senior. I enjoyed his company, it is strange missing someone you haven't met since the 80's. Thanks for the info on him, I got to know him in his later years and what he did. Cheers

11:11 AM

nina said...

one year on, much loved and missed. Thanks for your Emil memories
6:56 PM

michael said...

HI, I'm not sure where you are based but there will be an informal memorial for Emil in Sydney this Sunday, March 6 2011 at Gallery 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

I really hope you are closeby and that you can make it.

please see: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/event.php?eid=184354618272188

or write to me for more details This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

7:29 PM