KUCHING: Past and present local bodybuilders share a common practice — using Kiwi shoe polish and lipstick mixed with baby oil to tan their bodies during competitions.
Even in recent years with special bronzing products easily available, the home-made variety is still used, especially among novices.
It is dangerous to the skin, according to local dermatologist Dr Dominic Songan.
“Kiwi shoe polish is not designed for the skin, being a shoe polish first and foremost. It can cause skin allergy. Prolonged use will further deteriorate skin condition,” he said.
“The effect of the substance on the skin depends on the individual’s immune system,” he added.
Being an expensive sport, especially during competitions, bodybuilding has had its share of dropouts.
The diet of a bodybuilder on normal days is already costly but as competitions approach, it could cost an arm and a leg.
And that’s not including the various food supplements vital for bulking up and looking ripped for the stage.
To make matters worse, the local association does not provide any qualified trainers.
The bodybuilders are their own trainers who rely mostly on books, magazines and the Internet to guide them. Sometimes, friends and peers help out.
Without any subsidy from the association and none whatsoever from the state sports authorities, the local bodybuilders have only one way out — sink or swim.
Sarawak’s bodybuilding hero, former Mr Asia Bujang Taha said lack of funds forced him to use Kiwi shoe polish during the initial years.
“It was the cheapest, costing around RM3 each. It has to be mixed with baby oil otherwise the skin may be damaged.”
According to Bujang, only one former assistant minister gave a monthly allowance of RM1,200 to each bodybuilder in serious training.
He claimed the local association gave him RM200 to buy some health supplements one month before the Mr Malaysia contest.
“Once, I had to travel to Kuala Lumpur with only 20 sen in my pocket – imagine, just 20 sen. I didn’t receive any allowance.
“It was only after I arrived in Kuala Lumpur that I received RM20 a day for meals from Malaysian Bodybuilding Federation (MBBF). The amount was small but I was thankful,” he recalled.
This father of 10 children, 47 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren pointed out that financial constraints did not dampen his passion for the sport.
“I did it for the love of bodybuilding, Sarawak and Malaysia otherwise I would have given up long time ago,” he said.
He only stopped pumping iron at 68.
Bujang, one of the few who has seen the rise and fall of the sport in Sarawak, said a movie in the 1950s featuring muscular heroes, sparked his interest to muscle up.
He trained under a teacher and bodybuilding buff Hamdan Yusuf at Masjid Bintangor Haji Taha (MBHT) Club and was ready for his first competition — Mr Kuching — in a matter of months. He finished third.
From then one, there was no stopping Bujang who went on to clinch more titles — Mr Sarawak and Mr Kuching (1971) and third place in Mr Sarawak (1973).
In 1975, he represented Sarawak in the Mr Malaysia and won the Master category. He was Mr Asean in 1980 and Mr Asia in 1980 and 1981. All these titles earned him the state award Ahli Bintang Sarawak in 1982.
Bujang was also a gold medallist at the 1975 SEA Games and silver medallist at the 1983 Asian Games. He won the Sarawak Sportsman Award in 1981 and 1989.
On hindsight, the 73-year-old said it was a pity bodybuilding became a sunset sport after only three and a half glorious decades during which Sarawak and Malaysia stamped their mark on the international stage.
“In those days, MBHT was the only public gym with very basic facilities but this humble place produced a new generation of bodybuilders,” Bujang recalled.
He said most of the bodybuilders trained between seven and eight hours everyday and kept to a strict diet.
Even today, he continues to exercise and eat healthily.
His daily meals comprise two pieces of bread for breakfast, vegetables and rice for lunch and lots of fruits and fish for dinner.
“Bodybuilding is a health-based sport,” he said.
Bujang advised beginners to stay away from drugs or banned substances like steroids.
“Hard work and healthy eating habits will pay off. You must love your body,” he said.
Sharing a similar experience but in a different time is Liaw Teck Leong, Sarawak’s last bodybuilding hero.
He was among those who resorted to boiling lipstick to tan his body during competitions.
Being of fair complexion, he needed to colour his skin for a healthy glow. As proper tanning lotions were hard to come by as well as expensive, he had no choice but to use home-made bronzers (lipsticks).
Given that it takes a bodybuilder between three and five years to build their muscles and just five minutes to impress the judges, it is mandatory that he looks good on stage.
“In a competition, five minutes is all you have to present yourself to the judges. The judges aren’t bothered whether or not you have the money to buy tanning lotion. So you have to do all you can to look good on stage,” he said.
After several competitions outside Sarawak, Liaw learned there were tanning products (aside from lipsticks), one being Dream Tan. Today, according to him, tanning lotions are relatively cheaper and easier to get than 20 or 30 years ago.
Liaw was one of only two Malaysians to have been sent to the US for training under bodybuilding pros.
Like his predecessors, Liaw worked hard against all odds (such as limited gym equipment) to become a national bodybuilding star.
“In those days, there were about 10 of us taking turns to share one work-out equipment at the Youth and Sports complex in Kuching,” he recapped.
After a few months training, Liaw had his first taste of success when he won the Mr Kuching novice category in 1986. The following year, he won the lightweight title.
Liaw was crowned Mr Sarawak in 1989, finished fourth in Mr Malaysia 1989, won the Mr Asia title in 2000 and took the silver in the 2002 Asian Games.
He was also middleweight champion in the 2006 NPC Excalibur Bodybuilding and Figure Championship and placed 11th in the 2002 IFBB World Amateur Championship.
To excel in any sport, he said one had to push beyond the boundaries.
“You have to be fully committed if you want to win. You have to invest and do more than others. But there are always disappointments. When you give 100 per cent, it does not necessarily mean you get 100 per cent back. You have to be prepared for this kind of thing,” he said.
Bodybuilding has taught him the value of good nutrition and healthy lifestyle and become second nature as well as a business venture to him.
To intending bodybuilders, he advised: “Know what you’re doing. Learn about nutrition and stay away from drugs. There’s no shortcut. You have to eat well and train hard.”
Reigning Mr Sarawak Simon Kiew went through a similar experience to get where he is. Like many of his peers, he took up the sport without knowing much.
Friends, books, magazines and Internet were his sources of knowledge. Without proper guidance, Kiew, like beginners, suffered injuries.
“I was going heavy too fast,” he said.
When he joined the state gym, he met Liaw and Johan, a former bodybuilder. He trained under the latter and within one year, was ready for his first competition.
Liew said he spent over RM1,000 monthly on food and supplements on normal days but when he is training for a competition, his expenses soar to about RM2,000 to RM3,000 a month.
Being a businessman, he said such an amount was “still bearable” but for bodybuilders earning low pay, it was hard.
Kiew was 36 when he started pumping iron. He is now 46.
While age may be a factor in any sports, it can be modulated by dedication and commitment.
Kiew placed fifth in Mr Muscleman and won Mr Gym Rakyat (novice) in 2005. He was also Mr Kuching and Mr Sarawak the same year.
For Dexter Bong, 21, injuries during training were common due largely to improper gym equipment. He hurt his joints at one time and had to lay off for a couple of months.
“There were no qualified trainers to show us the right techniques and we learned through trial and error and picked up a lot of injuries along the way.”
Bong is taking a distant learning course on fitness and training from California, USA, and paying for it himself. With no one to coach him, he said he had to be proactive.
On tanning lotion, he noted that even now, the use of lipsticks and Kiwi shoe polish was still common, especially among aspiring bodybuilders.
He has personally seen contestants spreading home-mixed bronzers over their bodies before going on stage.
According to Bong, many of the contestants wear white underwear instead of special briefs for bodybuilders.
One pair of the latter costs RM100 to RM200.
Like many of his older bodybuilding friends, he is self-supporting, spending about RM1,300 to RM1,500 every month on food and supplements, not counting other related expenses.
Bong won Mr Malaysia Junior (U-21) in 2007 after more than three years training.
“If you care to look at the record, Sarawak is always among the top five for Mr Malaysia. The Armed Forces — army and police — are always either first or second. Last year, Sarawak was third.
According to Bong, it is impossible to defeat the Forces because they are well prepared.
Their contingents are well taken care of — they are given allowances for supplements and paid salaries even though they are working out full time under professional trainers.
“Under the circumstances, we’re doing more than fine. With limited resources or should I say none whatsoever, we are fighting a losing battle. In my opinion, what we have won so far are much better, given our dire situation.”
Bodybuilder Ang Soo Boon is all set to join competitive bodybuilding this year.
The personal trainer who owns Pinnacle Fitness in Kuching said the local association should do its best “to help the bodybuilders who bring honours to the state – they should not be neglected.”
With a new management in the local association, the local bodybuilders are hoping to see a better tomorrow for their sport.