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.
The family lived in Waterloo Street, and the boy started school at Yu Si where he regularly got jeered at and taunted by his schoolmates - most of whom spoke the Hokkien or Teochew dialect - for being able to speak only Mandarin.
"My father didn't want me to learn how to fight because he was scared I would become a hooligan.
I had to learn martial arts in secret," he says.
He knocked on the door of a martial arts instructor near his home in the Sungei Road area.
There was no looking back.
"Back in those days, I was given $4.50 a month for pocket money. I often had to go hungry in school because my monthly fee for learning gongfu was $4," he says.
He started by learning the Wing Chun and White Crane styles of boxing. "My fees paid for only three lessons a week but I would go every day. I practised at least three hours a day."
The bullying stopped and remarks such as "loves to fight" started appearing in his report card.
"But I realised very early on that I could seriously hurt people so I always held back," he says in a mixture of Cantonese and English.
His parents found out about his extra-curricular activity only much later. With a grin, he recalls a story from his grandfather and says he was probably fated to be a martial artist.
"I was his first grandchild, so my grandfather was very excited when I came along. When I was just a month old, he took me to a temple medium who told him that I had the blood of a warrior, not a scholar," he says.
Many gongfu masters in the 1950s and 1960s did not accept students indiscriminately, he says.
"They had to like you or someone had to recommend you," he says.
The speed and adroitness with which he mastered different forms, however, worked in his favour.
One of his favourite masters was an old sifu who taught at his home next to a quail farm near Old Airport Road.
"He always sat, shirtless, shouting instructions from a bench. He had a rack filled with swords and other weapons and also a jar of medicated oil which we used to treat our bruises and wounds. I was his youngest student but I was sparring with those who were older and bigger," he recalls.
At 15, when he was a student at Chung Cheng High School, he became a boxer in tournaments organised by the British Armed Forces here.
An Indonesian boxing coach at a community centre he joined spotted his potential and offered to take him under his wing.
"I was only 110 lbs (50kg) but there were no other contenders in my weight category so I had to take on those who were one class heavier," he says. "My first opponent was a taxi driver who was 28 years old. I won."
Over the next two years, he took part in seven or eight matches, all of which were held in the compounds of community centres and attracted large crowds. He won them all.
"We didn't even have TV in those days so they were a big draw.
All the judges were British," he says.
In fact, Singapore wanted to field him as a representative for a match in Colombo but his father said no.
After completing his secondary education, he enrolled at the nowdefunct Ngee Ann Technical College to study mechanical engineering.
Before long, he had started wushu classes for more than 100 students.
"I did not charge. I even bought equipment with my own money. Ha, ha, I was probably silly not to charge, but it was something I loved and what I wanted to do," he says.
After graduating, he worked as a scheduling and planning officer for camera maker Rollei.
Five years later, he set up a textile business.
"I would design the flowers and patterns, send them to fabric manufacturers in Japan, and later sell the finished products to garment factories here," recalls Mr Ngiam, a competent Chinese painter whose works have been featured in a couple of local exhibitions.
The business did well initially, at one stage posting annual revenue of nearly $3 million. But after eight years, he closed his company.
"There were a lot of bad debts and it was hard collecting money," he says. "I had bad debts of nearly half a million dollars."
Asked why he did not use his martial prowess to get debtors to cough up, he laughs.
"I do not use my martial arts for that." He became a safety officer for a shipping company instead.
Having to become a salaried man again after being his own boss was not an issue for him.
"I've never worried about things like that. You should do what you want to do in life and not worry about what people say. And being a boss is not always as great as people make it out to be," he says.
Since starting his first martial arts school, The Chiang Sing Athletic Association, in a shophouse in Geylang in 1974, he has trained thousands of students in various forms of wushu at his school, and groomed several national wushu champions. He himself has won more wushu championships - both here and abroad - than he can remember.
In the early 1980s, he started travelling to China to learn martial arts from different masters.
One of them was the late Feng Zhiqiang, a grandmaster of the Chen Taiji style.
"I was in Beijing to take part in a competition in the 1980s. One Chinese journalist was very impressed with me and asked me where I learnt my Chen Taiji. He said his father- in-law was also an exponent and when I found out that he was Feng Zhiqiang, I was so excited." Passionate about spreading his love for wushu, he has released several books and videos on Chinese martial arts.
Last month, together with the Paya Lebar Kovan Community Centre Management Committee, he released an English book, A Compendium of Chinese Martial Arts, which has a CD of him demonstrating 69 sets of Chinese gongfu.
With the help of his students, he has also uploaded on YouTube 122 videos of himself, demonstrating various types of gongfu.
"I want to do 200," he says. Age has not slowed him down.
"Every Sunday, I teach eight classes," says Mr Ngiam who coaches students in homes, community centres and country clubs.
Married to a homemaker, he is not disappointed that none of his three children, aged between 19 and 30, has shown an interest in wushu.
"Gongfu is not just for your descendants, but for everyone. As long as you are keen and willing to learn, I will teach you," he says.
This article was published on April 6 in The Straits Times.
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