by Terrence Voon
When Wu Chia-ching won an unprecedented double world pool title, he was just 15.
It has been five years since that momentous feat, but the former boy wonder of Taiwanese pool has never had to grow up as fast as he did over the last few months.
His compatriots, who lovingly called him the 'Little Genius', were loathe to let him go. Even parliamentarians weighed in on the issue as pressure mounted on him to stay in Taiwan.
The question which played on both his mind as well as the back pages of Taiwanese tabloid, was whether he should take up Singapore citizenship and play for the Republic.
When I first met him last month, Wu appeared gloomy and guarded. He was here officially as a sparring partner for the Singapore national team and could not speak freely about his ambition to play for a new country.
He was far livelier at our meeting at the Singapore Recreation Club's Billiard Room last week.
With his Singapore permanent residency in the bag, Wu can finally relax and smile again.
'I can finally heave a sigh of relief,' he said. 'It's been a long road to Singapore, but I'm grateful to Cuesports Singapore for standing by me all the way.'
Cuesports is the national governing body for pool and billiards.
Although the terms of his contract have not been finalised, Wu's arrival is no small coup for Singapore.
He became a national hero in Taiwan when he was crowned world champion in both 8-Ball and 9-Ball in the space of four months when he was 15.
'I was more famous than Jay Chou - for a day at least,' he joked.
He was runner-up at the World 10-Ball Championship last year, re-confirming his status as one of pool's most recognisable stars.
Taiwan, along with the Philippines, are the regional heavyweights of the sport, which is featured at the Asian Games.
Sources said he first held talks with Singapore officials last year about the possibility of him playing for the Republic. While he was here as a sparring partner, he impressed officials with his work rate and attitude. This convinced them to ask him to stay on as a player.
The reasons for him to don Singapore colours included a better pay packet, sponsored trips to overseas tournaments and a likely future as a national coach when his playing career ends.
Even when Taiwan sports officials offered to increase his pay, Wu insisted he never had second thoughts.
'I was even prepared to do National Service here.'
There was only one person who could have convinced him otherwise, and that was his 66-year-old grandmother, who had raised him when he was a toddler.
When he grew older and got serious about pool, she ferried him from one competition venue to another on a small scooter.
After winning his world titles, he never forgot the debt he owed her. The first thing he did was to splash out $380,000 on a new apartment for her in Taipei.
He said: 'When she first heard about me moving to Singapore, she couldn't bear let me go. But she later told me that I alone had the right to decide my future.'
While it was his grandmother who helped him find his feet as a pool player, it was his father Wu Chen-chung, 45, who supported the campaign to find greener pastures for his son.
Said Wu senior, who runs a pool hall in Taipei and was in town last week: 'I've always told him that he shouldn't confine his ambitions to just Taiwan. Going international was the only option for him.'
Wu, who hopes to receive his full citizenship soon, could represent the Republic at the Philippines 10-Ball Open as early as May.
But international rules governing the switch of players' nationalities prohibit him from taking part in this year's World Championships as well as next year's Asian Games in Guangzhou.
As a player, there is little doubt that he is a gem. According to Singapore's Taiwanese coach Chen Wei-chih, Wu is 'a rare talent that comes along only once in a generation'.
As a person, he has been described by family and friends as filial and thrifty to a fault.
'I rarely splurge on myself,' he said. 'What's the point of buying expensive clothes or electronics? You get bored of them and they only depreciate in value.'
Even his culinary preferences in Singapore are modest: he would rather tuck into a plate of mixed rice at coffee shops than head to expensive restaurants for exotic fare.
And while fame has found him in recent years, Wu still retains much of the humility drummed into him during his childhood.
In between tournaments and training, he has vowed to work with young pool players at workshops and community clubs.
He has also made time to pose for photographs with fans, such as SRC's star-struck members who wanted pictures with him when they recognised the former world champion in their midst.
Said Wu: 'Pool has given me everything, and it's only right that I give some of it back.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.