An ex-thug channels his qi positively

For the last 10 years, hundreds of people have been gathering at Bishan Park II every Sunday morning for a free workout led by a most interesting fellow.

Tall, tanned and with a complexion marked by acne in his youth, Mr Wong Yoke Seng, 58, teaches 312 Meridian Exercise - a 90-minute routine which involves breathing techniques and massaging key points of the body to activate good blood flow and energy.

It is not hard to pick him out from the crowd.

He is the man everyone acknowledges and greets with a smile, a wave or a slight bow of the head. They call him "Huang laoshi", the latter being the respectful Chinese term to address teachers.

Blessed with a natural ability to rally and galvanise, he has always been a bit of a Pied Piper. But he has not always channelled that to good use.

When he was young, he inspired awe and fear as a hoodlum and a gang leader in Malaysia, and that once landed him behind bars.

A series of dramatic developments in his life including penury and several brushes with death forced him to take stock, and get on the straight and the narrow.

He gave up a successful electronics business about 10 years ago to found Yanhuang 312, specialising in traditional Chinese health care and therapy. The company has five branches in Singapore.

"In the past, I would do anything for money. But I never slept well because I always feared the law or my enemies would catch up with me. But after going on the right track, I've not only helped others but also myself. I sleep well now, my health is good, and people respect me," he says in Cantonese.

Like the popular Chinese proverb, his life story is longer than a bale of cloth, and vibrantly hued.

The eldest of nine children, he spent his early years in Setapak, a tin mining and rubber-growing area outside Kuala Lumpur.

His father was a gang leader who wanted to turn over a new leaf after getting married.

"He got a job as a labourer, but on his first day at work, he got badly hurt. He was squatting and having a cigarette when a lorry tipped over a load of hot tar, and severely burnt his upper body," he says.

After he recovered, his old man decided to operate a mahjong den instead. By the time Mr Wong was seven, he could tell what mahjong tile he had in his hand just by feeling it.

Although he was a good student, he had to leave Hot Spring High School after completing his Secondary 3 to help the family.

He became an apprentice with an air-conditioning firm but the gang his father belonged to decided that a fearless strapping teen like him would come in handy collecting protection money from shopkeepers and hawkers in the area.

"Extortion, fights, negotiations with rival gangs - I've done it all," recalls Mr Wong, who rose to become a henchman with his own posse.

His nefarious activities did not escape the attention of the police who dramatically barged in on him while he was sleeping at home one night. "They kicked open the door and one of them hit me on the head with the butt of a pistol."

He was packed off to the now-defunct Jerejak Prison on Pulau Jerejak in Penang. A former leper colony, the maximum-security jail was also known as the Alcatraz of Malaysia.

He spent more than two years there, after which the authorities banned him from returning to Kuala Lumpur and banished him to Kelantan instead.

Lost and confused, he ended up as a disciple to a Thai monk at Wat Phothivihan, the temple with the largest sleeping Buddha in Malaysia. "I kept the temple clean, meditated every morning and accompanied the monk to beg for alms," he says.

After two years, the ban on him returning to Kuala Lumpur was lifted. He went home to a hero's welcome by his former gang members but he told himself he had to stay clean.

"I started a small business selling vegetables. My business became very good because my former gang members were pressuring people to buy from me," he says with a laugh.

Within a few years, he had become a wholesaler, raking in big bucks supplying potatoes, onions and other greens to vegetable sellers.

All was well for about 10 years. He got married, lived in a big house, drove a nice car and even had his own warehouse in Jinjang, a suburb in Kuala Lumpur.

But a huge shipment of potatoes felled him. "It was a really big shipment from India. I had sent out the letters of credit, and also received a lot of orders so if all had gone well, I would have made a killing."

But rain spoiled the crop, and the potatoes, when they arrived, were all rotten. "The authorities forced me to burn the shipment, just in case it affected other agricultural produce," he says. "I had already paid for the shipment and I had nothing to deliver."

To stave off creditors, he started borrowing heavily from loan sharks, which landed him in deeper debt.

The day came when he realised that there was no way out; he had to run away.

"I called all the loan sharks, there were more than 10 of them. I said, 'Ok, my life is here, you can have it. But if you give me a lifeline now, I will return to pay you back'," he recalls.

He must have been persuasive. Not only did they let him go, they also gave him a thousand ringgit.

"But I told them if they harmed my family while I was away, there would be hell to pay," says Mr Wong, who took a bus to Singapore and ended up in Beach Road where he spent the night at a bus stop.

A couple of days later, he found a job with an air-conditioning sub-contractor, earning $8 a day. The company provided accommodation; he lived at a house in Bedok with nearly 40 other workers.

In less than half a year, he had made enough of an impression on the main contractor. "He said, 'If you can find your own staff, I'll give you work'," recalls Mr Wong.

All but one of his 40 colleagues agreed to join him. He went back to Kuala Lumpur, told the loan sharks he had been given another chance, and needed them to lend him $20,000. He came back to Singapore with the loan as well as his wife, who cooked and washed for his workers.

In three years, he had made enough money to not only pay off his debts but also set up electronics firm Marco, specialising in air-con fittings and waste and treatment and sewerage.

He took mechanical engineering courses and over the next decade built Marco into a company with an annual turnover of $5 million.

But troubles soon came in other forms. In 1994, he was diagnosed with leukaemia, and had to undergo eight rounds of chemotherapy.

Once a strapping 80kg man, he shrank to weighing less than 50kg.

"I started thinking maybe it was my karma because of what I'd done in the past," he says.

He recovered, only to be hit by another health crisis a couple of years later. He passed out a lot of blood when he went to the toilet one day. Excessive drinking and consumption of painkillers to control his gout had led to a perforated appendix.

Mr Wong decided he had to overhaul his lifestyle. He chanced upon the 312 Meridian Exercise developed by Professor Zhu Zongxiang, well known in the world of traditional Chinese medicine for his 1989 book on meridian therapy and acupuncture.

He did extensive research on the subject and came up with his own routine.

"I benefited a lot from exercising and I wanted others to benefit too. I just want to help as many others as possible," he says.

Good spots for him to conduct his exercise were hard to find in Singapore so Mr Wong decided to go every weekend to Malacca, where he had a house.

"I'd bring a portable tape recorder and start practising it at A'Famosa fort. A lot of people started watching me and asking me what I was doing. Then they started joining me, 10 people one week, 30 the next, and 70 after that," he says.

The free exercises attracted a lot of media attention and spread to other towns.

"Even schools started adopting it," he says, proudly pointing to the many framed articles in Malaysian newspapers hanging on his wall.

In 2004, he went to Beijing to knock on the door of Prof Zhu, who initially did not want to see him. The professor agreed only after reading press articles on what Mr Wong had done in Malaysia.

He started learning from Prof Zhu and invited him to Malaysia for a conference on meridian therapy and acupuncture in 2005.

He sold Marco and threw himself into his new passion. Using his electronics background, he came up with an electro-magnetic therapy (EMT) machine which uses bio-electricity to activate the meridian points and enable better blood circulation. It is used in the treatment of a range of ailments, including arthritis, frozen shoulders, sinus and gout.

In 2005, he started Yanhuang 312 in Serangoon. By then, he had already been conducting his free exercise sessions at Bishan Park for about two years.

Business in the first few years was abysmal. Nobody knew what EMT was all about.

"I had about six employees whom I could not pay. But they stuck with me, not just for one year, but for six," he says proudly.

"They could see that I was really trying to spread the benefit of exercise. We would go to old folks' homes and other charities to teach them 312 Meridian Exercise for free."

One of them was former administrative clerk Wong Mui Yong, 69, who says: "He was very sincere. I did not mind not getting paid because I was learning something and doing something meaningful."

But word of the health benefits of Mr Wong's services soon spread and today, he has five outlets here.

The six who stuck with him are now directors and shareholders of his company.

Mr Wong is not registered as a TCM practitioner in Singapore.

"I'm not a doctor. I don't do acupuncture or give prescriptions. We offer EMT, massage and exercise to benefit health. I have one request for all the people I treat - they must continue to exercise," he says.

Besides the sessions he conducts at Bishan Park every Sunday, his students hold free 312 Exercises at 25 locations all over the island.

"I don't make as much money as I used to but I am very content. Our business creates and spreads a lot of love," says the father of two. His sons, aged 24 and 27, are both university graduates.

"Every day when I come to work, I get desserts and cakes from my clients. I feel very blessed and happy."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg


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