Collage: VICE / Images: (L) Courtesy of Ben Ha (R) Wang Eng Eng
Those in Singapore in 2007 probably remember this commercial on TV screens: Nearly naked, save for a small pair of body-hugging zebra briefs, a jolly, buff dude tells you to buy his house that’s “clean and green with three huge rooms.”In the earlier days of the internet, when virality was still a nebulous concept, Ha Thanh Quang became one of Singapore’s first unlikely stars. He also goes by the name Ben Ha but to a whole generation of Singaporeans, he’s simply the “Mocca Man,” that guy from the ad for local classified advertising website mocca.com.
More than a decade after he charmed Singaporeans with confident poses in a green-walled house, Ha is suddenly back with a new ad that harkens back to his early aughts fame. But where has he been all these years? And what was it like to come from obscurity to sudden national attention?“I never [came] here to expect… to be so famous,” Ha told VICE in May, reminiscing about his viral fame.Ha was born in 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War; his exact birthday is unknown to him and his family. He’s from a village near the Mekong Delta and described his childhood as a difficult period.“If I were born in the city, I think I [would] be so much better. I think I can have more [opportunities] to develop myself,” he said.
Being the face of an advertising site certainly wasn’t part of the plan when Ha came to Singapore in 2001 to study hotel management. At that time, he was also competing in bodybuilding contests.
He ended up at the audition for the commercial after finding out about it from his friend at the gym. Dressed in jeans but baring his torso, Ha did what came naturally to him at the audition while reading the scripted lines, with poses he described as “random,” “spontaneous,” and “anyhow.” A few days later, he found out that he got the part. He might not have been the biggest or tallest, but his energy was possibly unparalleled.
“For me, when I join [competitions], I never [set] my target to be the champion there. I just want to perform on stage… and to bring [joy] for the audience,” he said, adding that he would often incorporate dance moves into his performances at bodybuilding competitions. “That's what I enjoy more, rather than to win the competition.”His poise and earnest desire to entertain would result in some of the most memorable shots in Singapore’s television history. “You like it? It’s clean and green with three huge rooms,” Ha enthuses in the viral ad as he exerts himself into a professional crab pose. “Check out my matching pipes,” he says with a hands-behind-back tricep flex in the bathroom. “The kitchen’s over there,” he goes, pointing away with his biceps in full tension and legs boldly outstretched.
Ha recalled filming the ad for six to seven hours in an empty flat, struggling a little bit with his English pronunciation, and working with the film crew on figuring out the best poses. Looking back now, Mocca Man’s virality seems obvious. The burly figure, bodybuilder poses, megawatt smile, and awkward scripted lines had the character straddling the line between the endearing and the cringey. But at the time, it seemed to have come out of nowhere. At the height of his fame, Ha’s face was plastered on national newspapers and billboards along Singapore’s most famous shopping street Orchard Road. Mocca.com was taken down five years after it launched and little information can be found about it today, but Mocca Man remains a mid-2000s icon.
Just as quickly as he dominated the public consciousness, Mocca Man disappeared from the public eye. The next few years following his TV fame saw Ha performing at corporate events as Mocca Man but not much else. Perhaps many Singaporeans wonder why he didn’t capitalize on his newfound fame to enter showbiz. “A lot of people ask me this question,” he said, explaining that he knew very little about the entertainment industry at that time and lacked a proper manager to help him get into it.Ha now works in the hospitality industry in Singapore but has maintained his bodybuilder physique, a product of working out since 1996, while he was a university student in Vietnam. These days, he is an avid linguaphile, brushing up on his Japanese proficiency on his off days, improving his English writing skills, and learning Mandarin from his Chinese colleagues.Ha has retired from competitive bodybuilding but remains a regular gym goer. In fact, he thinks his abs look better now at 46 years old, compared to when he filmed the immortalized ad when he was about 31.
He said that he still gets recognized occasionally and that strangers approach him for simply looking familiar. “I still believe I have the market,” he said cheerfully. But this doesn’t mean he’s all that hungry for fame. Over the years, media outlets and companies have reached out to him for interviews and partnerships, Ha said. But he only accepts invitations when the mood suits him.
“I believe in fate. So I think [it needs to be] the right time, right day, [and] good mood,” he said. “I’m not purposely [looking] for something to be famous.”The rest of Ha’s family is still in Vietnam, while he continues working in Singapore. Despite acknowledging disadvantages early in his life, he’s a strong believer in sheer diligence and a stroke of good luck.“You have to respect and treasure and be thankful to anything in life,” he said.While the viral Mocca commercial didn’t exactly change his life, Ha said that it did leave him with something very precious: confidence. “I bring this confidence level with me through my life,” he said. Follow Koh Ewe on Instagram.