Eddy Chong was struck with dengue fever at the age of 31. The illness left him blind, partially deaf, partially paralysed from the waist down, and with a weak heart and asthma. But if you met him today, you’d think that he has achieved as much as, if not more, than many who are not visually, auditorily or physically impaired.
“From my illness in 1997 until the age of 35, I decided to motivate myself and not let myself be hindered from achieving my dreams by any physical limitations. I decided to think out of the box,” he says at a recent interview, the determination clear in his voice.
“Since I lived in a five-storey apartment and didn’t want to inconvenience my family members or friends by asking them to take me and my wheelchair up and down the stairs, I decided that I just had to walk. And one day, when I wanted to go to a nearby coffee shop, I just … walked.
“Every few steps I took, I would fall down, but I just kept at it and I finally reached it. It took me four years to get back on my feet and walk with crutches,” he says.
Today, at the age of 51, Chong walks unaided. He currently works as a motivational speaker.
‘Cool breeze in my face’
Chong, who is from Sarawak, has also achieved his goal of climbing Mount Kinabalu, which happened in 2011 with the help of his hiking friends.
“It took me eight hours to get from the Base Camp to Laban Rata, and five hours to get from there to the peak. That’s longer than most people would take, but I did it!” he says triumphantly.
Chong loves hiking but has given up the activity because he doesn’t want to inconvenience his friends and the volunteers who have to accompany him: “I felt that hiking was not the sport for me because I was just too slow and I didn’t want to hold anybody back,” he explains.
In 2011, he discovered tandem cycling when his family went to Shanghai to visit his sister.
“It was too tiring to walk from place to place, so we hired tandem bicycles. It was the first time that I rode tandem, and I loved it,” he enthuses.
“I realised that it was good for my heart, and my asthma improved. I enjoyed the fresh air, the cool breeze in my face, and it felt really good,” he says (Chong already knew how to cycle as he had learned as a child).
When he returned to Malaysia, Chong was determined to get his own tandem bicycle.
It took him eight months to find one, and a year to find someone to ride with him.
“I asked many people, neighbours, friends, but it was quite difficult because the person would have to get me up and down the many flights of stairs at my place,” he explains (he was unable to walk unaided at the time).
Finally, a churchmate agreed. Their first ride was from Chong’s home in Puchong, Selangor, to Putrajaya and back, a distance of 70km. Subsequently, he tandem cycled to Batu Pahat, Johor, and the foothills of Fraser’s Hill, Pahang.
‘Drinks and kuih’
Chong certainly believes cycling can unite people – it united him with his wife, after all!
He met and got to know his wife, Lui Siow Ling, 40, three years ago through cycling and other activities, and they married in October last year.
“I first met her at a Harley Davidson event and invited her to try tandem cycling,” he says, adding that they were just friends initially but the romance blossomed from there.
He believes more Malaysians should cycle because it does help to bring people together.
“When cycling to different places, people have always been kind, some even offering us drinks and kuih. There have been times when we were lost and people actually came out to lead us to our destination on their motorbikes,” he says.
In fact, Chong wants to spread the word about cycling’s power to instil harmony and unite people: “It has always been my dream to ride around Peninsular Malaysia and meet the state dignitaries and the communities, to let them know how cycling unites the mind, soul, and heart to appreciate one’s country,” he says.
He also wants to emphasise that tandem cycling isn’t just for the visually impaired; it’s an activity that attracts both sighted and non-sighted cyclists, from all over Malaysia as well as overseas from countries like Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, and Germany.
The Blind Empowerment Society of Selangor wants you on two wheels
Blind tandem cyclist Eddy Chong started a VIP (visually impaired person) cycling group in 2011, after he had discovered the joys of the activity on a trip to China that same year and realised there was a need for a group that focused on activities for VIPs.
“I started alone. There were other organisations catering to the visually impaired, but they only had activities once in awhile, which wasn’t often enough,” he says.
He maintains a Facebook page called Blind Empowerment Society of Selangor, or BESS (facebook.com/blindempowermentsociety/), which currently has about 500 followers.
“You can just like the page and join in the activities,” he says, adding that there are no membership or event fees and only a charge of RM10 to RM30 to rent bicycles for events.
“We organise weekly rides for about eight to 15 VIP cyclists weekly, and the largest ride we’ve had so far comprises around 25 VIP cyclists, which is once every two months. Currently, we have 14+1 tandem bicycles – 14 sponsored and one personally-owned,” he adds.
According to Chong, the visually impaired cyclists, including the blind and partially blind, are called stokers. And when they organise larger events, they usually borrow more tandem bicycles from other organisations. The bicycles are currently stored at a friend’s bicycle shop.
There are 30 to 35 volunteers in total, including captains (the sighted cyclists that ride with blind cyclists on tandem bicycles), solo sighted cyclists (who ride along to assist), support car drivers, and marshalls (who act as guides, leading the group from point A to point B). Most of the volunteers were gathered through word of mouth or are friends of friends.
BESS also organises activities with other groups like Rainbow Tandem Riders and Malaysian Association for the Blind.
According to Chong, they will also be involved in a corporate social responsibility programme on Aug 20 when the company’s riders come to help as captains in a ride.
“We will also be joining the Kampar Majesty Ride at the end of this month, with a team of 40, including 15 captains and 15 stokers,” he says.
“And from Aug 5 to 6, we’ll be cycling from KL to Sungei Besar, Perlis, and from Aug 12 to 13, we’ll be cycling with the Raja Muda of Perlis and some menteri (minister) around the state,” he adds.
“We’ll also get into the Malaysian Book of Records this Oct 6 to Oct 8 with over 65 captains and stokers going for a cycling event starting at the Grand Kampar Hotel, in Kampar, Perak, that took two years to plan,” he says proudly.
One of the volunteer marshalls Freda John Allas, 53, says that it’s not difficult to cycle in tandem.
“Practice is needed for the balancing part but once we start cycling, it’s quite light and we can go very fast,” she says, adding excitedly that she will be riding as captain for the first time during the Kampar Majesty Ride later this month.
Freda has been a volunteer for almost two years.
“I got to know about tandem cycling for VIPs through Eddy and his wife, Siow Ling, last year. I was fascinated and decided to volunteer when they asked me if I would be keen,” explains Freda who, like Chong, hails from Sarawak.
Apart from learning to balance, Freda, like other captains, also had to learn to work with her VIP cyclist.
As Chong points out, “When we cycle together, we have to work as a team,” he says.
Chong hopes to get more people, sighted or not, up on two wheels, as he believes strongly that cycling is good for everyone.
“Most visually impaired people lead sedentary lives and don’t get much exercise. Many sports are too expensive and there aren’t well-maintained sports facilities in most organisations, so tandem cycling is a good alternative exercise.
“We’re trying to create more awareness and encourage both visually impaired cyclists as well as sighted cyclists to be involved,” he says, adding that he’s seen even Parkinson’s patients show an overall health improvement after they take up tandem cycling.
Ride for Malaysia is an event jointly organised by the Star Media Group and Sunsuria Bhd to promote national unity and patriotism among Malaysians. It will take place on July 30 at Sunsuria City in Putrajaya. Click the link for more stories and information on Ride for Malaysia.