'i am not a fighter' Interview: Muay Thai Fighter Tai
interview date: 15 Oct 2015 中文版
Some three hundred fights later, Muay Thai fighter Tai says, “I’m not keen on picking a fight.”
'Can you make me a fighter?'
It’s inconceivable why a Muay Thai fighter of over 300 fights would give such a reply to his student who has a strong wish to fight.
He is usually heard before he is seen in the gym. Whenever he leads the warm up, he speaks at the top of his voice – counting a move, prompting the class to speed up or teasing a clumsy student. If you spare a moment to glance at his face, he is invariably smiling. Even when it isn’t his turn to teach, he just can’t stand still. He may sit on your back as you plank or pull your leg quite literally.
He changes his hair colour just before you get used to it. You may scorn his painted nails and pencilled eyebrows, but he doesn’t care. On his T-shirt, you see hand-painted phrases like ‘Trust me if you want to be good’ (in English) and ‘Relax/ Need not be nervous’ (in Cantonese). At break, he is sometimes seen munching Dorayaki (red bean pancakes, cartoon Doraemon’s favourite food). You can’t seem to find a reason to take him serously. Therefore, you are puzzled when he looks upset or deliberately ignores you when you don’t cooperate in class.
No, he wouldn’t admit he enjoys teaching Muay Thai or asserts his love for a combat sport he has been doing for more than twenty years.
His name is Tai (ไท). The name was given by his boxing promoter around nine years ago and he kept it ever since. His professional name in a Muay Thai fight is ‘Choknamchai Tor Silachai’ (โชคนำชัย ต. ศิลาชัย).
Thirty years ago, Tai was born in Udon Thani, Northeast Thailand. His parents are rice farmers. As a little boy, Tai loved sleeping on the back of his best friend – a buffalo his family kept.
When Tai was around six, he came home from school every day with a soiled white shirt. His father always wondered what had happened – if he looked more closely, he might see a small shoe mark.
Six-year-old Tai was a quick learner. Without really trying, he was ahead of children of his age. His teacher let him attend lessons with his seven-year-old class. When Tai was able to effortlessly give the correct answer to a question his seven-year-old classmate couldn’t grasp, his teacher asked the six-year-old to hit his slow-witted senior one time.
After school, that seven-year-old would return the compliment with a harder smack. Sometimes, that stronger classmate would thrust his foot on Tai and run away. Tai didn’t fight back. Or perhaps, he hadn’t thought about fighting back.
But someone wanted him to.
For this reason, Tai fought the very first Muay Thai fight in his life.
“The first time? I was eight. Because father really liked Muay Thai. When I was small, I really disliked Muay Thai. I didn’t like to fight. But everyday, my friends hit me, time after time. And my father said, ‘what? Why didn’t you hit them back?’ I said, ‘I don’t like that. I don’t want to.’ And my father said, ‘no way!’ And he was very angry with me and wanted me to fight in a competition. And I started learning and fought in a competition. I was eight-year-old. And when I fought, I thought to myself, ‘wow, I’m really powerful now!’ When my friend hit me, I hit back. When everybody hit me, I always hit back. All of them. And I won. I won every time. Because when I hit them, they cried. Every one of them cried.”
Recalling his first fight, Tai’s eyes are smiling.
Less than a fortnight after his first lesson, Tai won his first fight. Though his opponent was also a beginner, they came face to face with each other for five three-minute rounds. Tai’s second fight didn’t come until he was twelve. Between nine and eleven, Tai’s parents moved to Bangkok to make a living. Tai stayed. Someone in his hometown didn’t want him to leave: his physical education teacher. Tai was a sportsman at school. His P.E. teacher couldn’t bear to lose his favourite student and offered Tai’s parents to take care of him. Living with his teacher, Tai got even more opportunities to play sports, whether it’s track and field, or ball games. But not Muay Thai.
All sports and no studies still made Tai a straight-A student. He came first in those few years. “I am No. 1 lazy; I am No. 1 smart.” Tai is unembarrassed to admit a fact that still holds true.
Having been to Hong Kong for over two years, he speaks better Cantonese than his Thai friends who have been coaching here for a few years. He didn’t really make a conscious effort to learn the language; he mostly learnt by ear. Sometimes, he can catch on to the pronunciation after hearing it once or twice.
Prior to the interview, I asked Tai to speak in Thai when he couldn’t express himself in Cantonese or English (I’d much prefer that he speaks his heart and wouldn’t mind asking someone to translate it afterwards). To make my questions easy to understand, I unconsciously mixed Cantonese with English, often ungrammatically. As it turns out, he was able to articulate his story in simple Cantonese, together with a small proportion of English or Thai words.
At the beginning, Tai wasn’t too comfortable talking in the presence of a sound recorder. After some humming and hawing, he says in Cantonese, “I am shy… I don’t know how to speak.”
winnie chau (W) tai (T)
W：When was the last time you read a book?
T： [9 seconds later] Long ago.
W：How long ago?
T： Maybe ten… ten years.
W：Ten years. That means you still read when you were 20?
T： [corrects himself] Ten... ten odd years. [Winnie laughs]
W：When you went to school?
W：What kind of book did you read?
T：[6 seconds later] Dunno. Can't remember. [Winnie laughs]
W：Why can't you remember? Is it in ภาษาไทย (Thai language)？
T：But it's definitely not ภาษาอังกฤษ (English).[Winnie laughs]
No surprise. When his classmates were having English lessons, he went to play football. That’s why he often emphasises that his Cantonese is better than his English.
At fifteen, Tai started to reside in a Muay Thai gym during his last academic year, which was partly self-taught (his results weren’t great). Soon, he told his father he would either fight or study, as it was physically demanding to do both. At last, he chose Muay Thai. Yet, what lay ahead was seven to eight times of consecutive defeats. “And my father said, ‘ok, finish. That’s it.’ What? Why? I said, ‘no way!’ As I didn’t go to school [anymore] and if I didn’t fight, what could I do?” To the 17-year-old, returning to studies or getting a job was simply out of the question. It’s easier to face up to another fight, even if it meant working extra hard day-to-day. Did familiarity breed his fondness for Muay Thai? “Not that I like it – I had nothing [else] to do,” says Tai in an impassive tone, neither teasing nor ironic.
W：You mentioned previously that if you are not paid, you don't want to fight [in a competition]. Is it true?
T：Certainly. Why fight [if I'm not paid]? It's me who feel the pain. [Winnie laughs] When I fight in a competition, it's work too.
Fighters are often heroised, sometimes reluctantly. Not fighting for money – it’s perhaps as romantic as it’s stupid. Paying fighters is an act of respect. Tai was paid for his first fight as an 8-year-old (150 baht). Even the defeated side gets paid. Then does the outcome still matter?
Winning a dozen of fights in a row, Tai appears
in the centre spread of a Muay Thai magazine.
W：Would you be very upset when you lose?
T：Not very upset. It's... ok. Lose is lose. [What matters is whether] I know [what it means by] spirit – in sport, lose means lose. (By 'spirit', Tai refers to 'sportsmanship'.)
W：Then are you very happy when you win?
T：[impassive]Not really very happy. [Winnie laughs] It's ok. Lose is ok; win is ok.
W：You don't definitely want to... win?
T：[I] definitely want to win too. [Winnie laughs] Yet, I won't be very very very happy [when I do].
Tai’s parents were sometimes seen in the auditorium. When Tai lost, his father would say to his son, “never mind. Next time.” If only Tai’s grandfather could say the same to Tai’s father years ago. Passionate for Muay Thai, Tai’s father had fought a few times as a young man before Tai’s grandfather put an end to his son’s potential fighting career. Tai’s father was a top student as well. He came first in school, but unfortunately there were no scholarships available to support his further studies. Otherwise, he could have been a teacher.
In fact, Muay Thai fighters have long been stigmatised by the general public in Thailand. Outside of the gym and stadium, even the champions are seen as losers – they fail academically and aren’t capable of doing much else, other than Muay Thai (though the stigma is disappearing now). To Tai, the impression is less a misconception than a fact, “because what I did when I was younger was training and resting. I slept, trained, slept, ate and slept. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t know how to do anything.”
W：How do you tell others who you are?
T：[after listening to Winnie's elaboration on the question, replies right away] I, I like to หยอก (joke, make fun of people) and I'm also a good person. But I get angry with people very easily. When I don't like it, I'm angry, angry straight away. But I, I'm also a good good person.
T：Many people like me. And there are some who don't like me.
T：But doesn't matter, because there are many people who like me. Very few who don't like me.
W：When did you start to pay so much attention to your appearance?
T：[deep in thought in a childlike way] When I was small, I used [hair] gel, powder [talcum powder applied on face] and this one [a Thai thirst-quenching drink that tints the lips red]. But no painted nails, as it's not allowed [at school].
T：When I was small. [astonished by his younger self] Wow, at seven or eight, we used [hair] gel.
W：Why do you paint your nails?
T：[I] like it.
W：Like it? Think it looks good? But other guys don't do that.
T：Au! I am not the same. [Winnie laughs]
W：But you are not a ladyboy?
T：No. [Winnie laughs]
W：You are not gay?
T：No. [can't help laughing himself]
W：[deliberately] Have you ever fallen for a guy?
A man with multi-colour painted nails is not cool. Yet, if he follows his heart and does something indifferent to the world’s opinions and aesthetic standards, it is cool. The world would also think fighters are utterly fearless…
W：What scares you most?
T：[suddenly dramatic] ผี (ghosts)!
Tai says his forte is punch.
There is a question I really want to ask every fighter.
W：When you're in a Muay Thai fight，when the other fighter is in front of you, what are you thinking? What's inside your brain?
T：Dunno, what I'm thinking... how to hit him, how to trick him, as Muay Thai is [about faking a move] to trick the opponent. How to trick him, how to fake [a move], how to hit him.
W：Then how do you feel? Do you feel angry or nothing or nervous or －
T：[interrupts] Nothing. The first round is nervous; the second round is ok, but not angry.
T：We're friends after the fight.
After over three hundred Muay Thai and Western boxing competitions and winning the WBO and WBC World Championships, there isn’t even one fight Tai finds memorable. But he would still joke about the fights with his close friends who were once his opponents.
Tai started Western boxing because of his sifu. Around nine years ago, Tai intended to quit fighting altogether. But seeing his affiliated gym struggling with scant income, he felt sorry for his sifu. As the income from boxing competition is higher than that from Muay Thai competition, Tai did boxing as well, especially when he was practically the most promising contestant in the gym. And he was. His achievements in boxing surpassed those in Muay Thai.
Yet, Tai didn’t find much fun in boxing and it’s much more tiring (boxing consists of 12 rounds). In 2012, he left his two champion belts in his gym in Thailand for Macau. He worked there for ten months before coming to Hong Kong to teach Muay Thai at Swish Club in July 2013. Now and then, those around him would suggest, explicitly and implicitly, that he fight again. But Tai treats it as compliment more than encouragement.
I am not able to judge how good Tai’s techniques are but I’ve witnessed his agile reflexes in sparring. He is also described playfully by his boss as ‘untouchable’.
Inside the ring, a fighter can block the opponent’s punches, kicks, knees and elbows; out of it, you are always defenceless. Even if you didn’t fight in the ring, it doesn't mean you would be unwounded.
Tai KOed his opponent in the 2nd round (out of 12 rounds), winning WBO Champion in 2011.
Upon Tai’s left eyebrow is the emblem of a Muay Thai fighter – a scar left by an elbow attack. Nevertheless, the most visible scar on his body isn’t on his eyebrow. He has a three-inch scar on his arm; the cut wasn’t made inside the ring. Whenever people ask about it, Tai says he got it in a street fight. I thought that was the real reason. But the truth is…
When Tai was around 20 years old, he saw a cow and her new-born near his home. He recalls, “her baby was so cute. I wanted to touch her baby and maybe she was scared that I’d kill her baby.” The cow hurtled towards Tai in rage and scared the hell out of him. As he ran off, his arm was cut by the metal wires on the fence.
Lantau Island is one of the very few places in Hong Kong, Tai can meets cows.
In the middle of our conversation, Tai says in passing, “I’m not keen on picking a fight. Really.”
Little doubt now.
Tai is going to be in his last fight in his professional life in I-1 World Muaythai Championships in November 2015 in Hong Kong. It’s not for money, he says. Well, it’s not stupid at all. It’s romantic.
I didn’t ask him anything about his coming fight in the interview. I just hope that when his grandchildren ask their grandfather about his last fight, Tai will recall it the way he recalled his first fight – with his eyes smiling.