By Kagan Goh
In 1983, my father, Goh Poh Seng, was the sponsor and promoter of David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight Tour in Singapore. Dad almost went bankrupt financing Singapore’s first big rock & roll concert. Initially, he contemplated bringing Duran Duran, but decided on the rock musical legend David Bowie instead. This was my first bona-fide encounter with a real live rock star, a living legend whom many considered to be the greatest rock musician of all time.
My father was born to a middle-class family in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His parents sent him abroad to study medicine at University College, Dublin, Ireland. At the age of 19, away from home for the first time, Goh began to frequent the pubs in Dublin and often got drunk with his friends and drinking buddies, poet Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan. He also had a serendipitous meeting with Samuel Beckett. Inspired by his friendship with the Irish poets, Goh quit medical school to devote himself to writing full-time. Ever the maverick, he lived out his passion in London as a struggling writer. Eventually, starvation drove him back to medicine. Upon receiving his medical degree, he moved to Singapore in the early 1960s to become a doctor, and stayed in the profession for over two decades.
Photo Credit: photographer Margaret Mitchell
Goh Poh Seng was a man who wore many hats: literary pioneer, doctor, poet, novelist, playwright, nightclub owner, businessman and entrepreneur. As Chairman of the National Theatre Trust Board, he was responsible for creating the Singapore National Symphony, the Chinese Orchestra and the Singapore Dance Company. He brought Duke Ellington, Ravi Shankar and the Balshoi Ballet to Singapore. Having entered the arena of live music entertainment,
my father wanted to make a “big splash”. He had been impressed by a Times magazine article
featuring rock music legend David Bowie gracing the magazine’s cover. My father knew little about David Bowie back then. However, he thought Bowie must be a big deal if he was appearing on the cover of Time magazine. The wheels were set in motion. My father contacted Bowie’s agent and arranged to sponsor and promote David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight Tour in Singapore. It was arranged. Bowie was coming to Singapore for the first time.
Dad and I were waiting in anticipation for Bowie to arrive at the Singapore Changi airport. When he cleared customs, Bernice Heng (a short, plump, sassy high school friend of mine)
got the honour and privilege of presenting Bowie with a bouquet of flowers
. Bowie was so tall, he towered over everyone. He was dressed in a baby blue three-piece suit and was smoking a cigarette. He bent down to kiss a rather excited, thrilled and overwhelmed teenage girl on the cheek. The photographers were banned from printing the images in the newspapers taken of Bowie because of the cigarette he was smoking, since the Singapore government had a campaign encouraging Singaporeans to quit smoking. Bowie’s cigarette was frowned upon by the authorities. Already, government censorship reared its ugly head.
My father invited Bowie and his musician friends to our home to listen to a live performance by classical Chinese musicians. Bowie’s band came, but the man himself declined, saying that he did not “fraternize with concert promoters.” My father sent David Bowie a message through his personal assistant, telling her to: “Tell Mister Bowie that he is only a rock star. I, however, am a poet.” Bowie came to meet my father in person, hat in hand, to apologize for his rudeness.
My father and Bowie talked about art, literature, music and poetry. The topic eventually strayed to politics.
“This rock & roll business is more than just drugs, sex and rock and roll; more than making money. This is about freedom of speech,” said Bowie.
My father told Bowie that two of his songs had been banned from radio play.
“Perhaps people in the West take freedom of speech for granted. Knowing poets and writers in Southeast Asia who have been imprisoned for their writing, freedom of speech is something we are willing to fight for, even die for.”
He kicked off his concert with “Modern Love” and “China Girl,” his two banned songs. His band attacked the stage like a squad of guerilla soldiers on a rampage.
Bowie spent more time in Singapore than any other country on his tour. As an awestruck 14-year old, I spent that summer holiday in 1983 with my best friends acting as tour guides to Bowie’s wild and crazy crew of musicians: Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar and Carmine Rojas. We took them to Chinatown, Newton Circus hawker centre, Lucky Plaza shopping mall, and Bugis Street.
The publicity team were making a documentary on the Serious Moonlight Tour in Singapore called “Ricochet.” A documentary camera crew followed him around wherever he went. Bowie would be driven in a local taxi cab to visit different tourist attractions of the city. My brother Kajin and I were privy to the filming of one segment of his documentary, so we witnessed the documentary crew film Bowie as he got out of the taxi and walked into the lobby of the famous Raffles Hotel. He did this once, twice, three times, then again and again until we lost count. This was my first experience of documentary filmmaking. I was struck by how completely staged and false the set up was of the film shoot. Now I too am a documentary filmmaker and I understand what I did not know back then: reality is subjective and often what seems natural is rehearsed and staged.
In his Serious Moonlight Tour book, Bowie dedicated the entire foreword to recollecting his time in Singapore. Here is an excerpt from the book:
“The Singapore authorities are not friendly toward rock & roll. Two of my songs, “China Girl” and “Modern Love,” were banned from radio play. “Restricted,” as they say. Our wonderful and fearless promoter, Dr. Goh Poh Seng, risked his livelihood, bank balance, and even his freedom to get me and my band into his country. When the authorities heard I was going to do an impromptu guest appearance at his youth club two days before our major gig, they busted it, banned the resident band for indecent performance, and threatened Poh Seng with imprisonment if a guest of the club – (me) – should get up on stage and sing. He also faced incredible local resistance in getting the staging and lights together. When he asked for three yards of cable, local suppliers – knowing it was for rock & roll – would only sell him a 100-yard drum. No one would lease him timber for the stage, so he ended up buying an architect-designed permanent structure at ten times the cost…and so it went, over and over. The lights were flown in from all over Malaysia. Many arrived broken, and those intact not much more powerful than a bedroom lamp. But, good god, he tried.”
Goh, ever the rebel, constantly caught the ire of the authoritarian Singapore government for his outspoken opinions. He left Singapore for political and economic reasons, eventually choosing exile in Canada in 1986 and settling down with his family in Vancouver, British Columbia. The circumstances of his fall from grace in the mid-1980s have been obscured by time. Even Goh initially said they were rather “trivial.” Then he elaborated, ”
Being a loud-mouthed poet, it was probably inevitable [that he would leave Singapore].”
He was never a political dissident, but possibly a little naïve. “Anybody in the limelight would probably offend the government,” he said. “I thought I was being innocuous.”
On 24th January 2004, when Bowie came to Vancouver for his Reality tour, my father and I attended the concert. We sent a message to Bowie that we would like to meet him. I showed the Serious Moonlight Tour book to the skeptical concert ushers to prove that we were legitimate acquaintances of David Bowie. It was a long shot but our persistence paid off. To our surprise and delight, we were given permission to have a meeting with the man himself after the concert. There was a huge lineup of the rich and famous, many of them well-known celebrities and millionaires, waiting to have a talk with Bowie. He shunned them all but allowed us to see him. They protested, asking why my father and I – two nobodies as far as they were concerned – were allowed to see Bowie when they had been refused entry.
Bowie met us backstage and gave my father a warm embrace,as if they were two old friends being reunited after a long time. He was a consummate gentleman, kind, generous, affable, warm, friendly, courteous, polite and surprisingly down-to-earth. He was particularly concerned about my dad’s health and held onto my father’s hand to steady him, aware of his Parkinson’s. My father introduced me to Bowie, who surprised me by giving me a friendly hug. I told him I was a huge fan. I confided in Bowie that I had a bipolar condition. He shared with me that his brother also suffered from manic depression and had committed suicide.
Bowie said, “Many of the greatest artists in history were thought to be insane and mad.”
I replied, “Unfortunately many people tend to romanticize and idolize these mad creative geniuses who took their own lives. What happened to your brother was a tragedy. However, you do not seem to indulge in self-destructive habits or behaviour. Instead, you are a role model who inspires others to live healthy, productive, balanced, harmonious and happy lives. That’s why you are my hero.”
Bowiethanked me for my compliment and laughed saying both of us were in good company. I did send him my manuscript “Surviving Samsara” about my journey of recovery from mental illness, as well as my memoir, “Who Let In the Sky?” about my father’s courageous struggle with Parkinson’s during the last 15 years of his life until his untimely death on 10th January, 2010.
I find it fitting that both David Bowie and my father died on the same date – January 10th. My dad died in 2010 and Bowie in 2016, six years apart. David Bowie had many personas. He changed his chameleon-like looks, fashion and appearance just as his music evolved over his long and illustrious career. He was known as the Starman, made famous by his first number one hit song “Space Oddity.” Goh Poh Seng’s name in Chinese means Precious Star. My father was so in love with life, he didn’t want to die. The legacy my father left our family was to savour and cherish the preciousness of life.
Bowie’s final album, “Dark Star”, was released days before his death. He seemed to orchestrate his final exit the way he did his entire life: as a work of art. When I watch the new videos of Bowie’s last album, it seems like he had a morbid preoccupation with death towards the end. The videos depict Bowie in a hospital bed, blindfolded in a Beckett-like post-apocalyptic landscape of grotesque monsters and disturbing super creeps. It’s as if he is lifting the veil of this mortal coil to reveal the spectre of death. He did not seem to “rage against the dying of the light” as much as come to terms with it.
In contrast, the final photos taken of Bowie by photographer Jimmy King show a man not preoccupied with cancer, sickness or death. In them, Bowie seems so alive, vital and happy. According to the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, song is the medium which takes this soul from our incorporeal body into the spirit world, ferrying us to the other side. In the end,
Bowie was not a dying dark star at all but a bright star that exploded into a supernova.
His meteoric star shone so bright, he still leaves stardust twinkling in our eyes.
I picture David Bowie and my father reuniting in Heaven; the Starman meeting the Precious Star. They were influential legendary icons, ambassadors and champions of the arts. They believed that everyone who believes in beauty, truth, justice and freedom matters, not only for our happiness, but for our very survival. We can all be heroes, not just for one day, but forever.
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