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How an office lady became Hong Kong’s first female Thai boxing coach

Reporter: Joyce Lee

It is a cold late afternoon and there are no students at Swish Club. Yolly Leung Pui-shan, Hong Kong’s first female Thai boxing coach, puts on a black sports jacket, drags a heater to her side and sinks into a sofa.

From there she surveys the 5,000-square-foot boxing club in Causeway Bay. She can be proud of what she sees – the first boxing club in Hong Kong to hold ladies-only classes. Huddled on the sofa, it would be easy to miss the grit and muscle that lies beneath her petite and girlish appearance.

Leung, who is now in her early thirties, did not pay much attention to Thai boxing at first. Like most people, she thought it was a violent sport which was not for girls. It was not until she left Hong Kong after secondary school to study for her A-Levels in Britain that she really came into contact with the sport.

While in London Leung met her boyfriend, and now husband, Antony Au Ting-piu who was a martial arts enthusiast. It was Au who encouraged her to exercise. Au, who is an owner and coach of Swish Club, joins in the conversation.

“Don’t think she has been this slim all along. She was a plump girl who never did any exercise when she was in the UK,” he says, pointing at his wife and business partner, who shoots back a mischievous smile. In London, Leung tagged along with Au to a Thai boxing gathering in a park, and after that she fell in love with the sport.

Leung says the boxing gatherings were casual, like the Tai Chi gatherings in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. Six or seven people would come and practise the moves twice a month under the tutelage of a British amateur boxer. After a year of training at the gatherings, Leung found Thai boxing a good way to keep fit. Both boxing and exercise has since then turned into a habit. She says she now feels uncomfortable if she does not work up a sweat. Even on holidays and trips, she goes to the gym.

After she got her degree in finance and economics from City University London, Leung came back to Hong Kong in 2003 and worked in a telecommunications company for three and a half years.

However, her routine office job did not snuff out her passion for Thai boxing. She was an office lady by day and a part-time boxing coach assistant by night, working at Au’s Thai boxing gym, Swish Club. There, she discovered a demand for female coaches as it is considered more appropriate for a woman to guide female students.

Bored with her job and passionate about Thai boxing, Leung finally took the plunge and became a full-time coach when Au decided to start the first centre for ladies-only training in 2006.

It was not an easy decision; Leung struggled with it for six months. She was not confident that the new centre would be a success because Thai boxing was not as popular in Hong Kong as it is today. “If I did it full time, I would devote 100 per cent of my efforts to it. I was worried if I could manage it.”

She was also worried she would not be able to support her family because the income from teaching Thai boxing was not as stable as her office job. In the end, she decided that the combination of the support from her boyfriend and her family, her youth and the dead-end nature of her job made the risk worthwhile.

Luckily, the centre turned out to be a success. During her busiest times, she taught eight sessions a day, including both private sessions and classes. With hindsight, Leung regrets she did not leave the office job sooner, as the peak age of a Thai boxer is 20 to 24. “I wish I had started earlier when I was younger and more ambitious.” Leung says that had she thrown herself into Thai boxing earlier she would have entered some competitions and won prizes.

Being a woman in such a male-dominated field has not always been easy. “Some male students belittle me. Some think that I’m a petite girl and are sceptical about whether I’m professional enough,” she says. Male coaches are more popular because they can attract students of both genders, whereas most male students would prefer not to have a female coach. But Leung does not take it personally.

Besides, she has other strengths. Leung’s caring personality and persistence has earned her the respect and admiration of her students. Gabrielle Tvscher, who has boxed under Leung’s tutelage for two years, says she loves her coach but “complains” about her demanding commands. “She keeps yelling ‘Work harder! Work harder! Ten more! Ten more!’ ”

In fact, Leung understands her students’ abilities and needs and adjusts her approach accordingly. Her skills and passion in teaching explains why her classes are well attended despite the bias. Many students join the class to keep fit, while some come to release their stress. Some simply love Thai boxing.

For women who have never tried Thai boxing, and who might feel embarrassed to practise alongside men, Leung’s class is a stress-free environment where they can gain confidence. In the class, Leung is a role model – a determined, strong-willed coach, demonstrating that women can also master Thai boxing.

Her strong character may be related to her background. Leung’s parents divorced when she was young and she lived with her grandmother. She learned to be independent when she studied in Britain as she always had to take care of herself.

Life has had its ups and downs but Leung is not easily defeated. A year after she and Au married, Swish Club ran into difficulties in 2007. After expanding the club they faced pressure from increased rent and management costs which meant they had to boost enrolment.

However, they faced fierce competition as Thai boxing had by then gained in popularity. The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, followed by the financial tsunami, drowned the city in despair and badly affected the business of Swish Club.

Throughout the difficulties, Leung remained self-sufficient. She does not like to rely on anyone. Therefore, as the general manager of the club, she is also responsible for marketing, accounting, administration and management. More coaches and staff joined the club after expansion and managing human resources became an arduous task.

The first year of expansion was extremely tough on Leung. “I had to do everything, from cleaning the toilet to coaching,” she recalls. But what bothered her the most was that some coaches left and opened their own boxing club after earning a good reputation at Swish Club.

Despite all the challenges, Leung never gives up but faces up to the problems instead. Her belief that the business would pull through never wavered and over time, Swish Club has recovered from its setbacks. She even views the betrayal of her former colleagues as a life lesson to not take things to heart.

Looking back, Leung cannot imagine life without coaching, such is the fulfillment she gets from Thai boxing. She is delighted when she sees her students enjoying the sport and she is pleased when they achieve their goals. She cannot hide her excitement when recounting a student who lost weight, “One of them was 160 pounds. She’s now 120.”

Relationships with students are what she cherishes the most. Her students are her friends. One of her very first students from seven years ago became her best friend and a bridesmaid at her wedding.

Leung is grateful that she was able to build a career out of her interest. She considers her greatest achievement is pioneering a trend for ladies’ Thai boxing in Hong Kong. She sees it as her mission to tell people that Thai boxing is a good way to keep fit and the sport is suitable for women as well as men.

“There weren’t any girls doing it in the old days. But the sport is now so common that you might hear a girl sitting next to you saying ‘I’m going to box tonight.’”

At the moment, Leung is content with life. “I don’t have any more dreams. I simply want to go on with my career and do my best,” she says calmly. Having fulfilled her own dream, Leung is ready for another important stage in life – motherhood.

“I’m planning to have children,” she says with a mysterious smile. Leung began planning to start a family two years ago. Now the club is back on track and has grown in reputation, Leung has more time for her own life.

She has it all mapped out – she will gradually reduce her classes and coaching to only four training sessions a week and spend more time on management in order to avoid any problems caused by her sooner-or-later maternity leave.

However, she is keen to emphasize that motherhood will not be the end of her Thai boxing coaching career. From the very beginning, Leung’s interest in Thai boxing has been inextricably linked to her personal life. When she and Au married four years ago, the line between career and family was more blurred than ever. To her, health, career, and family are equally important. Nothing, not even a baby will dampen her enthusiasm for Thai boxing.