Stop playing with fire!
That’s what every parent would tell their little ones.
But, Abdul Hali didn’t heed mum’s advice when he was a kid. During his free time, he’d run out, light a matchstick and hold it till the flame reached his little fingers.
“Back in the village then, there was not much entertainment so we had to find something to occupy our time. We didn’t have electronic gadgets or many television sets, so all my older brothers and the neighbourhood boys would go fishing, play with fire and do tricks. They taught each other while I watched from the sidelines. Bit by bit, I gained confidence and learnt from them the art of fire-eating,” says the 42-year-old founder of the Thumbuakar Tribe.
Over time, the lad from the Suluk tribe in Kudat, Sabah, fell in love with this dangerous hobby. Since he wasn’t academically inclined, he decided to use his skills to entertain others while sourcing for income. Hali’s parents were supportive of the idea as they saw how much he enjoyed the art.
For three months, he slogged it out and taught himself fancier tricks. He was in his early 20s then.
“First, one has to get a feel of the fire before attempting to eat it. Of course, it is scary and tough because the fire is very hot and it takes time to learn to put the stick into the mouth. You have to be fearless and mentally strong. Afterwards you learn the art of blowing fire using water, and then kerosene. But, you cannot swallow the kerosene or allow it to dry as it is poisonous.
“Yes, I have burnt my lips and mouth many times during training but now, eating fire is like eating ice cream! I’m not a hairy person so I don’t have much hair that can get in the way and catch fire! The injuries are not serious and the body can quickly heal itself,” says Hali, who also frequented Thailand to watch other groups perform.
Such acts were scarce in the 1990s and word got around about Hali’s specialty. It wasn’t long before he got his first offer to showcase his skills in 1998 in Singapore. The audience loved it and he hasn’t looked back since, having performed in many places including the Singapore Night Safari and Singapore Zoo.
Slowly, Hali added more tricks such as the “fire dragon” (blowing fire into the shape of a dragon), “fireball” and “twister” – all these have become his trademarks. From a one-man show, he recruited and trained other boys from his village and, presently, his group comprises eight members though it wasn’t until 2005 that the group got its name.
Hali explains, “Thumbuakar is a play of words meaning tumbuh akar or growing roots. When I named the troupe, it was with the intention that we would grow roots and someday be a fire-eating group to be reckoned with. Members have come and gone but five of the originals are still with me. The youngest is 18, and I am the oldest. But, there are no girls – sorry! We do shows for months at a time and I think girls cannot be away from their families for so long. They get emotional and things can get complicated so I prefer if they do the administrative work.”
Although there are no records in place, Thumbuakar could be the oldest fire-eating group in the country. Nowadays, Hali says, there are lots of similar groups around so he has expanded his repertoire to incorporate tribal dances with blowpipe demonstrations and fire poi (swinging and spinning fire pots).
Each Thumbuakar session, which lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, is packed with intense heat and energy. Their extraordinary skills, detailed choreography and synchronised rhythms, along with their topless tribal gear and vibrant characters, are an attraction.
Hali teaches all his members the same tricks while the men put their brains together to come up with the choreography. But, Hali has the final say.
“I always try to do something that has not been done before. Our show concept also changes accordingly. It could be Latin this week and Hawaiian the next, followed by African. On occasion, we also have back-up dancers.
“There is a lot of hard work that goes into the art. To blow fire into a shape, you have to use a certain breathing technique and observe the wind condition. If there is a strong wind, the shape will not form. You also don’t want to catch fire should the wind suddenly change direction.
“Often, we walk around the audience and invite them to dance with us. We do offer classes provided the person is extremely keen on learning. He or she has to be brave and confident. Our priority is safety,” shares Hali, who is currently performing with his troupe at Sunway Lagoon.
Since he’s on the road so often, Hali only sees his wife and young daughter, who live in Johor Baru, every few months. That’s the price he has to pay for being a fire-eater.
“I’m lucky to be doing what I love for more than 20 years. Selalu ada rezeki. I can make a decent earning. I didn’t think I would last this long in the business. My plan is to take the group internationally and give them foreign exposure. Hopefully, our chance will come soon,” he concludes, cheekily offering me a free lesson in exchange for a cup of coffee.
Not bad for a village boy from Sabah.