Over the years, I've gained a lot of skills in terms of as an artist, as a business person, as someone in front of camera. I've gained a lot of skills over the years and people that ask me like, “What the hell can't you do?” I'm like, “The most difficult thing for me to do is to walk, basically. Isn't it ironic?” ~ Poesy Liang
Poesy Liang is an interdisciplinary artist with a background in architecture, luxury design & media. She is an innovator on the social front, founding 2 Facebook movements – Helping Angels & Bald Empathy Movement, and has won numerous media awards in South East Asia for her humanitarian projects. An early adopter of technology since 1999, long before the terms ‘blogs’ and ‘cloud storage’ even existed. Poesy recently implemented a blockchain system with her collection of physical works for authentication & provenance, and receiving bitcoins as a mode of payment since late 2015. Her famous cat Harry Putter appears on Telegram as emoji stickers.
Poesy is occasionally invited to speak on leadership platforms to share her remarkable energy that defeated paralysis twice caused by spinal tumours, and her survivor story is often retold in the media. While Poesy continues to produce paintings, sculptures, objects, museum installations, gemstone jewelry, lifestyle spaces, fashion, etc – she also create music and movements, and actively experiment with technology to widen her portfolio around her signature works – she finds it important to bridge the gap between the realms in order to achieve her calling to affect media reform and engage her skills for social good.
Poesy started out in the world when she was aged 14 as the Levi’s 501 girl for South East Asia and became a familiar face in Asian television commercials before she reinvented herself into this current form.
Hey, Poesy. Good to have you to show.
Poesy Liang: [00:00:32] Hi, thanks for having me. What a pleasure.
Jeremy Au: [00:00:35] Yeah. I've always loved what you've done, not just of art in Southeast Asia, but also your ever persevering interest in technology and intersection of it. So I thought this was to be a fun way to just have a chat and let people hear a little bit about your side, your life in Malaysia growing up, and your art story.
Poesy Liang: [00:00:56] Yeah. Ask away.
Jeremy Au: [00:01:00] So Poesy, for those who don't know yet, how do you describe yourself?
Poesy Liang: [00:01:03] How do I describe myself? Under the umbrella of the Contemporary Artists label, but I wear many hats. So over the years, there's been a cycle of many different careers and interests. And one major common denomination was the arts and creativity, and social impact. So I would say I am an artist in the social impact space. And then we can expand on that.
Jeremy Au: [00:01:35] So Poesy, tell us about your art. What kind of art do you love to do?
Poesy Liang: [00:01:40] So my work is, the message is driven by compassion, kindness, empathy, and media reform. So whatever addresses these things, it can come in many forms. It can come in social movements, where it's ephemeral. The message can be embedded in music, and in cartoons and in performances. So they call me an interdisciplinary artist. But I'm known for a couple of things. And I'm a cat painter. So I have a couple of signature series that are around cats. All these happened kind of by accident, and suddenly, my cats pays the bills. Meantime, I pursue my social impact without really thinking about how to monetize those works. I don't believe I need to monetize those works if the cat continues to put fish on the table.
Jeremy Au: [00:02:42] Yeah. So we'll obviously get into that a little bit. What was it like growing up, Poesy? I mean, you grew up in Malaysia, what was it like growing up as a kid, any child memories?
Poesy Liang: [00:02:55] My childhood has been rather different. It was difficult. My family, we started having financial issues by the time I was five-years-old. So I remembered a lot of difficulties in the family. And I witnessed it with my parents, that they were struggling to keep afloat. But prior to that, I lived a pretty blessed life as a kid. Up till the time I was five-years-old, I was exposed to the adult world and full of difficulties. And so I kind of did not really have a wonderful childhood, but kind of added on to the kind of work I'm doing now, it's given me dimension and insight to how to help people within my kindness movements. So yeah, that's the
Jeremy Au: [00:03:43] What's the long answer? What do you remember about your childhood? Any scenes that you
Poesy Liang: [00:03:48] Oh, man. My dad wouldn't love this if he heard it. I remembered him breaking down as an adult. I was five-years-old. He had gone through a series of business failures, and was stripped off his ability to provide for the family. And that's very hurtful. I saw a broken man at the time, by the time was five-years-old. I grew up very protective of my dad. And he never really recovered from that. That also turned me into who I am today, I've become a survivor, with all the onslaught of personal challenges that came my way, by the time I was a teenager. So I've been able to survive it and witness whatever failures that I observe, and use that so that I will never repeat, or do better somehow. Kind of the survival thing kicked in, and I have to do better for the family.
Jeremy Au: [00:04:43] Well, thanks for sharing and being open about that. Were you angry as a kid? Were you like fighting?
Poesy Liang: [00:04:51] I was angry as an adult. I'm not angry anymore. I wasn't angry as a kid, I was very hurt. And it took me a long time to understand, because my father's mental health declined from that point onwards, but I was not aware. I was only brought to awareness nearly in my late 30s, so it took a long time to figure all that stuff out. So before I managed to be enlightened, or figure stuff out, I was angry. And also there were uninformed choices along the way, because of the misunderstanding about how life should be. So some life choices were made, and it did not benefit me. But on hindsight, I've turned out all right. Life is like that.
I'm totally grateful now, because there's no longer that type of drama.
Poesy Liang: [00:05:49] My childhood, into my 30s was very drama. lots of drama.
Jeremy Au: [00:05:54] So tell us about the drama. You say you were angry as a teenager.
Poesy Liang: [00:05:58] I wasn't angry as a teenager. At 14-years-old, I was discovered to be the Levi's 501's girl for the TV commercial for Malaysia and Singapore. And that was my first job and my first opportunity to earn money. I saw the world very early and very quickly, I became a professional. I was also lucky... Well, we grew up in a pretty rough part of Kuala Lumpur, I live in Jalan Imbi. The neighborhood is full of Chinese gangsters. basically, I grew up with the children of gangster families. Meantime, I was also very lucky because I attended my school, which is Bukit Bintang Girls' School. And it is a Christian school.
I was introduced to Christianity, I would say that was one of my saving grace, because it kind of kept me on the straight and narrow, despite all the onslaught of drama that was coming my way, being a teenager in the limelight of the media. So as soon as I got on TV, I also experienced bullying amongst my peers. That made me even more introverted. was already introverted because of the issues in the family. And so at school, I was never very confident. I didn't have a voice, I probably did not know how to speak English until I was like 12 years old. I could understand what's going on. But I just, I was quite mute before that. I remember reading my first book, when I was eight. One day, I just picked up an Enid Blyton book and I finished reading it in one day, I was so proud of myself.
My mom put in a lot of effort for us to pick up a reading habit. But despite knowing how to read, I didn't open my mouth until much later. I was not a confident kid. All the way till I was on TV, I was still not a confident kid. So that's like a predicament because nobody could imagine that I was actually an introvert who's not confident on TV. Who could tell, right?
Jeremy Au: [00:08:05] Well my parents came from Malaysia. One from Penang, one from KL. So they share with me a lot of the stories growing up in Malaysia as well. Why do you think you grew up inconfident?
Poesy Liang: [00:08:15] Because there was so much stuff going on at home. My parents were struggling. And then in school, my friends were all going on family holidays, they had nice things. I would say, we were struggling but we didn't look underprivileged. My parents were financially struggling. It took ma all these years to actually look back and like, oh shit, we were actually living a rather underprivileged life, but we didn't look under privilege. We still had a roof over our heads. We still had nice clothes that was bought before my dad lost everything. I still get to go to piano lessons, ballet, art classes and everything. My parents persevered in my education in the arts, but they were struggling.
That's also their lack of education, that they did not know how to manage their finances. And that's why in my adult years, I am so fervent in like, tackling social issues, like trying to brainstorm how do I assist all these social, good people to tackle poverty? How do we assist all these communities. I do have some insight into how these people think because my parents was a case study.
Jeremy Au: [00:09:27] How did you grow up as you said,inconfident, yet you became a model as a young teenager? So how did that transition at the age of 14?
Poesy Liang: [00:09:49] At 14-years-old, I was like accidentally discovered for that Levi's 501's commercial. And at that point, that particular commercial, that was in 1989. And there weren't many international TV commercials available as jobs for the local model, modeling market. So when Levi's came and had an audition, everyone jumped out of their seat and put on their best and went for the audition. I was dragged along. It was my first day ever wearing a pair of heels. And that was the only pair of heels my mum owned, and she never wore it. We dug it up somewhere. And then I was dressed in badly match clothes.
My brother was friends with some Miss Malaysia's and actresses. So he told them about me, and they say, "Hey, bring her." So I went to their office, the casting agency, and they taught me how to walk on those heels. They made me walk up and down the parking lot for eight hours that day. And then at the end of it, I had super long hair. At the parking lot, they gave me a haircut. They did a china doll hair cut fringe across my forehead. And so I just china doll haircut, they put on makeup on me, dressed me up, took me to the audition, and all of us went for the audition. And when I arrived at the audition, I was very intimidated because all the faces that you will ever see on TV, the Miss Malaysia's, the actors, and everybody in that industry in 1989 was huddled up outside the casting room And I was freaked out. I was really just there for an experience, as a 14-year-old girl. And my brother as well. It was our first audition. And so the casting director or the producer, they came out and they saw me and then they asked, "Who's that?" Then they were like, okay. They skipped queue. A lot of people were waiting for maybe six hours before their turn. But somehow we managed to skip queue, and the casting director's like, "Hey, just get her in." So what they were essentially trying to do was to discover a new face, they did not want to use any overexposed faces in Malaysia.
So they got us into the casting room. And I was very frightened because they put me in front of the camera. And then there were all these people just standing behind the camera and just watching on. People were waiting their turn. You feel all this evil eye looking at you. And I was frightened, I was really frightened. Then the casting crew obviously was very interested in me. Then they knew I was 14-years-old. They knew it was my first casting. They knew I was tongue tied. So they chased everyone out. And it was only the crew, my brother, and the Miss Malaysian, and the actress who was with us.
They closed the door and told me what to do like, "Hello, I'm Poesy, I'm 5'5". I'm 14-years-old." And they'll be like, "Turn to the right, smile. Turn to the left, smile. 360 degree turn. Oh, can you dance?" " No, I don't know how to dance." So they did... I remember they put on [singing]"Back to life … back to reality …". So they switched on the music, and I had never danced before at that point. And my brother was like, "Do it like this, do it like this." So everyone within the casting room was dancing with me, including the crew. Like, "Okay, do it like this. Smile. Look here, smile. Look there, smile." So I did all that stuff like a puppy dog doing tricks. And next thing I knew, a week later, I was confirmed as the main girl.
So my life changed, like just overnight, like that. And after that, the TV commercial hit. And then all the agencies was like, " Wow, who is that?" And then there was whispers, "She's 14-years-old." And everyone's like, "No way, no way." And then all of a sudden, all the agencies in town was like, "We want to cast her. All of us want to cast her." And nobody knew which agency I came from. So whenever I went to a casting after that, if any talent scout spotted me, there'll be like, "Give us your number. Come to our office."
So I had a very unusual beginning with that, because like with casting agencies, usually you would need to sign up with them. With the industry, the ad agency will pay a talent agency 100% plus 20. And 20% is agency fee. 100 is supposed to be talent fee. And if you're not an in house model, you take 90. So what happens is the agency take 20 plus 10. So you need to sign up with someone in order to take that 100. But at that point, everyone was like, "You're going to get 100. You don't have to sign with us, you're just going to get 100." So I was represented by every single agency in town. And then that particular career lasted me about 14 years. I was very busy.
The first few years of that, I hardly went to school for a full week. It was like two weeks on a film set, three days back in school. And then of course, from a nobody, I suddenly had a lot of people who wanted to sit with me, eat with me, walk with me. And I was still very much a loner. And I was really too busy to even think about the confidence issue by then. I was a professional talent already. So I was just working. Every time there was a job, I would go for final casting, go see the clients, they look at me. They try on clothes on me. And like okay, confirm. Then casting, then it's like shoot day, what day. And shoot starts at 5:00 AM a lot. That was my life to my mid 20s.
Jeremy Au: [00:16:01] Were you happy? I mean, you shared you were inconfidence. And then you felt like you were not aware that you were inconfident, but you're still doing it. Were you happy with those days when you had that success? Did you feel better?
Poesy Liang: [00:16:16] I was pretty blur. I didn't even see it as a success. It was exciting, but then at 17 I was paralyzed. I fell sick. So I was out of commission for about two years. Later in my early 20s, I fell into depression. So no, I wasn't happy.
Jeremy Au: [00:16:38] Let's talk about that. So you were riding high. You were modeling, you get some success, and then you experience your first encounter paralysis, right? So tell us more. Well, how did you discover it? How did it feel like?
Poesy Liang: [00:16:53] After my SPM, which is our O-levels. At 16, after that major exams, we were on holiday, and I was doing teenager stuff going with my fellow 16-years-old to learn how to play tennis, learn new things. And it was on the tennis court that I fell in tumble. That's like the first time of my legs not working. So it was kind of, okay, our system is like a computer, and my computer crashed on the tennis court. So it was during my first tennis coaching lesson. I intended to run, but my legs didn't move, my body tumbled ahead. My legs didn't move. In my head, I expected my legs to move, but I didn't move. So I fell. My legs was gradually weakening. But of course, it was a very confusing time because I had no idea that I had a growth in my spinal cord.
So the first time I sprained my ankle, it never recovered. And so all my weight was depending on my other leg, and my other leg, obviously could not take it. So I sprained the other leg. And I sprained my legs over and over again until I was finally paralyzed. And for a long time, we didn't even suspect that it was unusual because it's, "Oh, it's sprained ankles, right?" And I never recovered until it was so bad my left leg became jelly and it became shorter. It was only then that because also, my parents were snowed under with all the financial stress. They just expect me to get better at some point. Then find news like this is really damn weird, really all right. So we went to a radiologist clinic, and the radiologist just took a look at the way I was trying to move and he's like, "We don't even need to scan that. There's a growth somewhere."
He wrote an urgent letter to GH. And then the moment we got to GH, I was emergency case already. And that was also kind of a blessing because it was such a late stage. It's like, "This is pretty serious and we don't know what's going on. Is there something in the brains? Is there a tumor? What is it?" I was 17 years. I didn't understand what that really meant. There were series of test. I was admitted to GH. At that point, the only neurosurgery department that had any authority was the GH in KL. And the entire nation's neurosurgery cases, were on waitlist in GH. And there was only a small team of neurosurgeons and professors who was there. And some people has been on waitlist for like, five, six years.
And so when I got there, they ran a series of tests. And they could not find what was wrong until they finally injected some dye color into my spine and put me through a scanner. And then they found that the color stopped at a certain level near my bra line, which is T-5 to T-12. So then they saw like there's a stop right there. So it's like, "That's definitely a growth there." So they expected it to be in the brains, but it was in my spine. Fast forward, many, many, many years. We realized that my case is like the only one in the world. There's nobody my age with this type, with a meningioma tumor in the spine, because this type of tumor only exists in young infants and octogenarians. So nobody at 17 or even my age now is meant to have this type of tumor in the spine.
So I became a curious case and I managed to jump queue. They took out the tumor for my spine, and they told us that, "She's never going to walk again." And at that point, my legs were like... I was experiencing paraplegia already. I can't really handle my bowels and pee and all that. So you know what, going through that, was like an innocent kitten, man. I wasn't upset. I was just very curious about everything. It's like, "Oh, wow, this is what it is like to be on a wheelchair. This is what it is like to be in an ambulance. This is what it is like to lie on the operation theater table. This is what is like to have anesthesia." So I was very oddly happy at that point. I remember going into the operation theater, of course, my parents are completely trashed, right?
They've been trashed since I was five-years-old. And suddenly this tower top tragedy happens with their kid, their precious daughter. I guess I was very happy and high at a point because I needed to keep their spirits up. I remembered being wheeled into the operation theater, and I told them, " Hey, I had a happy life. Whatever happens to me..." I actually told them, "Thank you. And don't be upset." Anyway, I survived. I came out, and I didn't even understand what the hell it meant that I won't walk again. Thankfully, I've been swimming since I was two-years-old. So I had swim training. Throughout my teens, I was a water baby. So when I came out of this whole surgery thing, during the rehab, we had to go for... I had to go for hydrotherapy. I say we because my parents were with me all the time.
I had to go for hydrotherapy at the General Hospital. And all the rest of the paraplegic classmates of mine were frightened of water. They all had those baby floats on every single limb; on their ankle, on the knee, around their hips, around their waist, around their chest, on the elbow, on the wrist, on the neck. So basically, they have to be floating on the water to do all these free flow exercises, to gain strength with their paraplegic limbs. I could float without all those things. I was a water baby. So although I was paralyzed waist down, I could swim, man. And that was the saving grace. Because from the time I came back home, I learned how to walk again. And then I started to train at a pool, one kilometer a day for a whole year. And at 19-years-old, I was walking again. And I was back on high heels.
I cannot wear high heels anymore after the second surgery. But after that first surgery, it was a real crazy miracle. I was ballroom dancing at 19-years-old. And I went back to see my neurosurgeons and they were just like kind of fell off their chair. So that was that. That part of my story. I didn't even know that it was a miracle. I didn't, until much later, until my second surgery. The first miracle went by without telling anyone. I didn't share it with people. I didn't tell people how serious that case was, because I didn't know it was that serious. So in a way that ignorance protected me, because I handled it like, oh yeah, a walk in the park.
Jeremy Au: [00:24:42] Yeah, thanks so much for sharing, Poesy. That was rough. It must have been such a tough time.
Poesy Liang: [00:24:45] I didn't realize it was rough.
Jeremy Au: [00:24:46] Yeah. And that's interesting, Poesy, because when you share the story, you share a story with almost two cameras, two views, right? One was the view of yourself going through that process. And then it sounds like you have another camera, which is like Poesy as of 2021, looking back on that life, right? Because I suddenly realize these days that I have a newborn daughter, four-months-old, and I realized that I'm the same age as my parents had me when I was born. And now I'm starting to look at my own childhood memories with the eyes of the older person. What do you think about that? About your own experience from the angle of yourself going through it, and to the angle of your today?
Poesy Liang: [00:25:39] Well, it was someone else's life. Looking at it, it's someone else's life and it's like watching a movie. I would say I've lived with several lifetimes and all those parts was someone else because I'm just grateful that those tremendous challenges doesn't apply to me anymore, and that I am able to tap into those experiences and memories to assist someone else. And I do believe that it is unmistakable that the life was chosen for me to do something with it. And hence I became... All the things I chase now is because of that calling. You just don't survive this to be another regular Joe.
Jeremy Au: [00:26:29] And you started mentioning this, so you've recovered, yours was a miracle and you didn't even know it was a miracle, and I know you went back into the entertainment industry. Did you go back to the industry different? Or you, let's say you had no idea, so you felt like it was just a pause or as a continuation?
Poesy Liang: [00:26:50] It is a continuation. Yeah, it was a pause. A lot of people thought I died, then I came back and then I continued taking jobs. I was slightly lost for sure because actually, those years in the hospital were very peaceful and very meditative. Every day I had extreme silence. And I've got used to that silence and I got comfortable with the silence and I was living in the healing room for a long time. So when I came back out into the world, I was not used to the noise. I was not used to the type of people I was seeing at 19-years-old coming out into the world.
I was still the innocent 14-year-old rabbit. So I didn't go through some of the growing pains other people had to go through. So coming out at 19 was like, " Shit!" All of a sudden, is like, "Wow, so many evil people. Wow, why is this world so evil? Wow." Because earlier when I was that teenage talent in the broadcasting industry, people protected me. But at 19, nobody protects you anymore. At 14 people protect you. It's just like, I took my first solo flight at five-years-old. When you're flying by yourself at five-years-old the air stewardess will take care of you, everyone they dote on you, but then if you're a 19-year-old, nobody would do that for you. So that was like the rug was pulled from under me, and suddenly I had this painful awakening to see the world the way it was.
Humanity was ugly for the first time, so I quickly spiraled into depression. 19-years-old came out, by 21, I was already super... I was in a dark place. So I believe many people at that age with that type of exposure was in the same dark place and we all catty towards one another. And I've always been a loner, so I also don't know how to make friends. Or I'll make the wrong friend, or trust the wrong people. There were no good advisors around me, but I'm thankful that like I said, I grew up being exposed to church values. So even when I was exposed to the world, I didn't fall into anything very, very, very, very troublesome, let's just put it that way. So I'm very, very thankful about that because I can't say the same for some of my peers, the other models. Some people did ruin their lives.
Jeremy Au: [00:29:35] What was it like in your 20s as a model, you just come back from the surgery and recovered your ability to walk. What were your peers like? Because you mentioned when you're 14, you were getting bullied by the other people that didn't understand your lifestyle and your career choices. What was it like in your early 20? So you were sad, you're struggling for some grief?
Poesy Liang: [00:30:01] The bullying when I was in my teenage years, were basically like fake news of you being spread around. People gossip behind your back and spread shit and they're not true. And when it's been told back to you, it's so hurtful. I didn't know how to stand up to that stuff at that point. It was intentional victimization by my peers because at that point, people were unkind to each other. So in the 20s, the real world proved to me that this is really what the world is like. So it just became like the truth-lie. In my 20s, I kept trusting wrong people, friends who would stab you behind your back.
All those things really mattered to me and I really don't like this type of stuff till today. But now I just don't take any of these nonsense anymore, and I call people out these days, back then I didn't know how to. And now I will try to, I would mentor younger women to learn how to swim with this type . And I wish I had that before, like an oldest sister.
Jeremy Au: [00:31:15] Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, it is tough.
Poesy Liang: [00:31:18] Now, I'm very... I love to mentor girls who are ambitious, who have things going for them, but nonetheless their social life is going to be tough. I want to be there for these girls because is tomorrow's leaders. I want to help them detour away from any unnecessary life challenges, or social challenges or whatever. All those things ended up being very valuable to me now.
Jeremy Au: [00:31:49] So there you are working, getting your life in order, building out the career, and then you discover that you have another tumor, you mentioned that. What was it like? Did you understand now what it was? Did it hit harder because you were older?
Poesy Liang: [00:32:07] It was difficult. The second round was really difficult. Early 20s up to the time I was 25, I was just spiraling downwards in depression and I was not getting my life together, I didn't know how. But then when 24-years-old, I was really bottom, really low. Then finally buckled up and like, "Okay, I'm going to change my lifestyle.” And I started to leave that industry because I blamed it all on the media limelight that I was receiving because I was attracting the wrong people. I was attracting wrong relationships, attracting the wrong boys and I just decided, okay, I'm going to leave this scene. And because all those years somehow my abilities, my skills were not being used. So it's just going on TV, knowing how to present myself on TV, knowing how to present the client's product and brand on TV, which is a skill on its own. But that was the only skill I was using.
I knew I had so many other abilities, but it was not being used. And it was a confusing time in my early 20s because it's like, "Okay, I'm pretty good at this, I'm pretty good at that, but not used. Nobody cares as well." Because it's just the face and how you're going to present in front of the camera. And then on the social scene is like how people care to be seen with you, plus this is a fact. I wasn't even a top model, I was a professional talent who got jobs all the time. I'm one of those who gets jobs all the time, but I'm not the "It" girl. I just managed to continue getting jobs somehow. So it's lukewarm and I knew it's not the Be It and all for me. And I was studying architecture since I was 17 years old.
So there are a couple of dimensions of this entire journey, there was the art that was going on in the background, then the art moved into architecture. And all the while I was in this career, I was studying to be an architect, but my parents had no money for me to continue meaningfully, to finish my architectural studies. So I finished my diploma and then I started doing a soul searching. At 24-years-old decided, okay, let's get out of this thing. And I was so upset with my life at that point. I just snapped, changed my phone number, changed my clothing style even. I stopped wearing makeup. I threw out my TV, radio, everything to do with the media. I just went on diet for like 10 years. So this was coming up to the year 2000. I did an entire reinvention when I did my MBA, I started to dress like a geek and stopped wearing my glamorous clothes and just changed.
I just flipped and found myself. And that was when I realized, “Oh shit, I'm actually an introvert. I'm not an extrovert. That's why I was so out of place the whole time.” This was 25-years-old, I realized I'm an introvert, and then one day in a traffic jam when I was driving, all of a sudden some thoughts hit me. This was when I was studying for my MBA, and I started to write on a tissue box. And the traffic jam was not moving. I ended up writing an entire, I don't know, I was just rambling on the tissue box writing. And then I went home. At that point, I just had my first computer. I started typing, and then after that, I just realized I have this thing about writing. So writing was my shrinks couch. I had a blog before the word blog existed. This was 1999, '98.
I started writing '98 and '99. My girlfriend built me a poesyliang.net. It's a PHP site. So I was a very early adopter in that sense. And the site was locked to public. I did give memberships out, and people came and read my stuff every day. I write about an average of 2000 to 3000 words a day, at that point, for about 12 years. It was about life, it was basically a verbal diarrhea for me. And that's how I started to figure myself out.
Jeremy Au: [00:36:57] Yeah, there's a lot of discovery there. Personal discovery. Was the second tumor, was that part of that journey? Because it wasn't like, I don't know, was it like a shock to…
Poesy Liang: [00:37:09] The second tumor was… We discovered it when I was 27, 28, so hard to remember my dates now. It's 2003. 2003, I was 28. So at that point, I have gone through a few heartbreaks already, and at that point, I was dating the love of my life at that point and it was difficult. It was a crazy rich Asian story. And we found my tumor then because I had been battling with depression throughout my 20s, so I knew that... It was a toxic life. So I knew when we went to check out my spine, because at that point, I didn't go check my spine out for seven years, because I completely lost... I didn't care really, so seven years I didn't go and check my spine out. And then in 2003, I recognized some symptoms of my legs.
So I was there, “Okay, I am so sure something is growing again.” So we went to check it out, and then sure enough, there was a tumor coiled around my spinal cord and at the same spot. And this time was worse, way worse. I was facing some heartbreaking issues in my private life, personal life, romantic life. And I was more consumed with that, than actually caring for my own personal welfare. It affected me a lot. I experienced unkind situations even around my health. So it was difficult because I no longer had that spright that will to live. The tumors were coiled around my spine. And the neurosurgeon told me after the surgery, that there were new tumors, old tumors and scar tissues in that same site, in the spine. So the new tumors came out easily, like fish roe. Like the way we find fish roe in our fish.
Meantime, the old tumors were like 10-year-old chewing gum stuck on a concrete wall. So it's uneven, it's ambiguous, and he had to shave off my old tumors. And then, of course, from the earlier surgery, my blood vessels were all messed up with my scar tissues. It was like really handle with care, because out of our entire human anatomy, the most crucial critical part to operate would be the spine, even more than the brain. Certain parts of our brains can be cut out, and we can still operate like a normal human being, but there is zero margin for error with the spine. And so anyway, he removed the major parts of my tumors, especially the new ones, and the old ones, he tried to shave them off.
And in that process, some of my nerves were damaged but not damaged enough to keep me paralyzed for life. But the damage has caused complete disorder in terms of sensation, so I don't feel my legs anymore. So after that, after the surgery, the doctor actually knew me. He knew me. He knew my stubborn personality. He pushed me really hard, like I was resting for one day, then the second day, he made the nurse wind up my bed 10 degrees, then the second day, another five degrees third day... On the fifth day, he made me sit up already. And then the next day, I had to hang my legs off the bed on the… Every day he gave me a challenge. And so I think by the ninth day, I was asked to stand up for a second with everyone.
There were so many people I think there were seven people holding, one person holding each knee so that it won't buckle. People lifting me up for my armpit, my shoulder, and so I was challenged to stand up for one second only. It was very, very difficult. That doctor knew me so he pushed me really far, but my leg's sensation never came back. So after that second surgery, I woke up. I think it was a nine-hour surgery or something, I can't remember. It was a very unusually long surgery. And when I woke up at 4:00 AM in the morning with anesthesia wearing off, I woke up in tremendous pain and I was crying. And I'm like, “Straighten my legs. Straighten my legs.”
Then my mom rushed to the bed and she's like, “What's wrong?” And I said, “Please straighten my legs.” My legs felt like it was completely bent and broken out of shape. That was the feeling. And she said, “But your legs are completely straight.” And I'm like an architect and I've got OCD. I say, “Make sure, is it symmetrical? It doesn't feel symmetrical.” I was going nuts. And she said, “Yes, it's symmetrical.” I didn't even trust her but there's nothing I can do. So that feeling, that pain, that what, feeling never left. Actually is exactly the same feeling as I feel today, except that I've gotten used to it. It's been 18 years, I've gotten used to it. I've managed to balance on it, walk on it, that tremendous heaviness of my legs. It has not changed. There are days when it gets worse, there are days I'm able to completely ignore it.
I've gained the ability to live with this. I don't see it as pain anymore. I have been unable to feel the floor. If I stepped on something sharp, I wouldn't know. If it was wet, I wouldn't know. So basically, I walk using my eyes one foot before another. Over the years, I've gained a lot of skills in terms of as an artist, as a business person, as someone in front of camera. I've gained a lot of skills over the years and people that ask me like, “What the hell can't you do?” I'm like, “The most difficult thing for me to do is to walk, basically. Isn't it ironic?”
Jeremy Au: [00:43:22] I mean, I've known you for so many years now. And when I hang out with you, you feel like every other person. I guess now I know, I guess to some extent, how you feel.
Poesy Liang: [00:43:37] Life goes on, business goes on and you use what you're given to get on with life. And I don't identify as a disabled person, I don't identify as somebody with a handicap. I don't identify as somebody who has setbacks in life. That's why you feel like I was just like anybody else. Because I also feel like I'm just like anybody else. It's the same obliviousness as the time I was 17-years-old and I didn't understand doctors telling me, “You're not going to walk again.” I just did not give that any airtime. And I still have this particular attitude towards life. If something upsets me or annoy me, I just don't give it airtime and I continue powering ahead. And there are good days, there are bad days.
There are days when you want to power ahead and there are many obstacles. But then obstacles are there to help us get even more creative. This is how I see it, and then actually, this is the only way I'm able to see it because there's no choice, as in life for everyone else.
Jeremy Au: [00:44:53] I guess maybe there's not a way to ask you about it, is like did you feel death, like mortality? Because the first time around, it feels like you didn't know what's going on, so you weren't scared. Which is the joy of ignorance, as you said. But the second time around and after that, I mean, you didn't know for sure you'll work, you'll come back again
Poesy Liang: [00:45:13] I mean, I think about death a lot these days because, well, I also read The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Is it Highly Successful People or Highly Productive, I can't remember, Stephen Covey. So one of the first chapters, it said that you have to address your funeral. So, if you work backwards, how are you going to live your life? I read that book when I was like 24, 25-years-old, when I was doing my restructuring, I was restructuring my entire life, re-engineering Poesy Liang. So at that point, I was already addressing death, and that was 20 years ago.
So nowadays, I am prepared for death, I would just say, although there are many things on my bucket list that hasn't been checked off yet. But I do my very best to check off my bucket list. So in terms of mortality, I have put myself in danger a lot, irresponsibly. And it wasn't even because of my health issues that gave me that brush with mortality. So now these days, I am a lot more sane, a lot more responsible, and a lot lazier too. I don't chase thrills nowadays. So in terms of the brush with mortality, I have put myself in danger and very thankful that no extra limbs broken.
Jeremy Au: [00:46:42] Yeah. So this feels like through this time, you're discovering art. How did you enter art? You've been doing architecture, how did you come back to art?
Poesy Liang: [00:46:56] All these years since I was a child, I was doing art. And art was always like the thing. Nobody expected me to use art and make it a career. Not even my parents. My mom is Taiwanese, so Taiwanese mothers make sure their kids are violin, piano every freaking thing under the sun. So I had all the best teachers for art, calligraphy, painting, whatever, whatnot. And that exposure allowed me to be creative whenever I need to. And to me, it didn't feel like it was a special thing because all my cousins also had the same stuff. They have become the top gynecologists in Taiwan, same age as me. They had become dentists, they had become every other thing. And all of them had the same exposure as I did. I'm the only one who turned it into career. But this was also how my life led because during the time I was in the hospital, 17-years-old that time, I spent a lot of time doing creative stuff.
I was already writing then. I did not know I had a writing skill because at that point, I was writing letters to my friends who went overseas to tell them what had happened. So writing was one of the stuff I fell back on, drawing obviously, and just creating. Then later, when I left this media scene in my 20s, I found writing again. I was studying my MBA and I had great hopes to become a banker in Hong Kong, crazy stuff, but thankfully it never happened. And I was chasing that particular dream at that point, doing artwork, and I fell into an architectural job. And that's when my skills really got put to use, and that's accidental. And I realized, “Oh my God, this is what I'm supposed to come back to.”
Whenever I was unhappy or sad, I would write. And then I also started playing the piano again. And then that like, “Okay, work on all these other skills that I neglected for like 10 years. I revived them all, but it became a matter of survival, to practice, to activate my creativity my creative skills. So I sharpen those knives silently need because I needed that, to feel good about myself. So that's what led me back in. And then it became a matter of like, “ If you don't practice art, you're not going to feel very fulfilled.” So it continued. And then it was only until 2011, years later, a decade later that I was doing some crazy art project, The Ball Empathy Movement, I was stranded out in Paris and I had 200 Euro left, six weeks to go before the grand finale. And I had no idea how the hell I'm going to fund this whole thing to the end and come home with a finished project. And I was so stubborn, I would refuse to come back.
That particular project put me in some danger, but that's a story for another day. So I was broke, 200 Euro left and I thought of doing some crazy things to raise money. And thankfully, some angels protected me, it didn't happen. I ended up painting on the sidewalks of Paris, and then it continued on to different parts of Europe, and it paid for the entire thing. And when I came back, I realized I had made five-figure in Euro for over six weeks. And that's when I realized, “Oh wow, I could actually focus on this and see where it will lead me.” And that was in 2011, 10 years ago. So now it's 2021. I've been at it for a good 12 years in terms of being the crazy artist. I'm less crazy these days, but still in the middle of somewhere in there. Don't dare me. Never dare Poesy Liang.
Jeremy Au: [00:51:05] Oh, I wouldn't dare.
Poesy Liang: [00:51:08] But then this particular nature of mine is perfect as a startup founder. Oh my god.
Jeremy Au: [00:51:20] Yeah, I mean, there's something interesting about you as well, because here you are with your personal story of adversity and learning how to walk again twice.
Poesy Liang: [00:51:30] Three times, three times.
Jeremy Au: [00:51:32] Three times?
Poesy Liang: [00:51:33] No, I mean you learned how to walk once. And so did I, and then the extra two times. So altogether, I learned how to walk three times.
Jeremy Au: [00:51:43] Super fair point, thank you. I never thought about it that way. I have a four-month-old daughter, so she's going to learn to walk her first time soon. And then you learn how to walk three times, you have your rediscovery of art form, as a passion, and a career over the past 12 years. What's interesting is that for the time I've known you, you always have this edge of, I don't know what's the word, the boundary of technology. Because you were blogging before there was blogs, and then writing these essays online way before anybody else was really writing. Or if they were writing, they weren't writing essays the way you were. You figured out how to go to Stanford and get a CyberKnife operation.
You talked to me about what's it was like to know Esther Wojcicki, she's the mother of the Google key executive, Esther, as well as 23andMe CEO. So it's interesting that you're this intersecting with this world. And even when I met you in New York, and we were getting, I think we were getting Japanese food together and you were staying at on a couch of another startup founder as well. Why is that?
Poesy Liang: [00:52:58] Tech has always been a... it's been a Pandora box. It's a matter of curiosity. Now let's just see me as a cat with nine lives. I don't know how many lives I've used up, but I am basically a cat with crazy curiosity. And I love that, the internet of things. I love to solve problems. I want to solve the world's problems. And I realized that in order to solve the world's problems, you need technology and creativity. And I happen to have at least one of it. And I have a huge exposure and a huge Rolodex of the best people in tech. So I'm able to have very engaging conversations with tech people.
When I started reinventing myself in my mid-20s, I realized that, “Hey, I'm actually an introvert. Hey, I'm actually a geek, how come I didn't know that?” That's when I started to hang out with people who, they would play World of Warcraft, and was it Dungeons and Dragons? And back then this was 1999. I had two interaction of friends, the very glam ones who goes clubbing. So I was actually roommates with this pair of sisters. One sister is the glam one who goes clubbing, the other sister is the one who had eight computers networked in the living room, and all the boys will come over and never go home. Everyone would just be there playing games. So after my clubbing, I would come home and chill out with them. And I realized that when I'm out in the clubbing scene, all the people were fake and unkind, but then when I came home to this gang of geeks, they were relaxed, chilled out, they were real.
They had nothing to prove, and they were accepting and I could just be myself in my pajamas and hang around. I didn't know how to play Dungeons and Dragons, or World of Warcraft, or whatever they were up to at that point. I was just chilling out with them and we were eating together all the time. And our sleep patterns were totally crazy. I would come home from a clubbing night like 4:00 AM, and everyone's still playing games. So I realized at that point, I was actually a geek. And through that discovery was when I realized I want to be smarter. So that's when I decided, “Okay, let's go back to... Let's go to business school. Let's go to law school.” I did both. And then, “Let's leave this stupid glamor shit behind. Let's shed that skin. Stop dressing up in the way where you will only attract assholes.”
So I flipped and then realized that I appreciate geeky people, and that's when my tech journey started. My first blog was built by my girlfriend, who was that geek who had all the computers network in her living room. So she built me the poesyliang.net and gave it to me before my birthday. And at that time, I had already written a whole year of articles already. And she's like, “Here, this is how you do it. You just fill it in and put it in.” So I put in all the entries according to the date, and suddenly, overnight, I had a blog. She called it Poesy's World, And she's like, "You can change the name, if you like. Okay, I'm going to stick to Poesy's World. So that was it. And I had like entire year of entries the day that we started.
That got me very excited, and so of course, Friendster came along, I was early. I don't remember what else, ICQ. ICQ was the same time 1999. MRIC was earlier, I think '97 I can't remember. I wasn't very engaged with MRIC but the IRC chat. But ICQ was very useful to me, because it was instant messaging. It was also that time when SMSs was being used and a lot of people did not discover SMS, but I discovered it quite early. The ICQ thing was very useful to me because when I was doing my MBA, that was 1999, I traded futures to pay school fees.
So we had the Bloomberg screens and Bloomberg has a Messenger. But at the same time, I had ICQ running in my computer. And I had a small network of friends who were using ICQ then. And I received Business News like a minute before sometimes Bloomberg because I had business journalists on my ICQ. And so I managed to make my school fees like that. Of course, and then I also lost my entire school fees at the same time. So don't trade futures, man. That's the crazy story.
Jeremy Au: [00:58:28] Well, as you got me holding onto the roller coaster there. You made your school fees then you lost your school fees.
Poesy Liang: [00:58:40] I made my school fees and I lost my school fees. Crazy. Then I had a really love-hate relationship with the futures trading career, it was short-lived, it was like two years of my life. After I graduated from my MBA, and I paid up with great difficulty, I left that scene. I hated the trading circles, I hated the banking circles. I have a lot of friends in that circle. And at that time, I was still living a fast life. I was still that model who went to school. And during the futures, that two years, I was living a pretty fast life because I had to show up with clients and stuff.
So after that, oh my god, when the market is good, everyone loves each other. When the market is bad, everyone resents each other. When someone makes a wrong trade, or if you tell someone, “Please do not make this trade,” and that person doesn't listen to you and then after that, the person goes through the parking lot and kicks your car. So yeah, it's stupid. It's stupid. But you know, the experience has equipped me with trading skills now, which is great. For a long time, I didn't know what the hell the experience was for. It was a bitter taste in my mouth. But now I'm thankful. Now I'm pretty chilled out. I don't really care anymore about a lot of things.
Jeremy Au: [01:00:23] Wrapping things up here. What would you say at the end of day are the things you care about now?
Poesy Liang: [01:00:28] Poesy Liang as a private person cares about her cats. And she cares about getting enough sleep and eating good food. I like to eat beautiful-looking food. The camera, if the camera likes it, I like it. But I have to eat well. I want to live well, but at the meantime, I'm actually just lying low during the pandemic and building up to my next social impact project. What do I care about? I care about social impact. I am hungry for impact, I'm greedy for impact. But at the same time, I also don't want to expense my energy and burn the hell out of myself. I've burned out so many times already. I had the Helping Angels Movement, which in the early years, boomed and went so well. That was part of my healing journey, that was also a piece of my artwork.
It's still going on, I've kept it low profile, but we still have two projects running for the last 14 years now. One project is eight years, another project is 14 years. The 14-years project is called Thursday Tutoring. So basically, 14 years ago, when I founded Helping Angels on Facebook, it was just a mere group and I had four strict rules; no fundraising, no commerce, no religion, no politics. So I challenged my members to come up with social impact actions without having to ask people for money, without having to feed your ego or glorify yourself or use it as advertising of your business. So I basically took away all the ulterior motives of what people would normally be driven with when they do something for someone else.
So we came up with many projects, and one of the most enduring one was Thursday Tutoring. Because at that point, I was like, I'm surrounded by all these very rich kids. And my peers are all very well off, well to do but they are so whiny, they're so whiny about their first world problems. And back then, Wednesday was Mumble Night. Friday, I mean, it was Zoo all the way, everyone was just going to Zoo. Wednesday night, Friday night, Saturday night, they might party the whole week, whatever. So I'm like, "Okay, I want to recruit all my brats, my friends who are brats to go and do some social good." So I came up with Thursday Tutoring. So Thursday is the day of respite, the day you give back two hours to the community.
So I went to a shelter home and I'm like, “Hey, come, we have living room time with your kids. Two hours a week, we will volunteer and help them do their homework.” So my tagline was, I wanted to rebrand goodness. But at the same time, I told whenever I recruited my friends to come for this, I wanted to make kindness a cool thing. Then I said, “You only need to contribute two hours of your time, plus if you are able to join the dots, you're intelligent enough to make a difference to these kids in my program. So if you can do A, B, C, one, two, three, you have what it takes already.” So a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon.
I used my media profile to do it, and also, why did I do that? It was also in the age where Paris Hilton was rising in popularity. And it really rubbed me all wrong because of the values that is being put into the idiot box, where our generations of young people are finding a new culture that's not going to be edifying. So I saw media decline. I grew up in the media, from the days of Meg Ryan. I love Meg Ryan's movies, but I also realized, actually life is not like that. It's very misleading that we grow up to expect our romances to behave this way. It's not real, real life doesn't behave this way. And hence a lot of people are misled in their choices of life partnership and they're not equipped with the survival attitude to handle real life. Real life is full of shit, trust me, and I've been there.
For my 20s, remember, I was facing my depression, my decline that was what was upsetting me. I was looking at how media was going south and everything on media was a lie at that point to me. Wow, nowadays, my God, it's like Babylon, and the media today is a bad, bad space. And that's why my life calling for media reform. I know I can't do it alone, I may not even achieve a lot in my lifetime, but I'm going to die trying and I'm going to rally all my most important friends. I don't care, important or not important, as long as you join me. You join me in correcting things. Doing the right thing for the world.
Even the smallest thing would matter, the smallest drop of water is going to add to the ocean, so that's my ideal. That's why I joined forces with everyone else. Nowadays, I'm trying to figure out how would I fit in the grander scheme of things? I'm still trying to figure out. I'm still coping. So there are lots of lifetime projects that I'm developing. So the bucket list is long. Still, the bucket list is important. There is still work in progress, man. Every one of us is work in progress. There is no pinnacle of success for me. I'm not chasing that. It is just a bunch of bucket lists, some for myself, some for the world, and some for people I love.
Jeremy Au: [01:07:34] Thank you so much, Poesy, for sharing.
Poesy Liang: [01:07:38] You're welcome. Thanks for digging all these things up, man. Quite cathartic, it's like therapy.
Jeremy Au: [01:07:47] Well, thank you so much for sharing. I think it's all your writing. It's all your work and your life that you're sharing with us.
Poesy Liang: [01:07:55] Yeah. I'm under a lot of pressure the last 10 years to write my book. I've been nagged by a lot of people to write my books. And I feel like I'm trying to muster up the motivation to do it during this pandemic. And I'm allowing everything to distract me including clubhouse. So writing the books, I know I have a few books that I need to write. There have been filmmakers knocking on my doors, but... I'm going to be 46 this July. The film can wait because it's okay if it comes out when I'm 60-years-old, but the books need to come out like one by one at least. So I'm under a lot of pressure there.
Jeremy Au: [01:08:43] Awesome, thank you so much, Poesy.