Bullied in school, now gongfu master

Bullied in school, now gongfu master
Mr Ngiam Tong Kheng (centre) and some of his students demonstrating a martial arts routine at the Botanic Gardens. He has mastered more than 200 forms of Chinese wushu.

When eight-year-old Ngiam Tong Kheng started school in the 1950s, he became a prime target for bullies.

Fresh off the boat from Hainan Island in China, he was picked on for not being able to speak Teochew or Hokkien. He spoke Hainanese and Mandarin only.

Things got so dire that his father resorted to paying an older, bigger boy in the school to be his protector.

"He could not always be around, so I still got taunted and bullied in the school toilet. I told myself I had to be self-reliant," recalls the 66-year-old.

Getting picked on at the nowdefunct Yu Si Primary School in Rochor Road changed his life because he was determined to stop the bullying.

Without telling his folks, he decided to find himself a gongfu master.

Wushu or Chinese martial arts not only gave him the skills to take care of himself but also became a lifelong obsession.

He went on to master more than 200 forms of Chinese wushu, and is now lethal not just with his bare hands but also with poles, pitchforks, swords and an assortment of weapons.

One of Singapore's most bemedalled pugilists, he holds a ninth dan from the World Martial Arts Union and is a judge of the International Wushu Federation.

"Wushu is like a drug, I'm addicted.

I won't give it up until I cannot move. And that's when I will probably die," he says with a laugh.

Garrulous with a booming voice, the eldest of five children was born in Haikou in Hainan. His paternal grandfather was a prosperous businessman who traded in timber and bird's nest and owned three trading boats.

"We lived in a big house with more than 70 rooms and 10 halls.

We were quite well to do; I grew up on bird's nest," he says with a chortle.

When the Communists came to power in China in 1949, his grandfather and father fled for Malaya and went to Kuala Terengganu.

"My mother and I came to Singapore when I was eight years old. My grandfather and father joined us here after that," he says, adding that his father later found a job working at the Long Bar in Raffles Hotel.

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