Human beings are no stranger to natural disasters.
We get swept away by all the catastrophes we could ever imagine, century after century. And no matter how deep the mud we’re stuck in, we’ll eventually crawl our way out just enough to carry on.
But will we get up again?
Yes we will, because it’s in our nature to survive. We’re shaken, never stirred.
The antagonist this time, however, is not a tsunami or a hurricane.
It’s an unseen enemy, a plague, a pandemic.
It has destroyed and dethroned many, from the sick and struggling to the high and mighty.
And amongst those, we met three dedicated Malaysians – a barber, a gym owner and a club DJ.
They’re non-essentials. Means from 18 March 2020, they have been, practically jobless.
All three of them suffered differently yet share the same struggle. These are their stories.
The Barber with a Big Idea
We met Muhamad Fazli at his barber shop, Unique Hairzone earlier than planned.
He usually opens an hour before noon yet here we are, camera and kits ready to point and shoot the barber with a story.
Not one to turn us down, the man most locals know as Didy prepared the ‘stage’ for us – sweeping the floor, wiping every inch of surface in his shop. Calmly he asked, “Do I sit or stand for this interview?”
We asked him if he could sit one of us down for a fake haircut and tell us his story, in a zone we figured he’s most comfortable with.
He began, “When this (MCO) started, I did everything and anything to survive.”
“I did odd jobs, any means to put food on the table. I became a runner, I worked part time for Domino’s, and I even became a personal shopper. That and some other things I could think of,” he continued – reclusively.
He remembers how scary it was just to go out, let alone get a job – his shop was out of commission, and he needed to earn something. What choice did he have?
With three children at home and a wife that helps him around the shop, Didy is the epitome of a sole breadwinner.
PRIHATIN? The Penjana program? Not helping he said.
He’s not really qualified for PRIHATIN and while Penjana may have helped some small businesses, Didy feels like the ‘aid’ will only drag him further down the road because as nice as it sounds, the program is still a loan – and loans tie you down.
“My youngest still depends on diapers and formula milk, you know those aren’t cheap especially when you’re barely earning,” Didy pointed out, also disclosing that despite the moratorium, his rental fees were never reduced nor discounted and he’s been paying full out of thin air.
That’s why the reopening of the economy back in June was something of a life-saver.
Back on His Feet
“Once the announcement came out, I ran to the shop to check on my stock and equipment, I needed to get ready for business.
But since my cheque book is on the negative side and I’m literally making up for lost time, business at the moment is really just about covering operations, the basic necessities.
It was hard to ask him this but we wondered if he ever had to fire his staff or take away their pay.
He collectedly replied, “Yes, I had to rearrange their salary structure, not to the extent of a pay cut or a layoff but I worked out a daily system of get-work-done and get paid. I hope they understand. I really hope they do.”
Earlier, we saw a banner by Jabatan Pembangunan Kemahiran (Department of Skills Development) of the Human Resource Ministry hanging right in front of his shop. What’s that all about, we asked.
“Oh that’s my way of giving back to the community and also my long-term expansion plan. It’s a hair academy under the purview of the ministry. It lets businesses like me acquire students, teach them the skills then set them free, all polished and shiny.
My plan, however, is slightly different. Since I want Unique Hairzone to expand beyond today’s scope, I will need all the manpower I can get. And it comes in the form of young, enthusiastic hair academy grads I can call my own,” cleared Didy, before dwelling on the fact that all his plans may have to take the backseat, at least for the next few months.
The pandemic, the quarantine, really took his business and his life away.
“It’s really tough,” he told us.
Didy’s not backing down though. Still setting his eyes on what’s next for his small, quaint barber shop, Didy aims for the academy beyond its suburban neighbourhood.
At the moment, he’s considered the local hero, helping lost Puchong boys with no education and no experience with skills that will set them for life. But the finish line for him would be to have them ready to work anywhere, ready to start their own business and ready to roll with the punches, if the next pandemic comes around.
The Fitness Pro Who’s Fitting Nicely
Meeting Shah and his partner Sam reminded us of the brutal, brawny British gym duo, Shaun and his right-hand muscle in VICE’s 2013 feature – UK’s Scariest Debt Collector where they share the same similarities – they both own a gym and when need be, they knock on doors to make ends meet.
Except Shah does not collect debts.
Apart from running his gym, Red Fitness Centre, Shahtish Kumar sells home fitness equipment. Quite possibly to the extent of an installment. The only time he’ll come to collect is when you’re two-months due for your treadmill.
Looking sharp and dashing for our interview, Shah came prepared for the Q&As.
He looked composed yet sewed-up for the shoot. And while he may pass as someone ever ready for anything, there’s one thing he didn’t prepare for when he opened the door to his gym back in December 2019.
He didn’t prepare for a pandemic.
There were bits and pieces of news of a new virus popping up in China but Shah, like most of us, did not worry much. Late last year, his gym was brand spanking new, he’s been getting good business and heck, January and February recorded the highest sales for Red Fitness.
And that’s when the virus came, and the lockdown soon after.
Like Didy’s haircut business, gyms are one of the worst hit. And when business suddenly stopped cold turkey and money stopped coming in, Shah was forced to switch to Plan B – home fitness equipment.
Plan B is Now the Game Changer
Remember how trendy and cool it was to cook, plant and exercise at home during the MCO?
Capitalising on this, Shah went back to the drawing board to attend to private requests, setting up home gyms.
“Undeniably, there’s a market for this. Of course the pandemic is not something I would ask for but it has paved the way for alternatives, opened my eyes to the possibilities of not relying solely on the gym itself,” the Klang-born exclaimed.
He continued, “With that being said, I think there’s also a possibility of pursuing this on a full scale, since I know it’s working.”
What’s his secret – to not only overcome the brunt force of the pandemic but also to ride on it – we wondered.
“I’ve been in the fitness industry for over a decade now. Started out small before I decided to run my own thing. But what’s important for me is how you market your products or services.
We go big on digital marketing. We invested in Facebook and Google advertisements, we did the right marketing at the right time – something I don’t see happening much with our competitors, still running the old traditional marketing,” he explained.
Slipping flyers under windshield wipers or postboxes may work in the past but it’s really the right digital marketing techniques that provided the edge Red Fitness needed to bounce back.
Not only supplying a number of home workout equipment on top of the gym, Shah is also coming up with his own brand – Fit Empire International.
So, how much do you spend on digital marketing?
“The basic formula for me is simple. You have to spend at least 10% to 20% of your revenue for marketing,” he said. True to its form, anything less than that is just you skimping on spending and hoping pigs will fly.
The pandemic may have taken a toll on people like him but if there’s an example of overcoming all odds and basically knowing your enemy, then Shah’s journey would be it.
The Mix Master Who Turned The Tables
“I used to earn my way through these two, but living on the street means you’ve got to be smart – so it’s brains too, not just brawns,” said DJ Ezzy showing us two big fists, with a southpaw that could knock us back to Never Neverland.
Born Muhammad Soufee Ezwan, Ezzy is a big guy, built to withstand the storm. With a thundering voice that could rattle you if you cross him wrong, it explains a lot when he told us he grew up in the ring.
“I grew up hard. My uncle was a fighter and I earned my way through my fists. I remember there was a silat ring where we used to train and, you know, brawl,” Ezzy revealed before continuing, “It’s a hard-knock life. But I love it. It taught me to face my challenges head-on.”
Not just a mindless street brawler from Keramat, mind you. Ezzy worked his way to the top of his game – by being the country’s national athlete in taekwondo from 2004 until a mishap in 2007 where he busted his knee, ending not only his agility but also his dream.
Not really telling us what happened in between, the big guy ended up as a bouncer in the club scene, a career he considers the gateway to what he is now – a DJ.
From bouncing off drunk stragglers to bouncing hip hop beats back and forth from the West Coast to the East Coast as one of the resident DJs for TREC’s Arte Bar, DJ Ezzy had it all worked out especially being the trustworthy disc jockey to Malaysia’s rap star, Aman RA.
“It’s all fine and dandy, so far so good,” he said.
Until the sickness came and brought the nightlife scene down to its knees. A sudden shock that sent tremors all across the globe, and Ezzy was left high and dry.
At the time of the interview, Putrajaya made it clear that the nightlife scene may not get on its feet anytime soon, especially with new clusters popping up here and there.
He explained, “I remember when it all started, a lot of my homies lost their means to earn a living. Some managed to adapt but some didn’t. We earn our way through spinning records and producing music. We need the crowd, the live shows to feed our family.”
Live Stream for a Living
“I didn’t wanna give up but I can’t just drop everything and make a career change, can I? So I rode on social media, more specifically BIGO to bring home the (halal) bacon”, he uttered.
BIGO? Yes, BIGO.
He taught us a few tricks on how he makes money through the app.
Since it’s a live streaming app, BIGO allows the host (or streamer) to basically showcase talents, get more followers to watch and if you reach your viewership target, then as host you’ll be paid a salary. That’s one.
Also from the app, you earn beans, a currency donated from your followers. The beans can then be encashed for real money, for real. The going rate right now is 210 beans for USD1. Take that Instagram live.
From this, it’s no coincidence that his wife is a singer so the two of them would lay down live showcases with Ezzy behind the music while his wife croons.
“She used to sell beauty products but the supplies were cut off at the start of the quarantine. I guess in a way, it’s a blessing for us to find other means to make ends meet. Just sorry it had to be a pandemic,” he said.
They’ve been married for seven years, with three kids in tow. So BIGO may just be an entertaining app to us, but to them it’s their livelihood.
Good enough, he can easily get a few hundred bucks a show, not too shabby for an app most of us have never and would never install, to a point where it made this writer think twice about any hidden talents he has, just in case.
Let’s face it – the nightlife scene is not coming back anytime soon. And people like him feed off the scene. But to moan and groan and whine his way into a corner, the boxer DJ from the Malaysian Bronx did what he’s trained to do – face challenges head-on.
Yes the pandemic is sweeping across the nation but to him, Keramat is the law. And unlike the barber and the gym owner with brands behind their names, DJ Ezzy is a brand himself. A brand that will survive, even after the rain.
But if there’s one thing Didy, Shah and Ezzy have in common – it’s their ability to make the best out of the worst. There will always be rainbows and sunshine after the rain.