Ex-gang member lifts himself out of adversity with help from good samaritans

Iron Fitness occupies a corner shophouse unit along North Bridge Road and defies expectations of what a modern gym should look like.

There is no air-conditioning, and no state-of-the-art hi-fi system blaring out the latest in pop, rap or other workout music.

Nasty-looking equipment - from steel frames with rings to wall balls, dip stands, grip bars and a humongous tyre - fill the room, making it look more like a grungy torture dungeon.

Indeed, there are barf bags and smelling salts available because some clients - after a particularly punishing session - have been known to stagger to the small lane behind the gym to vomit.

But far from being a major turn-off, Iron Fitness has attracted a steady stream of clients running the gamut from national athletes to chefs and corporate head honchos.

They go there to pay obeisance to owner Kelvin Quah, a former commando instructor who has no compunction about giving them a good whack with his cane if they are not deadlifting their weights or executing their burpees right.

Solidly built, the 31-year-old cuts an arresting figure and has an even more fascinating background: The former teen delinquent and gangster found redemption in a gym; it kept him off the streets and from endless gang fights.

Not surprisingly, he dreamed of opening his own gym. He finally realised this dream two years ago, but not before some trials and tribulations.

Mr Quah had a less than rosy start in life; his parents parted ways shortly after he was born. "I don't know my father. I've never seen him before," he says quietly.

To make ends meet, his mother toiled in a factory and left him in the care of friends, an elderly couple in Clementi.

"The couple were babysitting 11 of their grandchildren. They looked after me from when I was a few months old until I was 14," he says. "They were very good to me, always advised me to study and even gave me pocket money, but I still felt a bit out of place sometimes."

Even though he tried to put up a brave front, his situation obviously distressed and traumatised him.

"Of course I wondered why I had no father and why my mother didn't want to look after me. Sometimes I would cry but I tried to accept it. I kept a lot of things to myself. After a while, OK already lor," he says, a trifle too brightly.

He saw his mother - who lived in a one-room rental flat in Queenstown - only on weekends.

"It felt good when I saw her. She would take me out to eat but I also knew life was hard. I still remember an incident when we were taking the bus. I was playing with a coin and dropped it. My mum told me money was really hard to come by," he says, starting to tear at the memory.

School, alas, was not a happy place for him.

At Clementi Town Primary, a teacher told him he was no better than rubbish and would probably end up working in a hawker centre.

"I told myself, 'Since I am going to end up like that, why study so hard?' So from Primary 3 onwards, I stopped paying attention in class. I was always in the top three, from the bottom," he quips.

His abysmal PSLE results landed him in the weakest Normal (Technical) stream at Clementi Town Secondary.

"I fulfilled my potential in other areas: fighting and getting into trouble," he says.

He joined a street gang, skipped school often, hawked illegal VCDs and took part in numerous gang fights, some of which involved the use of weapons such as bread knives.

Neither his mother nor his guardians knew about his shenanigans.

"I became quite withdrawn in my teens and did not talk much about my life," he says. "I'd just give my mother a very bad report card to sign once every six months."

Influenced by the hulky fighters he saw on TV programmes such as the WWF Superstars of Wrestling, he started to develop an interest in bodybuilding.

"I was very skinny then," recalls Mr Quah. He started going to a ClubFITT gym, set up by the Singapore Sports Council, in Clementi. "A lot of people looked at me and said, 'You do bodybuilding? Cannot lah!'"

Mindless gang fights had by then started to lose their appeal.

"A friend told me I was going to end up in jail sooner or later. So I decided to channel all my energy from fighting into my training."

However, he received no guidance. "Nobody would teach me or they would only do it if I had money," says Mr Quah, who enrolled in an Institute of Technical Education (ITE) course after failing his O levels.

He resolved that he would one day open a gym where people who wanted to train would get all the help they wanted without having to pay through their noses.

Serendipity led a kindly ITE lecturer - the late Albert Tan - into his life as a mentor and a teacher.

"I was very rebellious but he showed a lot of patience with me. He asked me why I must always get myself into trouble. He became more like a friend instead of a teacher," says Mr Quah.

A bodybuilding enthusiast himself, Mr Tan nurtured the teenager's interest in the sport, training him and even paying for his supplements, posing trunks and body colouring so that he could take part in competitions.

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"He did it to get me out of trouble," says Mr Quah, who was placed second at the Pesta Sukan Bodybuilding Championships 2003, the first contest he took part in.

Former national coach Calvin Yew approached him and later took the teenager under his wing.

"That's how I ended up in the Singapore Bodybuilding Federation and training alongside Ibrahim Sihat and Halim Haron," he says, referring to the former national bodybuilding champions.

As a member of the national bodybuilding youth squad, he chalked up several victories, placing first in the flyweight division of several national competitions.

National service beckoned next.

He was fit enough to be a commando, and the stint changed him.

"I had a very good company sergeant major called Warrant Kasi in the army. He was a skinhead and looked very fierce. But he was really detailed and meticulous, and really cared for us. I started to look up to him as my role model," he says.

It prompted him to sign up with the army and join the commando battalion as an instructor.

"It opened my eyes to a lot of things. I learnt to be more tolerant, became more mature and started to set objectives for myself," says Mr Quah who attended several courses abroad.

The dream to open his own gym never left him though, so after six years, he decided to leave the army.

He became a personal trainer at a hotel gym and, over the next couple of years, got certified in many areas - from rehab training to trigger point performance to strength and conditioning - from several bodies, including the Singapore Sports Council and The Australian Strength and Conditioning Association Inc.

Deciding that he did not want to rest on his laurels as a gym personal trainer, he struck out on his own to freelance as a strength and conditioning coach for school athletes.

It was a decision which did not quite pay off.

Although he enjoyed the work, the pay was meagre.

And because he was such an earnest coach, he often found himself out of pocket, having to pay for equipment to push his athletes harder or barbecues to encourage them to perform better.

"I was only surviving on a few hundred dollars a month," he recalls with a sigh, adding that he was also played out by a strength and conditioning gym for services offered.

It was a bleak period. He was haunted by the fear that his primary school teacher's prediction - that he would end up as a good for nothing - would come true.

Fortunately, he snapped out of it. Moping, he decided, was not going to help. So he wrote to a few of his clients, telling them of his vision for a gym.

"I guess I met the right people at the right time and the right place," he says.

Two former personal training clients - high-flying financial executives - took a leap of faith and invested $40,000 in his venture.

"They had no expectations. They just said to use the money however I wanted."

He pumped in $20,000 of his own money - $10,000 of which he had set aside for a very long time for a gym.

He found himself a 1,000 sq ft shophouse in North Bridge Road. There were naysayers aplenty. "All of them said I would close down in a couple of months."

Their predictions came perilously close to happening. Just one month after he opened in October 2012, the place flooded, damaging the equipment. The landlord was unsympathetic and offered no compensation.

Undaunted, Mr Quah soldiered on.

He had started out with a few school athletes but through aggressive social media marketing, more people came to the gym. They were attracted by its no-frills but progressive approach to fitness and its emphasis on strength training, injury rehabilitation and metabolic conditioning.

His reputation as a no-nonsense, hard-driving coach with a sound grip on what he did was also a great hook.

"One of my clients came with two slipped discs but today he's lifting 195kg," he says.

The gym started to cover its expenses five months after it opened. Three months ago, it shifted to a 2,800 sq ft space on the same road.

Today, Iron Fitness has about 60 members, ranging from professional athletes to weekend warriors. They run the gamut from Shenton Way types to CEOs of multimillion-dollar companies.

One of them is Mr Bernard Oh, the head honcho of events and marketing company amc. Without being asked, Mr Oh gave Mr Quah a $40,000 interest-free loan with no definite pay-back period, to move to his new premises.

"He's really good at what he does, he has very loyal athletes, and a burning hunger and ambition to succeed. He has big hairy audacious goals, and reminds me of myself when I first started amc 20 years ago," Mr Oh says.

In fact, he sends several of his senior executives to Iron Fitness to be trained several times a week.

"Not only have they become fitter and look better, they are also more alert and dynamic. They have also been 'brainwashed'. If they can do the crazy numbers of repetitions that the conditioning classes require, our corporate target numbers will be nothing."

Mr Oh is not the only believer. Several of Mr Quah's clients have also donated equipment - from equipment racks to multi lifters and rowers - because they want him to succeed.

Mr Quah - who has a girlfriend and lives with his mother in a three-room flat in Yishun - reveals that he does not take home a salary. Whatever the gym makes goes back into better equipment.

He believes he will start turning a profit in a couple of years.

"My dream is to eventually have a gym which is 5,000 sq ft with a running track and an astro turf."

What he did not have when he was young, he wants others to have.

"I really want to change lives."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

This story was first published on Dec 14, 2014