A fitness lover on racism, a suicide attempt at 15 and the cancer diagnosis that helped her be kind to her body and focus on her mental health

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My parents are from Kuala Lumpur, but my grandparents were from Guangzhou, China. My dad came from an affluent family. He and his brothers grew up with maids and they went to university in the UK. His father was knighted, there was prestige and status in the family.

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My dad studied engineering – his whole family was in construction – but he had an entrepreneurial side, and ran a disco and a bar. He was into fitness and used to coach bodybuilders.

Around the time I was born, in 1985, he opened a muscle gym and from a very young age I used to play at the gym. My two younger brothers and I had a safe, sheltered childhood. I went to church and Sunday school, I had piano lessons. I went to a Chinese school from kindergarten to sixth grade, which was where I learned Mandarin.

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The school believed in corporal punishment, which they inflicted if you did anything wrong, from forgetting your homework to getting a bad grade. I was hit on my hands, arms and legs with a bamboo rod and slapped across the face in front of the class by a male teacher, which was perhaps the worst as it came as such a shock. At home, my mum also used a bamboo rod; that’s the way she grew up as well.

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Tan experienced a lot of racism and got called all sorts of names in the US. Photo: Cherry Li Photography

Downwardly mobile

The Asian financial crisis in 1997 hit our family badly and my dad lost a lot of money in the stock market. My mum’s brothers had both settled in the US state of Tennessee and set up restaurants, and our family moved to the US soon after my 13th birthday. We went from living in a middle-class environment in Malaysia to a low-class environment in the States.

For the first few months, we slept on mattresses on the floor in my uncle’s spare room. Even when my parents got our own place, we were still sleeping on mattresses on the floor and sharing two rooms. The only furniture we had was what we’d got from garage sales or salvaged from the rubbish. I wore hand-me-downs from my cousins’ friends.

After we’d been in the States a year, my parents separated. When I was 14, I started working in restaurants to help support the family, bussing tables or in the kitchen. In Tennessee, it’s legal to work from the age of 15 and that’s when I felt like I got some independence. From bussing tables, I became a hostess showing people to their tables, to a cashier, to taking care of the drive-through window to pseudo-managing a restaurant.

I worked throughout my middle and high school years, working three or four nights in the week and all through the weekend. I never got enough sleep, so I was always falling asleep in class.

I experienced a lot of racism and got called all sorts of names, especially by rednecks. Doing sports in the States costs money – for the uniform, for the travel – and I was so busy working and tired that I didn’t do sports, although I wanted to join a dance team.

Tan tried to commit suicide at 15 after an abortion. Photo: Dan Rosenthal Photography

Sex talk

I tried to commit suicide at 15 after an abortion, which stemmed from sex that I didn’t consent to because I was unconscious. I’d never talked to my parents about sex and the first time I did it was to tell my dad, “I’ve done something wrong. I had sex and I’m pregnant.”

I didn’t tell him it wasn’t consensual because I think it would have killed him. He was the one who made the appointment for me to have an abortion. I think it really killed him inside because he still practises his faith and talks to God, but after the rape I stopped practising my faith.

I graduated early from high school and worked four jobs for a year and a half to save money for college, but the money I earned in that time was only enough to cover one semester of tuition at university in Tennessee.

Fit for work

My father wanted to go back to Malaysia, and I went with him and my brothers in 2004. I enrolled to study business administration and mass communication at Kolej Damansara Utama (a university in Kuala Lumpur) and looked after my brothers.

I woke up early, took my brothers to school, then I’d go to work and go to class and back to work, pick them up from school and then go back to work. I’ve no idea how I managed on so little sleep, I think I burned out. I was working at a new fitness centre called Celebrity Fitness and was offered a promotion, but it meant quitting college to go full time.

At the time, it didn’t seem to make sense to pay to learn to do things that I was already doing at work. So, at 20, I was assistant operations manager, the youngest manager in the company, and I became very career-driven. I began in sales, then went into operations and then got my certification to be a personal trainer (PT).

Tan became hooked on pole dancing after her first class. Photo: Pole Ninja/Kenneth Kao

Pole call

In 2007, before starting as a PT at California Fitness, I took a three-month break and it was in that period that I discovered pole dancing. After my first class, I was in so much pain, my bruises were massive and ugly, but I was hooked.

The friend who’d introduced me to pole dancing suggested we start a pole dancing school and we did – Viva Vertical started at about the same time I began working as a PT at California. My business partner and I created certification courses for pole dancing and launched throughout Asia, and founded the International Pole Dance Fitness Association.

We were careful operating in a Muslim country. We definitely weren’t going to be rocking up in thongs, bikinis and high heels. We wore sneakers and what you would typically wear to the gym.

Up in the air

I got married when I was 22, to an American guy I’d met at Celebrity Fitness. I learned early on that he was cheating on me, but I never confronted him. He was a pretty violent person and said he’d done time in the States for manslaughter. Although he never physically harmed me, it was emotional abuse. When he moved to India to start up a new gym, I decided not to go with him. We were together six years.

Viva Vertical grew from a studio that teaches classes to an academy that certifies instructors to a modern circus troupe called Viva Circus, introducing aerial arts to our repertoire.

Then we went into a joint venture with a school in Singapore. Our clients were bankers and lawyers, we drew people from high-stress jobs who wanted something that wasn’t the gym.

When we introduced aerial arts, we drew more interest from stay-at-home mums, women who could afford to not work, and they could afford to come to the classes, so it became a more premium thing in Malaysia. And we attracted people who were active and wanted to challenge themselves and express themselves artistically and not just in the gym.

Tan realised the importance of prioritising her mental and emotional health when she was recovering from cancer. Photo: Cherry Li Photography

Asian in Dubai

I was going back and forth between Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, where I was working for a Pilates studio. In 2013, I moved to Hong Kong full time. In 2014, I met my second husband – we got married after two-and-a-half years of dating and moved to Dubai as he had a job offer.

As an Asian in Dubai, I experienced the sort of racism I hadn’t faced since I was a teenager in Tennessee. All my hard work didn’t matter, people assumed that if I looked the way I did I must be the help or the receptionist.

It was too triggering for me, so I jumped on an opportunity to work as a consultant in Spain. My marriage also ended at this time.

The big C

In April 2018, I got what I thought was a bad cold, but then I noticed red dots all over my legs and went to the doctor. The red dots were a sign of low blood platelets and I went straight to the ER – I had acute myeloid leukaemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

I did the first round of chemo in Spain and moved back to Hong Kong for the next four rounds, which was good because I got a bone marrow match in China and, at the time, China only exported stem cells to Hong Kong and Macau.

I used to think I handled s*** really well – I didn’t talk about it, I dealt with it by suppressing it. Recovering from cancer, I realised the importance of prioritising my mental and emotional health and I started working with therapists for the first time.

Tan set up her start-up, Mental Muscle, offering workshops to build fitness for the mind and body. Photo: Dan Rosenthal Photography

Building Mental Muscle

In 2021, I set up my start-up, Mental Muscle, offering workshops to build fitness for the mind and body. I had been out of work for two years. Catching up on that was something that I was conflicted about because to hustle means that you have to compromise health.

After a year of hustling in Hong Kong, I was burning out, so I decided to prioritise my health and moved to Alicante, in Spain, in March. I plan to continue to build Mental Muscle, do marketing for Viva Vertical and also run my podcast, Tackling Minds.

Even though I’m still on anti-suppressants, I don’t feel tired as often. I have more energy, can work out a little harder, can take on more things in terms of brain focus and feel more emotionally stable. And I’ve changed the way I eat.

I realise I used to push my body too hard. I had too much output mentally and physically, with very little input, which is sleep and recovery, and I was also experimenting with diet – it wasn’t a great combination. Now I’m more sensible – I can still lead an active life without trashing my body.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.

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