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Saturday February 19, 2011

Chai Fong Ying: Demure yet determined

Time and time again, wushu world champion Chai Fong Ying has appeared in the news, but who is she really?

Giving her silver-rimmed glasses a slight nudge, Chai Fong Ying enters my car and says, “So sorry that you had to pick me up here. I’m not familiar with KL roads.”

Blessed with eggshell-smooth skin and an innocence that belies her 24 years of age, Chai bears an uncanny resemblance to actress Zhang Ziyi.

Malaysia’s Chai Fong Ying in action at the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou last year.

As we leave Mid Valley City and head back to the office for a scheduled photo shoot, Chai’s bashful nature kicks in — something that one would not expect from a seven-time wushu gold medallist.

“I’m a quiet person. When my friends talk, I’m more of a listener,” she reveals.

Today, Chai has dropped the flowy materials of her wushu costume in favour of a simple T-shirt and jeans. At a glance, you would not believe that she is the same stern-faced wushu exponent who claimed gold for the taijijian (sword) and taijiquan (fist) wushu combination event at the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou last year.

Hailing from Batu Berendam, Malacca, the fresh-faced accounting undergraduate at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) was only four years old when she took up the sport.

“My dad and uncles would bring me along during their training sessions, and I just watched and learned. It was not until I was 14 that I started taking wushu seriously,” she recalls.

It comes as no surprise that Chai’s father Chin Chay, 51, coaches the Malacca wushu team. Her younger siblings Fong Wei, 22, Fong Chin, 18, and Chong You, 15, are also actively involved in wushu.

Sisters Fong Ying (in glasses) and Chai Fong Wei. — GLENN GUAN & NORAFIFI EHSAN/The Star

“My mother is a homemaker,” Chai points out. But more precisely, her mother Teh Mary, 45, doubles up as the secretary of the Malacca Wushu Association.

So how does a sword-wielding, shadow-boxing expert end up in the number-crunching field of accountancy?

“My favourite subject was mathematics,” Chai offers, shyly adding, “I usually get an A for it.”

In perspective, accounting really isn’t too different from wushu — after all, both deals with the principles of achieving “balance”. Chai’s steady and calm persona, for one, is an acquired trait, thanks to the discipline of wushu.

“Wushu taught me appreciation — after being selected for the state-level team, I learned how to appreciate my time and manage it better,” she says, adding, “Academically, I also improved a lot.”

With hardly any time to spare, Chai has to juggle between training and classes.

“The first thing I do when I wake up is go to the gym. I do this at 7.30am on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Then at about 9am, I have to get ready for class. In the afternoon, I have to train on my wushu routine and techniques,” she says. “But this schedule is not very difficult — I’ve gotten used to it.”

Though 100 sit-ups a day is now normal for Chai, it was once an impossibility.

“I had asthma when I was eight. We used to train only twice a week on the weekends — doing things like ma-bu (horse-riding stance) and uphill running. I didn’t like the running because it was very difficult for me.”

Tomboys and sambal prawns

Upon first meeting her, one thinks of the word “grace”. From her petite frame to the lilt of her voice, you’d never guess that this feminine lass used to be a “tomboy”.

“All through secondary school, my hair was very short. After Form Five, I decided to wear it longer. I think my personality started changing from then. Anyway, short hair is not very nice-looking for a wushu performance,” Chai opines with a laugh.

“I used to always ask my dad to buy me toy guns — I played with pistols while my sister played with dolls,” she says.

Save for special occasions, Chai is almost always in black slacks, collared shirts and ballet flats these days.

“I seldom wear skirts because then I have to wear high heels, which are tiring for my legs,” she explains.

So are there other unlady-like indulgences that we should be aware of?

Chai hesitates and says, “I can cycle with both my arms in the air.”

The young sportswoman is, perhaps surprisingly, not a fan of the outdoors.

“The sun will make me tanned,” she says with a blush.

“My friends used to go for bowling sessions after school, but I never had the time to join them. Now it’s the same when they go clubbing. To them, my life is very ‘colourful’; in reality, I really wish that I could’ve joined them.”

Chai tries to catch a game of badminton every now and then; she also likes to tinker with her iPad in the comfort of her dorm. Some weekends she drives back to Malacca to have her mother’s steaming herbal soup and sambal prawn.

“I actually don’t like spicy food but my mum knows how to make the dish taste just right for me,” says Chai, who also loves chocolates.

“I’m not a gymnast so I can eat anything I want,” she clarifies. All the same, her three main meals of the day are regulated by the National Sports Council.

Big sister and dreams of travelling

For someone who performs to audiences of thousands, Chai is surprisingly nervous about public speaking.

“When I perform my taiji moves, I am in absolute control of my whole being. It’s all hands and legs — there’s no need to open my mouth. For class presentations, I’m always afraid that I will say something wrong.”

As something of a veteran in competitive sports, Chai has come to accept that things don’t always go her way. She’s learnt not to fixate on winning. In 2009, she failed to retain her world title at the 10th World Wushu Championships in Vancouver, Canada.

“When I have a target, that’s when the pressure mounts. In the last two years, I failed to manage myself; maybe I was focusing too much on my studies. I made mistakes in both my events. Now I’ve learnt that I cannot always think about ‘winning’. Instead, I only focus on my routine and carry out my performance with a clear, relaxed mind,” she says.

This year, Chai is eyeing a double victory — at the 11th World Wushu Championships in Turkey and the 26th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Palembang, Indonesia.

Just like her idol, Datuk Michelle Yeoh, Chai aspires to successfully “multi-task”.

“I admire (Yeoh’s) talent. When she was young, she played the piano and focused on sports and still she did well academically. Now, she’s even gone into acting,” gushes Chai who harbours her own silver screen dreams.

“I am a curious person. Who knows, maybe I could learn something new from acting,” she shares.

Right now, Chai wants to master swimming.

“My teammates have no problems diving into the pool, whether it’s 3m or 10m deep, but I can’t — I don’t know how to swim. I would like to learn, and maybe go diving as well,” she says.

Chai may have travelled to many countries for her wushu tournaments, but in her own mind, she has yet to see the world as she has always stuck to tight itineraries planned for her.

“My friends always share their travel stories with me — it makes me want to go along too. One day, I’ll join them and go backpacking,” she says, adding, “I would love to visit Hong Kong and Europe.”

When asked about what she misses most, Chai says it’s her “mother’s and grandmother’s cooking.”

“In my primary school days, my parents used to celebrate my birthday and invite many people to the party. I had all those who were concerned about me joining in the fun together — I liked that feeling. Now, I don’t have much time for family gatherings,” she sighs.

At the mention of her family, Chai’s fingers fly to the silver pendant on her neck — a two-year-old birthday gift from her mother. For now, though, Chai is devoting herself to wushu.

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