On the banks of Jalan Imbi, through tributaries of old-charm streets that smell of drain water and steamed fish, lies a slender house with a rusty, faded-pink gate. The house occupies a small part of the ground floor of a block that, from afar, looks like a chest of white drawers.
This home, around 30-years-old, is split into two worlds. As you walk through the front door, you are greeted by the first: an eery sight of old, unlit lanterns, each hanging by a rope across a wall above a black piano. Look left, and there are 26 ship steering wheels of all sizes stuck on a wall.
All these nautical antiques were once collected and sold in three shops across the Klang Valley by the father of the house’s current resident, Poesy Liang.
Poesy, 39, has milky-white complexion, with narrow cat-like eyes that taper to the sides. She moves with a slight stiffness, but it’s nothing conspicuous. She wears a dragonfly diamond ring, which she made herself.
She’s a painter, a jewellery-maker, a singer, an interior designer and is the founder of charities such as Helping Angels and the Bald Empathy Movement.
Much like her home, she is an artist who works in different worlds. In short: she’s a painter, a jewellery-maker, a singer, an interior designer and is the founder of charities such as Helping Angels and the Bald Empathy Movement. The latter is a project that enlisted the likes of Elvira Arul and Ras Adiba to shave their heads to raise awareness towards cancer survivors and others suffering from chronic illnesses.
Two weeks after we met, Poesy flew to New York as an attendee of the prestigious Nexus Global Youth Summit on Innovative Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship, where hundreds of the world’s brightest young wealth holders and social entrepreneurs came together to discuss topics related to philanthropy and global problem solving.
She was named Her World’s “Woman of the Year” in 2011. Hong Kong producers and her French agent based in Cannes are dying to make her the focus of a feature film. But in parsing through her achievements, seeing Poesy stand on her own two feet, literally and figuratively, is the greatest miracle of all.
Today, Poesy is preparing to apply the finishing touches to her latest work, tentatively called “Lily and Blues”. But she is an empress in need of her clothes. “I need to change before I paint,” she says. She leaves, and returns dressed like a swan, with blue, green and yellow splotches decorating the hem of her white gown. This is on purpose—she paints in this frock, and has kept it dirty for years. “The whole idea is to not keep this dress white.”
Poesy spends most of her life in the other half of the house, at the back. She returned to the family residence eight years ago—her parents live in a nearby semi-detached unit—and has reinvented her childhood home. Now, it’s an art studio, with several life-sized canvases sitting on tiled flooring, while paintings of anything from cats leaping on rooftops (a series called “Peranakan Rooftop Cats”) to a dinosaur-meets-giraffe creature standing in the meadows (affectionately titled “OCD Giraffe”) scattered across the room. In this universe, anything is possible.
“For any new person that comes to this house, the minute they walk in, they’ll see all the antiques and go waah,” says Poesy. She laughs, and the laugh is sudden, strong, filling the cup of life to the brim.
“They step in, and it’s this experience I bring them into. They’ll wonder, where do all these things come from? And then, my story comes out.”
In 1992, Poesy stopped walking.“It was like a computer breakdown. Sometimes, you’re working halfway, and it crashes,” she says. One of her earliest memories of her legs failing was during her first tennis lesson after finishing SPM. She stretched to return a ball, her body propelled forward like a rocket. Her legs stayed rooted to the ground. “So I tumbled, and sprained my ankle.” Soon, it would extend to her daily life. “I would walk, then I’d collapse. It would happen out of blue. Walk, walk, walk, collapse. I didn’t know why.”
She was 17. Up until that point, Poesy seemed groomed for success. By the age of nine, she was taking art classes that included calligraphy and Chinese seal carvings. At 14, during her first audition for a major TV campaign for Levi’s 501 jeans—also marking the first time she wore high heels—Poesy beat out ex-Miss Malaysias and veterans for the ad’s starring role. Her first cheque was for RM1,200. She began earning money for herself through commercial shoots. Her parents were struggling financially and could provide Poesy no allowance.
But she would soon face her own fight. Her condition was deteriorating badly, and she was urgently sent to Kuala Lumpur General Hospital for tests. Neurologists found during scans that she had acute thoracic intradural meningioma—a rare type of spinal cord cancer where tumours growing inside the spinal canal cause severe motor and sensory loss. Paralysed from the waist down, she had, essentially, become a teenage paraplegic.
“At that time, people told me I would never walk again. I never understood what that meant,” she reflects, lying on her tiled floor. “I was just damn innocent back them. I just went on and did my rehab.”
Through intense sessions of physiotherapy and traditional Chinese healing techniques, and by tapping into her adolescent training in catwalk modelling and ballet dancing, Poesy willed herself to walk again. After one year, she strode into her neurosurgeon’s office in a pair of heels. “Yeah. They were shocked,” she says, smiling.
After one year, she strode into her neurosurgeon’s office in a pair of heels. “Yeah. They were shocked,” she says, smiling.
Eleven years later, Poesy would return to the hospital bed. In her first checkup after a seven-year hiatus, doctors discovered fresh growths coiled around her spine, amidst a mass of old tumours, scar tissue and blood vessels. “They were all melded together, like wreckage at a construction site.”
After a six-hour operation, she woke up at 4AM the next morning in panic, shouting at her mother to straighten her legs. Her mother was confused. “But your legs are straight,” she replied.
The relapse came at a tumultuous time. Poesy’s highs of hosting a music chart show on NTV7 and starting her own interior design company were matched by her lows. Her love life had taken her from near-bankruptcy here to five months in Taiwan—where her wealthy boyfriend brought her in, and later cut her out from, an inner circle that included pop stars Stella Chang and Carina Lau—to an extended period of depression.
“I was actually quite sure I had something,” Poesy recalls. “I was not happy. When you are not happy, you think you’re ill. Sure enough, they [doctors during her checkup] found it.”
While her second operation managed to remove some of her tumours, her spine was injured in the process. Poesy’s legs would never be the same again. She cannot run, skip or jump. She has trouble walking down a staircase. She traces her right leg with her finger. “I don’t feel temperature on this one.”
Her condition has also robbed Poesy of her joint positioning sense, which involves a person’s ability to perceive the position of his or her joints without the aid of vision. “Basically, if I close my eyes, I don’t really know where my legs are,” she says. Her legs, she describes, feel like they’re perpetually wrapped around a truck. “Imagine you’re sitting on your legs, and you get pins and needles. Then you stand and try to move, and it feels heavy, like they’re someone else’s legs. Multiply that by a thousand, and it’s permanent. That’s me.”
But she slowly got out of bed, and like a toddler in a grown-up’s body, learned to walk yet again. “Most people’s reaction to this story has been, did you think you were going to walk again? I never looked so far. At that point, I was just tackling it.”
In 2006, she would visit Stanford Medicine in the USA for an answer, and impressed upon a panel of doctors exactly what was the result she was seeking from her treatments. “I only have three ‘s’es,” she told a line-up of prospective physicians. “I want to shit, shop and have sex.” The room cracked up in laughter.
“She is definitely a survivor.”
Hearing her challenge was Dr John Adler, a neurosurgeon best known as the inventor of the CyberKnife radio-surgical instrument. He looked at her case, and came away thinking she could benefit from CyberKnife, a robotics system that targets a radiation beam at specific areas of the body without a frame attached to the patient’s anatomy, with extremely accurate results.
“She has a very unusual tumour, especially for someone of her young age,” Dr. Adler explains over email. “This tumour is particularly hard to control with any known medical intervention.”
Poesy went under CyberKnife, and her condition has since looked to be under control. On her most recent checkup a few weeks ago, Dr Adler found her to be in stellar health. “So far, the CyberKnife appears to have been reasonably effective in Poesy, but she is still young and it is a little hard to predict what might happen in the decades to come,” he says. “Poesy is an incredibly determined young woman. She is definitely a survivor.”
On Poesy’s table, a piece of art titled “Just Breath” is about to be shipped to Boca Raton, Florida. It’s a simple artwork: the Chinese characters for ‘breath’ are surrounded by tiny blue, green and purple blotches that were made by blowing the coloured paints through a straw, creating the effect of a burst soap bubble.
Poesy will send the 22-by-10 inch painting to Rachel Pollock Wurman, a clinical psychologist, consultant and mother of two young children. Wurman is also suffering from a brain arteriovenous malformation, an anomaly that has caused three strokes. In a few days time, Rachel will undergo a risky open surgery on her skull to remove lesions wrecking havoc on her brainstem.
Just before leaving for her operation, Wurman found Poesy’s work on Facebook, and felt a kindred connection. They communicated, and inspired by each other’s life story, Poesy came up with a piece that Rachel could look at for encouragement during her trials.
“Her words to me, and expression through her art, drenched me in powerful waves of emotional depth, strength and vulnerability,” says Wurman. “As I type on the plane to San Francisco now, a few days prior to surgery, smaller-to-scale copies of Poesy’s art sits beside me in the middle seat. That is the ‘small good thing’ needed at a time like this.”
It’s part of Poesy’s single-minded focus now: as new life courses through her blood, she channels it into the people around her. During the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, at the end of a nine-month trip across more than 10 cities, Poesy sat under a 300-year-old oak tree in a private villa, and shaved her head. As her long ink-black hair fell to the ground, most of the 30 people in attendance started crying. “I think everyone was crying because they had their own stories with cancer. Maybe someone in their family. Maybe my story. Maybe a whole bunch of things.”
She launched Helping Angels in 2007, an online movement that encourages volunteers to practise random acts of kindness.
As she was recovering from her surgeries, she launched Helping Angels in 2007, an online movement that encourages volunteers to practise random acts of kindness. Through Helping Angels, Poesy managed to mobilise followers from around the world to send around 160,000 pairs of socks to survivors of the earthquake that rocked Japan in 2011, and more than 700 blankets to deprived Northern Thais shivering in the cold. It has given birth to local projects such as ‘Thursday Tutoring’, a tutoring group for shelter homes, and ‘Chow Kit Art Angels’, a volunteer-based project that works with refugees to produce art projects.
“This whole journey of life, it’s been very suspenseful,” she says. “The good and the bad. What is important is to keep giving back. If you are grateful, then help someone. Keep giving back. Just keep giving back.”
She repeats the last phrase like a Buddhist mantra. Rising from the floor, as the sun sets and traffic rushes through the main rivers of KL, she walks, slowly, surely, past her history plastered on walls, towards the front door.
She sees a familiar face: her father is standing at the front porch, gently touching the leaves of a plant. He looks a little lost, in need of a little help. She inhales, as she says her goodbyes, the words ringing in the air as a reminder of the work ahead. Keep giving back. Just keep giving back.
Words by Jon Chew. Photos by Stacy Liu.