The Wisdom of Jojo Goh

Doing the best she can, whenever she can, being true to herself and loving life wholeheartedly.

BY Ian Tai | Nov 25, 2014 | Women We Love

Happenstance doesn’t exist in Jojo Goh’s world. You live for the right moments and seize them. Her story is a combination of good old-fashioned Asian values, determination and fortuitousness. Yes, she’s the embodiment of the classic Malaysian archetype of the beauty pageant finalist done good. But on a deeper level, she’s put her heart and her soul into what she does, honed her craft and has found respect for it.

Jojo Goh has found her niche on screen, often playing forlorn, tragic figures marred with intensity. With a talent for playing characters in various stages of emotional distress, you’d be forgiven for not disassociating fact from fiction. Thankfully, the Jojo we meet is brimming with confidence and grace, without any baggage—even when she apologetically strides in late for the early morning shoot.

There isn’t a wrong step placed. Her classy demeanour might be a by-product of the short-lived corporate ambitions she harboured, before setting foot onto the Miss Astro Chinese International pageant stage in 2006. Jojo “Advertising and PR bigwig” Goh could be a reality today, had it not been for a month-long leave of absence taken from her job at a local ad agency. She was on sabbatical due to the passing of her grandmother—a woman who raised her in the quiet solitude of Alor Setar, far removed from Kuala Lumpur’s madness, where she had kicked off a career she wasn’t sure she wanted.

“I felt so much love from my grandmother,” she says. “My parents were separated, and she made me feel like I wasn’t lonely. She gave an incomparable amount of love, and taught me how to be loving and understanding.” Her parents’ separation was a milestone, and hardly a blemish. As a child, Jojo’s mother moved her to the Kedah capital: a place so inconspicuous, boring and unexciting, where she could focus on her education without any distractions. She wasn’t even allowed to lay her hands on the cheap Game Boy knock-offs that were the rage among children at the time.

However, unlike most strict, traditional upbringings, Jojo was free to be herself. “I’ve always wanted control over my life. My family has been respecting my wants, needs and opinions, ever since I was a seven-year-old,” Jojo shares. She developed the need to court attention at any chance she could get: she represented her school at speech-giving events, and received brilliant grades. She was proudly shown off as a straight-A overachiever by her parents, which sparked the realisation that great achievements brought forth great acclaim and recognition.

Timing also plays a large role in Jojo’s upswing in popularity as a star. Her original intention during her sabbatical was to quit her job and travel the world. To take up the oft-traversed route of soul-searching and backpacking that any young, impressionable person would do. However, the constant badgering from a salon owner she’d previously modelled for convinced her to join the pageant.

Jojo had her reservations. “I never wanted my beauty to be judged by people. Maybe it was due to a lack of confidence,” she confides. It’s hard to imagine anything else than steely confidence brewing from this woman, casually giving pointers to the make-up crew on how her hair should be parted for the shoot. The Jojo of today is someone who clearly knows how she wants things done.

She appreciates her roots as well. Unlike most pageant finalists who make it a habit to shun their contest credentials, Jojo doesn’t downplay its importance. But exposure was never really part of her plan. She didn’t expect to make any impact at the pageant, let alone be an entertainer.

Jojo is soon en route to the heart of old Kuala Lumpur for the shoot, dolled up for the occasion. Despite running late, she’s a shimmering embodiment of calm. It’s this acceptance of the world around her that helps her to embrace life as it is. “I’m the type who follows the tide, or a big change. I adapt to it very quickly,” she says. “But in the process of adapting, I want to stay in control of myself, and the things that I do within that environment.”

Staying true to herself hasn’t always been in her game plan for showbiz survival. Early in her career, she was adamant about making everyone happy. She learnt the ropes and sunk her teeth into hosting in front of live audiences—a situation that any freshman performer would have been petrified by. Her PR background proved handy, and she steadily moved on to become a sought-after host, and subsequently, broke into acting.

These days, she’s still as easy-going as ever, ever willing to push boundaries when it comes to being creative. Tellingly, other facets of the limelight are handled different now. “When age catches up with you, you feel like you don’t want to waste time pleasing people you don’t want to please,” she asserts. “If they don’t like you, they’ll never like you.” She laughs at the thought of growing old, and the wisdom that doesn’t always come with it. She continues, “You don’t care that much about what people say about you. They don’t know you, and they don’t affect your life. In the past, their opinions would affect me, and I’d asked myself if I was really that bad, or that lacking, as a performer.”

The year 2012 put those fears to rest. She gained a foothold in national consciousness by becoming the leading lady in the Malay movie 29 Februari. Her primary motive for taking the role was simply to prove her language ability. Cue the plaudits. It led to her winning a Malaysian Film Festival award as the year’s Most Promising Actor, validating her creative choices and recognising her talent.

Despite securing a steady stream of work, she shows no signs of stopping, and can count notable Hong-Kong-based director Christopher Doyle among her esteemed collaborators. She laughs when asked about what drives her on. “Being an Aries, I always want to win all the time,” she comments. “If you’re determined to do something, you want to do it to the best of your ability. I’m not a half-hearted person. If I want to act, I need to excel at it, by doing all the homework, exposing myself to a lot of movies—and not just by saying that I like it without doing anything about it.”

Acting is very much Jojo’s current focus, the allure of being someone else too hard to resist. “Most of us are greedy. We want to try different things in life, and not all of us have the opportunity to do so,” she mulls. “To me, acting presents a chance to live someone’s life for this period of time. You see how different people act and think, you create and tolerate different ideas that you normally wouldn’t. You need to embrace and love those ideas to accept yourself as that person. I think that’s the fun part.”

Her spirit of collaboration can be seen first-hand when she poses in the long-abandoned complex where the shoot is held. It brings forth an interesting juxtaposition. A woman brought up via rigid traditions, but living very much in the moment, temporarily calling a place that time has forgotten home. It’s a strange, harmonious balance.

Despite her appreciation of life in general, there are still some oddities that Jojo can’t help but be annoyed by. “I hate it when the two chopsticks aren’t evenly coloured,” she quips. After quickly swapping out her dodgy chopstick, Jojo gets down to the task at hand: claypot noodles. It doesn’t matter that she’s having lunch in a deserted coffee shop in what was once the centre of town. Jojo is home, wherever she goes.

Her life in Alor Setar was peppered with long school holidays to Kuala Lumpur. It’s a lifestyle that gave her a sense of small-town homeliness and big-city dreams. It also gave her a subjective view on things, making her the type who weighs things slowly. Most importantly, it armed her with the skills crucial to her development as an entertainer—sometimes, to her detriment.

“People think that I’m a sai kai lui—someone who’s sociable, who knows how to deal with all sorts of people,” she notes. “It’s a big misconception about me, at least on the surface. I always put myself in other people’s shoes. When you understand things, you know how to deal with them. You know how to express yourself and make people understand what your needs are. That’s the truth of it.”

It’s a practical approach to life. But is there a reason why she’s expected to be so personable? After all, this is a woman who doesn’t hesitate to share her inner thoughts, and the occasional manicured nail snapshot, with fans. At this, Jojo mulls over the question for a few moments, searching for the right words. Finally, she says, “I’m afraid of being alone when I’m with people. That I’ll become invisible. I’m afraid to be disconnected from people, feeling that I can’t gauge the world around me. The moment that I feel that loss of connection, it scares me. It’s Taoism. I like to feel the balance of everything, to feel connected to everything. It’s a scary feeling, to be just one single thing out there.”

There’s no shortage of attention heading her way. Plans to test the waters in Singapore are mentioned, and the seeds of ambition to direct and craft scripts have been planted, if the acting bug loosens its bite. She wishes more could be done for the local entertainment scene. Her trademark pragmatism puts things into perspective.

“Whatever’s produced locally faces direct competition from overseas, even before it can grow into something of similar weight. It’s unfair,” she levels. “It does push you to be better, but you don’t have that basic recognition or support from other industries, and you can’t compete, even if you have that talent. It’s tough. To stand out, we have to do wild things, within these limitations.”

Lunch is over. Feeling energised from a healthy helping of noodles and iced tea, Jojo Goh is ready to roll. Her next stop: a weeklong sojourn, tackling outreach activities with the Orang Asli community. But just as she’s about to saunter off, we’re left with a parting shot: “There’s this Chinese proverb: when you drink the water, you always remember its source. I’m that type of person. I remember how everything begins, and I cherish every single moment passed. But as with life, we’ve got to move on.” It’s said with much humility, poise and intelligence. After all, the simplest way of looking at something might offer the best solution for living through it. When it comes to living life unfettered, Jojo Goh is a fine example of how it can be done the right way.


Jojo is soon en route to the heart of old Kuala Lumpur for the shoot, dolled up for the occasion. Despite running late, she’s a shimmering embodiment of calm. It’s this acceptance of the world around her that helps her to embrace life as it is. “I’m the type who follows the tide, or a big change. I adapt to it very quickly,” she says. “But in the process of adapting, I want to stay in control of myself, and the things that I do within that environment.”

First published in Esquire Malaysia's November 2014 issue. Photographs by Simon Chin and produced by Studio Pashe. Styling by Jason Lim. Hair by VV Chan. Make-up by Joey Yap. Dress by Alia Bastamam and Afiq M. Shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti.