She sold S$70,000 worth of products online in a week: Meet the deaf livestreamer breaking glass ceilings
Hundreds of hearing people tune in to watch Lily Goh present the latest fashion, beauty and luxury items in sign language each night. Some even ask for a crash course in sign language. She tells CNA Women how she hopes to break communication barriers for the deaf community.
She sells skincare products, luxury bags, street fashion and BE@RBRICK collectibles via livestreaming. Over the last three months, she has brought in around S$200,000 in sales revenue for her company. Hundreds of people tune in to watch her each time.
No, 43-year-old Lily Goh is not a fashionista, beauty expert or influencer. You won’t find her posing in #OOTD photos or showing off the next makeup trend on Instagram or TikTok. Shopping is not her life and certainly not the reason she started livestreaming.
You see, as far as Goh can remember, she has been deaf. She recalls a childhood and youth where she was excluded and rejected by the hearing world.
“I grew up pretty isolated in my own deaf world. Most of the time, I was marginalised and excluded, especially from spoken conversations. I felt left in the dark,” she said.
This is what prompted her to join homegrown online social commerce platform Mdada – she hopes to make others within the deaf community feel more included in every aspect of life, including livestream e-commerce, one of the latest evolutions in online retail.
Though the majority of Mdada viewers are hearing people, Goh hosts her sessions mainly in Singapore Sign Language (SgSL), which the Singapore deaf community uses, mixing in a bit of spoken English here and there.
For Goh, it is not just about making this form of entertainment and retail therapy accessible to the deaf. She also has a loftier dream: She hopes to raise awareness for the deaf community and show the world that deaf people can do what hearing people can.
BREAKING GLASS CEILINGS
If you can’t recall any other deaf livestreamer in Singapore, it is because this is not a profession traditionally associated with the deaf community.
As Goh pointed out, day-to-day communication between a deaf and hearing person is already a challenge. This is because a deaf person relies on lipreading and other visual cues to understand a verbal exchange, which often happens very quickly.
Moreover, a deaf person may be unfamiliar with some colloquial expressions and slang. Some, like Goh, may also be unsure how to pronounce certain words, and struggle to be understood.
In a livestream session, where hosts are expected to present as many as 10 products, as well as entertain viewers with unscripted banter with a co-host, for two hours, these challenges are amplified.
When Goh was first offered the job by Mdada, many of her deaf friends tried to dissuade her from doing it. “They didn’t know how it would work and if I would be able to communicate with the audience. Some were also worried that I did not have enough influence to pull it off,” she said.
“I was initially hesitant,” she admitted. “But when the Mdada team assured me that they wanted me to be myself and use sign language, I decided to give it a try.”
So on Sep 15, 2022, Goh did her first livestream selling three beauty products: An eye cream, a serum and an anti-ageing product. The session was well received by viewers and a lot were sold.
“After the show, I received several messages from my deaf friends who were very delighted to find the livestreaming more accessible and inclusive to them for the first time,” she said. This encouraged Goh to continue her journey as a livestreamer.
HER STEEP LEARNING CURVE
Despite her early success, livestreaming was not easy. One reason is that Goh usually works with a co-host who speaks English or Mandarin.
Goh on the other hand, does not speak English fluently and does not speak Mandarin at all. It is also sometimes hard for her to rely on lipreading to keep a conversation flowing during these live shows.
“I speak Singapore Sign Language for 75 to 80 per cent of the livestream. If my co-host knows some sign language, we would interact more smoothly. If not, I may not be able to catch what they say and rely a lot on guesswork to interact with them,” she said.
“In such cases, if they keep talking very quickly, or if they speak in Mandarin, then I will just do my own thing. I’d share more about the product or topic in sign language simultaneously beside them,” she said.
Despite these obstacles, Goh works hard to hone her livestream skills, slowly progressing from selling one to three products in a one-hour livestream to selling up to 10 products in a two-hour session.
“I’ve learnt that it is important to be engaging, enjoyable and inclusive, and I feel more confident as time goes by,” she said. In fact, one viewer was so impressed that during a BE@RBRICK livestream sale, she bought a BE@RBRICK as a gift for Goh.
FINDING MEANING IN HER WORK
Today, Goh has clocked more than 50 hours of livestream sessions with Mdada. One of her most meaningful sessions was done in collaboration with JOURNEY, a brand under non-profit charity TOUCH Community Services, which represents people with intellectual disabilities.
Each sign language has its own unique grammar structure and semantic rules. I hope more people know this and don’t think it’s just a bunch of hands clapping.
As a beneficiary of TOUCH Community Services herself in the past, Goh was thrilled to help sell more than S$10,000 worth of merchandise for JOURNEY, featuring the artwork of people with intellectual disabilities. These included tote bags, umbrellas, lunch boxes and pouches. Proceeds went directly to the artists themselves.
“I was really impressed by the art so I looked up the artists’ profiles and realised that I recognised one of the artists. We were in the same primary school. She is deaf and has an intellectual disability. I was very happy to be able to help her and other creative talents like her earn an income,” she said.
Another career highlight for Goh was Mdada’s recent livestreaming trip to Seoul, Korea in November 2022. Goh did seven livestreams on location at Hyundai Department Store Duty Free. In just one week, she sold S$70,000 worth of Korean products.
“We set up a tripod with a ring light and a phone holder in the mall, connected the phone to a Wi-Fi router and introduced different fashion items such as T-shirts, beauty products, and food items like freeze-dried fruit,” she said.
“I had a lot of fun selling the food. We would open the items and eat them slowly, close to the microphone, so that viewers could hear the sound. As a deaf person, I never knew that hearing people like to hear the food they eat,” she mused.
BREAKING COMMUNICATION BARRIERS
Goh takes great pride in hosting in sign language. Of the 150 or so viewers who tune in to watch her livestreams at night, most are hearing people.
This makes her feel like she has come a long way from her earlier years when she was led to believe that speaking verbally and forcing herself to behave like a hearing person was necessary to fit into the world.
She still remembers a difficult transition period in deaf school where her classmates and her were forced to switch from sign language to verbal language to prepare them to enter a mainstream secondary school.
“If we were caught using sign language, we would be fined 50 cents or made to stand outside the classroom. Some teachers slapped us or hit our palms hard,” she recalled.
Despite this, she struggled to communicate with classmates upon entering secondary school and was excluded in many social situations.
Goh has since learned to embrace her identity and the deaf culture wholeheartedly, and believes that sign language is a very big part of that. Before becoming a livestreamer, she taught sign language as a freelancer for more than 15 years.
Today, she spreads her love for sign language via her livestreams, teaching both co-hosts and viewers simple words.
“Some viewers have requested that I teach them to sign certain words such as ‘love’, ‘thank you’, numbers and letters. I am happy to know that they want to learn sign language from me and hope that as time goes by, more people will be interested to learn sign language,” she said.
“There are over 300 unique sign languages in the world. Each country and region has its own sign language. In Singapore, the deaf community uses SgSL. Each sign language has its own unique grammar structure and semantic rules. I hope more people know this and don’t think it’s just a bunch of hands clapping,” she said.
Deafness is more than just hearing loss. To me, it is not a disability. It means many things: Identity, culture, pride and community.
Speaking of prejudice and discrimination deaf people face, she added: “There are lots of barriers for deaf people because this world is built for hearing people. I was often rejected by taxi drivers when trying to take a taxi.”
Although Goh pointed out that modern technology such as ride-hailing apps and livestreaming technology have helped to break some barriers, she feels that as a society, we still have a long way to go towards inclusivity.
“I also hope that one day, Singapore recognises SgSL as an official language and people will be more aware and respectful of our language so that communication barriers will be reduced,” she said.
“Deafness is more than just hearing loss. To me, it is not a disability. It means many things: Identity, culture, pride and community.
“For example, so many people use the term 'hearing impaired' to refer to us. This is considered very offensive to people who are deaf or hard of hearing as it can be taken to mean that people who have difficulty hearing are deficient in some way. We are not here to be fixed by hearing people,” she explained.
Speaking of her livestream work, she added: “I hope that with increased media representation, more deaf and disabled people will be included and seen, both in front of the camera and behind the camera, working in the crew as scriptwriters and producers. Having authentic representation will go a long way towards reducing misconceptions and myths.”
Read this story in Bahasa Melayu here.
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