TV & Radio
Tuesday July 12, 2005
Nong Toom's fighting spirit
By EDWARD CHOY - Malaysia Star
Transsexual Muay Thai champion Nong Toom says that being onstage is harder than being in the boxing ring, reports EDWARD CHOY.
Nong Toom is so soft-spoken and genteel in person that it is surreal knowing she was once a Muay Thai – Thai kickboxing – champion.
ONE AND THE SAME: Parinya Charoenphol – aka Nong Toom – is the Thai kick-boxing champion (pic below).
The 24-year-old transsexual, whose real name is Parinya Charoenphol, recently performed the world premiere of her one-woman show, Boxing Cabaret, at Singapore's Esplanade as part of its Flipside festival.
Dressed in a bright gauzy yellow top and white tapered slacks and well-poised on 5cm heels, Nong looks like she could hardly harm a fly – let alone take your head off with a roundhouse kick.
But standing at 1.75m, the lean and gold-tanned boxer-turned model-turned actress has quite a good reach with her legs.
So good, in fact, that she was once Thailand’s Northern Region Muay Thai champion.
She recalls in Thai: “When I first broke into the scene, I had my fair share of insults. It really hurt when I realised people thought I was just a gimmick. Worse, some people thought I was out to tarnish the image of Thai kickboxing.”
That, she stresses, could not be further from the truth. As she puts it: “Every time I gave the money I earned from my bouts to my mother, I felt so grateful for Muay Thai.”
Boxing Cabaret marked her stage debut. In that show, she acted, sang and danced her way through five acts, drawing a parallel to Muay Thai bouts which last five rounds. Each act dealt with a specific topic: men, love, Muay Thai, her audience and herself.
She is no stranger to acting, having appeared in TV soap operas back home. She is also set to star in a few movies.
The story of her unique life was made into a film, Beautiful Boxer, in 2003, directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham, the artistic director of Singapore drama company Action Theatre.
Nong was played by real-life Thai kick-boxer Asanee Suwan. The movie has won awards worldwide, including Best Film at the 19th Torino Festival Internazionale Film Festival and the Grand Prix award at the 2004 Brussels International Film Festival. Thai-born Uekrongtham, 41, is the writer and producer for Boxing Cabaret, and acted as her translator in the interview.
BORN the fourth of five children, Nong has three brothers and a sister. Her parents are farmers with a modest plot of land in Chiangmai in northern Thailand.
She says that, as a child, she would carefully cut out drawings of ancient Muay Thai movements from kickboxing magazines, paste them in scrapbooks and then plead with her Muay Thai master to teach her how to execute the complex and intricate techniques. Indeed, much of her childhood was spent preparing for life in the ring.
She started training to be a kick-boxer when she was just seven, and had her first fight at the age of 12.
Apart from her insistence on wearing lurid red lipstick while kickboxing – she started doing so at the age of 13 – she became famous for her ability to perform seldom-seen moves.
She was particularly renowned for the spectacular technique called Rue See Bod Ya (Thai for Hermit Grinding The Herbs), in which she would leap into the air and then smash her opponent’s head with her elbow as she landed.
But life in Muay Thai wasn’t always rosy, especially since she was a woman trapped in a very macho male body.
Her rise in the sport was testament to her genuine talent. By 16, she had already won 20 of her 22 career bouts, 18 by way of knockout. Then at 17, she captured the imagination of the Thai public when she made her big league debut in Bangkok’s Lumpini Boxing Ring. She sported red lips, mascara and drawn eyebrows – and proceeded to floor her opponent after five rounds.
Of her 10 years in the sport, she says: “Yes, I did feel like an animal in the zoo, but I told myself that as long as I fought like a man in the ring, no amount of make-up could cover my love for, and dedication to, Muay Thai.”
She adds: “When everyone started to see that I could knock out real men in the ring repeatedly, they began to give me some respect.”
She earned it. Her routine as a kick-boxer began every day with a 10km run at 5.30am, followed by 30 minutes of rope skipping, then punching, kicking a sandbag for close to an hour, and 300 sit-ups – with trainers hitting her abdomen repeatedly to harden it. She would break at 10am, and resume the routine from 3 to 7pm.
She kept that gruelling schedule until she turned 21, when she retired from Muay Thai and went for her sex-change operation in Bangkok. She has no regrets about the procedure, saying: “I was very happy and comfortable with myself.”
It also helps that her parents are understanding.
“They never made me feel bad about who I am,” she says. “They just wanted to make sure that I’m happy. Their love is my constant source of strength.”
COMPARED to her boxing career, one would think that preparing for Boxing Cabaret should be a cakewalk.
But Nong is frank about the difficulties she faced in rehearsing for the show, especially since she had to speak in English throughout.
“Memorising the script was very hard for me. Once, I called Ekachai to tell him this whole thing was too hard for me. But he encouraged me to keep trying,” she says.
Recounting the problems they faced trying to get the right language teacher for her, Uekrongtham says they approached a British teacher, the best there was in a school in Thailand.
“But Nong called me one day and she was on the verge of tears because she just couldn’t get it.”
He finally got her a teacher who could also speak Thai fluently.
Nong calls Uekrongtham Pi Ek (Thai for big brother Ek). They met at a massage parlour in Bangkok – “traditional massage, not the disreputable sort”, Uekrongtham hastens to explain – after he was given the boxer’s mobile phone number by a Thai journalist friend.
They have been good friends for almost four years now. Their friendship blossomed – and Nong’s fan base burgeoned – in the time they spent travelling to film festivals all over the world for Beautiful Boxer.
Uekrongtham says that he is moved by Nong’s love for her parents and siblings.
“I remember asking her during our first meeting what her greatest wish was. She said she hoped she could one day build a big house for all her family members to stay together under one roof and to always be able to take care of them and give them a better life.”
He then admits wryly: “I must say I still feel uncomfortable going around with her – not because of what people might think of me, but because people always want to talk to her, take photos with her or ask for her autograph. Sometimes, I just leave her with her fans and go off for a coffee.”
Given that he left her to perform alone onstage, in English and to a live audience, he was taking quite a big chance on her in Boxing Cabaret.
Didn't Nong herself think the project risky?
She considers the question carefully, then says earnestly: “Of course the risk is there, but when you step into the ring, you’re on your own too.” – The Straits Times Singapore / Asia News Network
Boxing Cabaret’s return season will be held at Singapore's Jubilee Hall from Sept 1 to 3 at 8pm. Tickets at S$32 (RM70.40) and S$42 (RM92.40) are available from TicketCharge (02-62962929 or log on to www.ticketcharge.com.sg)