11 Trailblazers Who Have Overcome Adversity to Reach Their Personal Best
These inspiring individuals have triumphed over discrimination, disabilities and much more
1. Eko Yuli Irawan
From goatherd to Olympic medalist
The son of a pedicab driver and a market stall attendant, Eko Yuli Irawan didn’t dream of much beyond tending to goats, which he did every day after school to help his family make ends meet. Seeing potential, a local coach let Irawan train for free at his weightlifting gym, a decision that changed Irawan’s life.
Today, the 30-year-old athlete from Sumatra is a three-time Olympian, having won bronze medals in Beijing and London and a silver in Rio de Janeiro. The fact that he’s done this and more despite his tiny stature of 5ft 2in has made him a national hero in his native Indonesia. After winning gold at the 2019 World Weightlifting Championships, he has his sights set at the top of the podium in Tokyo next year, and eventually wants to be recognised as the greatest of all time, a different kind of GOAT altogether.
2. Noor Mastura
Grassroots activist giving hope to the hopeless
Singaporean Noor Mastura had a tumultuous childhood, living for years without a home or enough to eat. At one point, it got to be too much, and Mastura ascended the highest building she could find, fully intending to jump. “But a voice in my head said ‘Not like this, not now’,” says Noor. She eventually climbed down from the ledge, telling herself that things would get better.
They did, and after struggling to make herself and her family more financially secure, Mastura vowed to do what she could so that no one else in Singapore would go hungry, founding non-profit Back2Basics in 2013 to deliver free groceries to underprivileged families and homebound older people. Two years later she co-founded her other non-profit, Interfaith Youth Circle, to encourage dialogue between religions. For her work with both organisations, she was named Singaporean of the Year 2018 by The Straits Times. Not one to lay low, Mastura recently launched Being Bravely Woman, a platform to tackle issues of female empowerment specific to the Muslim world.
3. Chiau Haw Choon
From gangster to CEO
Chiau Haw Choon grew up in a good family. He spent his days playing in the hardware shop founded by his grandfather in the small Malaysian town of Megat Dewa. But his life went off the rails when he was 13, after his family moved to Alor Setar, a much larger city, so his father could expand the family business into cement trading. Chiau dropped out of school and became involved in gangs. Two years later, he was caught up in a criminal investigation and thrown into a police lockup for five days. He didn’t return to school until he reached the age of 17, after a period of self-reflection.
Once he applied himself to his studies, Chiau unexpectedly found himself taking the reins of the family company in his early twenties, when his father suddenly became ill. “I didn’t expect to be taking over so soon,” he says. “The only experience I had was as part of a gang.” Nonetheless, Chiau quickly expanded the business. Within three years, the Chin Hin Group had moved far beyond cement trading, becoming Malaysia’s largest distribution company for building materials. The firm eventually evolved into two separate publicly listed companies, making Chiau, who is now 36, the youngest head of a publicly listed company in Malaysia.
4. Hana Alfikih
Giving hope to millions with mental illnesses
As a child, Hana Alfikih never fit in. Bullied at school and miserable at home, the Jakarta resident turned to drawing to soothe her nerves and distract herself from the impulse to self-harm. Only much later, at university, was Alfikih diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Today, she continues to use art as therapy, but for the benefit of her thousands of social-media followers, who know her by the moniker Hana Madness—reportedly named for her fondness of UK ska band Madness, rather than her global advocacy for mental health causes. Her illustrations feature colourful characters named after mental illnesses and medications, such as Bipo, Skizo and Medico, designed to amuse and disarm. Her mission is to reduce the stigma around mental health in Indonesia, where the practice of pasung, or confining mental illness sufferers in cages and removing them from society, is all too common. Alfikih tackles the issue head on in a recently released documentary, In Chains.
5. Nalutporn Krairiksh
Journalist and human rights activist
As a journalist, human rights activist and LGBTQ ally, Nalutporn Krairiksh is a fierce advocate for those who struggle to have their voices heard in her native Thailand, speaking up for inclusion in all its forms.
Frustrated by the lack of access and consideration offered to disabled people, Krairiksh, who was diagnosed with ALS as a child and is wheelchair-bound, is also the founder of ThisAble.me, an online platform that publishes news and human-interest stories about disability rights, using her writing to bring awareness to subjects that don’t usually receive the spotlight—from less glamorous issues such as public transport access to systemic bias.
Krairiksh is also a founding member of the Future Forward Party, now the social group Move Forward, which is focused on social justice issues and made significant inroads in the 2019 Thai election.
6. Lai Chi-wai
Showing Hong Kong the Lion Rock Spirit
Elite rock climber Lai Chi-wai was one of the world’s best, regularly winning competitions and ranking in the top 10 professional climbers in the world. In 2011, a traffic accident left him paraplegic when his wife was seven months pregnant with their first child. Seeing his newborn son, says Lai, was all the motivation he needed to continue to live life to the fullest.
Lai continued his rockclimbing career, moving into coaching to help train the next generation. Five years after his accident, in December 2016, he inspired millions by scaling Lion Rock, Hong Kong’s most famous peak.
Lai used his arms alone to ascend the 500-metre rock face over a gruelling 10-hour climb. The Lion Rock Spirit has long been a part of every Hongkonger’s identity, said to represent the tenacity that gave rise to the city’s socio-economic development over the decades. In Lai, that spirit is alive and well.
7. Azariah Tan
Singapore’s modern-day Beethoven
Globally recognised concert pianist Azariah Tan has played at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, won numerous international competitions and has a doctorate in piano performance. Something that makes Tan unique among his peers, however, is that he has reached these milestones and more despite having lost most of his hearing ability due to a degenerative condition. Tan only has 15 per cent of his hearing remaining and continues to suffer an additional loss of 5 per cent a year. He is likely to be deaf within the next few years.
Rather than let his condition slow him down, Tan draws inspiration from Beethoven, famously deaf, and wants to perform as often as he can in order to give hope to others. He’s raised funds for hearing-impaired children worldwide and played countless charity and outreach shows. In 2017 Tan was a finalist for the Singapore Youth Award, the nation’s highest youth accolade, in recognition of the inspirational role he exemplifies.
8. Liao Zhi
Dancing into a nation’s hearts
The 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed almost 70,000 people and left millions devastated. On that fateful day, dancer Liao Zhi was inside a building that collapsed completely. She lost her 10-month-old daughter, whom she was holding in her arms, and both her legs. Liao was the building’s sole survivor, rescued after being trapped for 30 hours beneath the rubble.
Remarkably, she returned to the stage just two months after the incident, her performance inspiring a nation still in mourning. Liao eventually adjusted to dancing with prosthetic legs, learning to accept the constant pain as her new normal. In 2013, she won the nation’s hearts again, coming in second place in a TV dancing competition, Dance Out My Life. The same year she released an autobiography to tell the world of her ordeal, which was later adapted into a Hong Kong play, Angel’s Psalm. More than a decade since the earthquake, Liao remains a symbol of tenacity and courage, continuing to inspire millions to never give up.
9. Wang Wei
From delivery boy to the head of “China’s FedEx”
Born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, Wang Wei skipped university to begin a career in the manufacturing industry. After realising how difficult it could be to move goods across the China-Hong Kong border, he founded Shun Feng Express, now known simply as SF, from a small shopfront in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district in 1993. In the early days, Wang, along with his six employees, would personally load boxes into vans and haul freight across the border. Today, the company operates 66 aircraft and employs almost 300,000 couriers.
Known as the “FedEx of China”, SF is arguably more innovative than its US counterpart. After obtaining China’s first licence for delivery drones, in February this year the company used the devices, which can travel up to 18 kms and carry 10 kgs, to send medical supplies to Wuhan hospitals at the peak of the city’s coronavirus outbreak. Wang still owns 60 per cent of the company’s shares and is the tenth richest person in China. Tatler was unable to confirm if he still personally makes deliveries.
10. Isko Moreno
From living on the streets of Manila to the city’s youngest elected mayor
As a child, Isko Moreno would rifle through garbage to find his family’s next meal, eking out an existence in the alleyways of Manila’s Tondo district. After being discovered by a talent scout at a neighbour’s wake, he began an acting career, making a name for himself in teen-focused movies before graduating to more serious roles. But Moreno felt the call of public duty, and in the Philippines, where celebrity often carries political cachet, he felt the jump to elected office was within reach.
After a couple of unsuccessful runs at the Senate, last year he became Manila’s youngest ever elected mayor, building a nationwide profile. A shining light in the country’s scandal-prone politics, Moreno is admired for his everyman style, inspiring millions with his “If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone” refrain, and avoiding the trappings of his office. His only indulgences, he says, are the cups of Starbucks coffee he drinks to get through his packed schedule. “This is my pat on the back,” he says. “Every cup reminds me to be grateful because now I can afford to spend 120 pesos for coffee, when once upon a time I could not.”
11. Jazz Tan
Turning personal tragedy into hope for her community
Jazz Tan always knew her father was involved in a criminal gang, but her life turned upside down at the age of 14 when he was murdered by his cohorts in their Penang family home. Losing the family’s sole wage earner, Tan took jobs washing plates and “whatever I could do to just keep us alive”, she says, and eventually won a scholarship to put herself through university.
While at school, Tan established YouthsToday, a platform that raises money to fund creative projects that encourage young people to remain in education, find their passions and stay away from criminal activity. “I didn’t want other youth to follow in my dad’s footsteps,” says Tan. YouthsToday matches student projects with corporate sponsors; in return, students run campaigns with their newly learned skills, such as photography, to help brands market to the universities. Since it was established in 2013, nine years after the death of her father, YouthsToday has supported 50,000 young people, working with brands including Sony and KFC. “If you’re revengeful for what’s happened to you, you’ll end up feeling very empty—even if you take revenge on the person who did you wrong. Instead, channel your energy into making yourself successful,” she says.