It is cold late afternoon and there are no students at the 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.
She surveys the 5,000-square-foot boxing club in Causeway Bay and is proud of what she sees--- it is the first in Hong Kong to hold ladies-only classes.
It is easy to miss the grit and muscle beneath her petite and girlish appearance.
Leung, now in her early 30s, 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.
But it was not until she left to study for her A-Levels in Britain that she really came into contact with the sport.
In London Leung met her boyfriend, and now husband, Antony Au Ting-piu, who is a martial arts enthusiast. It was Au---who owns and coaches at the Swish Club---who encouraged her to exercise.
“Don’t think she has been this this slim all along” he says, pointing at his wife and business partner. “she was a plump girl who never did any exercise when she was in Britain.”
Leung tagged along with Au to a gathering of Thai boxing enthusiasts in a park, and after that she fell in love with the sport.
She says those meetings were casual, like the tai chi gatherings at Victoria Park.
Six or seven people would come and practice moves twice a month under the tutelage of a British amateur boxer.
After a year of regular training, Leung says both Thai boxing and exercise became a habit, and 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 returned to Hong Kong in 2003 and worked in a telecommunications company for 3½ years.
But her routine office job did not snuff out her passion for Thai boxing. She became an office lady by day and a part-time assistant coach by night at the Swish Club.
Realizing female students respond better to female trainers, Leung finally took the plunge and became a full-time coach when Au decided to start the first center exclusively for women in 2006.
There were apprehensions --- Thai boxing was not as popular then as it is today.
“If I did it full time, I would devote 100 percent of my efforts to it ,” Leung says. “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 coaching was not as stable as her office job.
But with the backing of her boyfriend and her family, she decided the risk would be worthwhile. The center turned out to be a success.
During her busiest times, she teaches eight sessions a day --- both private sessions and classes.
With hindsight, Leung regrets she did not quit the office job sooner, as the peak age of a Thai boxer is the early 20s.
“I wish I had started earlier when I was younger and more ambitious,” she says.
Leung adds that had she thrown herself into Thai boxing earlier she would have entered some competitions and won prizes.
Being a woman in a male-dominated field has not always been easy.
“Some male students belittle me,” she says. “Some think that I’m a petite girl and are skeptical about whether I’m professional enough.”
And male coaches are more popular because they can attract students of both genders.
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 style.
“She keeps yelling ‘Work harder! Work harder! Ten more! Ten more! ‘” Tvscher says.
Her skills and passion in teaching explain why her classes are well attended.
Many students join the class to keep fit, while some come to release stress. Some simply love Thai boing.
For women who have never tried Thai boxing, and who might feel embarrassed to practice alongside men, Leung says her class is a stress-free environment where they can gain confidence.
To her student, Leung is a role model --- a determined, strong-willed coach who demonstrates 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 leaned to be independent when she studied in Britain.
Life has had its ups and downs but Leung is not easily defeated.
A year after she and Au married, the Swish Club ran into difficulties in 2007.
After expanding the club they faced pressure from increasing rent and management costs --- which meant they had to boost enrollment --- and saw competition become fierce as Thai boxing gained in popularity.
And the collapse of Lehman Brothers, followed by the financial tsunami, also badly affected the business.
Throughout those difficulties, Leung remained steadfast.
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 clubs after earning a good reputation at the Swish Club.
Despite all the challenges, Leung never gave up.
Her belief that the business would pull through never wavered and, over time, the Swish Club recovered from its setbacks.
She even views the “betrayal” of her former colleagues as a life lesson to not take things too personally.
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 --- she slimmed down from 73 kilograms to 54kg.
Relationships with students, whom she considers her friends, are what she cherishes the most.
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’
One of her very first students, from seven years ago, even 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 consider her greatest achievement is pioneering a trend for ladies’ Thai boxing in Hong Kong.
She sees it as her mission to tell people the sport is a good way to keep fit and that it is suitable for women as well as men.
“There weren’t any girls going 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 her career.
“I don’t have any more dreams. I simply want to go on with my career and do my best,” she says.
But Leung is ready for another important stage in life --- motherhood.
“I’m planning to have children,” she says.
Leung began planning to start a family two years ago. Now that the club is back on track and has grown in reputation, she has more time for her personal life.
Leung has it all mapped out --- she will gradually reduce her classes 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 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.
An excerpt from the March edition of the Varsity magazine, published by the school of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
By Joyce Lee