Richard Tong hardly ever turns down an invite to a good party.
He’s been going to tens every week for more than two decades and, although already a doting grandfather, is unlikely to give up his partying ways soon.
An extraordinary stamina brings him to at least 15 functions every weekend. On weekdays, he hits the town rushing between venues, chalking up to 10 gatherings.
“No party is too small” is his motto.
Thong’s hosts are only too eager to have him and his troupe in attendance at their events – for what is a good celebration without food, music and of course lots of balloons to raise the ceiling on fun and merriment?
As a professional “balloon sculptor”, the affable Tong wins the hearts of young and old alike, transforming bare spaces into colourful, balloon-filled settings (garden, safari, ocean, among them) and crafting delightful air-filled playthings (swords, flowers, Pink Panther, and giraffes) with deft twists of experienced and nimble fingers.
“I’m now talking to a client who wants to install 50 life-sized cow balloons for a product launch,’’ he chuckles.
Another challenging commission three years ago was the anniversary celebrations of a heritage hotel. “It was a carnival theme,” he recalls. “Fifty tables, and every one required a 3-foot clown of balloons, and all had to be different! Several 10-foot tall balloon towers of clowns were also built.’’
Tong’s job deals with a lot of hot air – gas tanks, tool boxes and air pumps are his utilities – but the actual work is not
It’s a long and backbreaking slog through irregular hours, he assures.
For that hotel commission, Tong and his 12-member team worked straight for 36 hours, and stole their winks under the skirtings of the ballroom tables, as security forbade them from being seen asleep in public view!
“This job calls for improvisation,’’ he emphasises.
The former corporate wage slave has never lacked for ingenuity, or so his mother once said. “She told me I am creative!’’
That intrigued him, since an artistic streak didn’t run in the family of of five siblings from Klang, Selangor.
Instead, Tong studied theology and taught the history of church music after graduation in the late 1970s.
“It was good discipline, working in the church,’’ said the unflappable Tong, who has run his unique niche business at a mall in Kelana Jaya, Petaling Jaya, for seven years now.
He moved into corporate marketing, crunching figures and sales targets for a global office equipment brand.
The constantly shifting goal posts of the big business world, however, are never easy to keep up with.
Fortunately, Tong kept the burn-out syndrome at arm’s length when he discovered balloon sculpture, through books and a hobby course abroad.
It began as weekend therapy, entertaining neighbourhood children, making simple animal shapes.
“I started with pencil (long slim) balloons.’’
Though a panda or gun can now magically appear in three minutes from Tong’s fingers – today, he can create more than 200 shapes, he says – twisting balloons can take a painful toll on the hands for the uninitiated.
“Look at this!’’ He raised his index finger, showing a slightly bent nail and digit.
Tong slowly upped his game by crashing the parties of friends, where he could charm his reluctant hosts and their children with his unusual craft.
His business literally ballooned from those humble beginnings. “Six out of 10 parties, people would give an ang pow!’’
The father of two eventually ditched his full-time job, around the turn of the century, working through word of mouth, and set up his present store front for enhanced visibility.
Like any business, Tong’s event-driven specialty has ups and downs, and he has felt the impact of recent changes, as has everyone else.
But – good times or bad – the party must go on, even if celebrations tone down a bit.
Tong is firmly the go-to man when someone wants a balloon jungle of trees and monkeys, or a balloon house facade, in just three hours!
More than money and staying alive, passion keeps him going, despite his slight limp after a fall from doing a balloon set-up long ago.
Tong’s religious and humble family backgrounds also motivate him to give back to the community, such as crafting huge balloon set-ups for charity events, gratis, and taking on outstation college students for part-time work to cope with living expenses.
“Everything is now very expensive,’’ he points out.
However, the hours can be very long and odd – and hard on the fingers! – in his unusual line of work.
“I usually encourage them to try out first.’’
Tong gets tough on those who fail to make the cut. He cites a time when someone reported “sick” just before on-site work on an event, and there was no replacement.
“I drove up to the house early next morning and fetched the person!’’
Like all of us, Tong just hates a party spoiler – especially one who threatens to ruin his reputation, and the fun for everyone else!