Paddler Gao Ning: From Hubei native to Singapore heartlander
China-born paddler has assimilated and loves kopi-o and spicy food
He travels the world with his national teammates, competing in glitzy places such as Dubai, Tokyo and Dortmund.
But, for paddler Gao Ning, home is a simply furnished four-room HDB flat, a stone's throw away from Sembawang MRT station.
"I bought this place more than four years ago with my parents. I like it here because it's quiet and very near the train station," said the 32-year-old in a recent interview at his home, in conjunction with a video shoot commissioned by the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA).
Given his jet-setting lifestyle and busy training schedule, Gao Ning is often away from home, but he enjoys the quiet and warm sanctuary of the neighbourhood.
"Just yesterday, an old uncle said he recognised me from the back and came up to me to say 'hello'," said the world No. 15.
"My parents are back in China looking after my elderly grandmother, but my mother likes to chat with the neighbours when she is around."
Chen Libin, a China-born Singaporean who stays a few floors below Gao Ning, is one such neighbour.
"He may look serious at first, but he is a very easy-going and simple person, and doesn't behave like a famous person," said Chen, who provides technical support in computer sales.
"We would sometimes text each other or exchange greetings personally when he's back in town."
Since his arrival some 11 years ago, Gao Ning, a Hubei native, has gradually assimilated and is now as heartland Singaporean as they come.
His daily routine includes walking to Sun Plaza or a nearby coffeeshop for breakfast, which includes a cup of kopi-o, before commuting to the STTA headquarters in Toa Payoh for training.
"Cars here are too expensive, but the bus and train services are convenient anyway, even though they may be a bit too packed during the morning rush hour," he mused.
While he never indulged in spicy food in China, chilli has become a staple in Gao Ning's diet; laksa, chilli crabs, chicken rice and bak kut teh are his favourite dishes.
When he has downtime on weekends, he would be in Orchard Road or enjoying karaoke sessions with teammates such as Yang Zi and Pang Xue Jie.
Pang, 22, said, chuckling: "In our free time, we would go out and eat, and look at pretty girls.
"He would always say that he's a good singer. I guess confidence is key - if he says he's good, he's good."
And Gao Ning is more than decent with the mike, after this reporter spent an hour with him and Pang at the K-Box outlet at Safra Toa Payoh - definitely good enough to impress any girl.
The singleton said: "It's been a while since I had a girlfriend and I have this friend now whom I am getting to know better.
"We are quite good friends, and I'll leave it up to fate and chance for anything to happen."
Regardless of his marital status, Gao Ning is keen to deepen his roots here when he eventually hangs up his bat.
He said: "I cannot emphasise how grateful I am to this country for helping me realise my ambitions as a table tennis player.
"When I retire, I would love to adopt a coaching role and teach kids here how to play at a high level, and bring glory to Singapore."
Days to go: 23
- PHOTO: SINGSOC
23: On April 23, students from Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) formed the number 23 using SEA Games button badges to celebrate the school's 23rd anniversary and to count down 23 days to the start of the Games.
This event took place at NYP's annual CCA carnival Club Crawl. NYP athletes from 23 sports teams also gave enthusiastic shout-outs to get their fellow students to support Team Singapore at next month's Games.
- TNP FILE PHOTO
23: Dipna Lim Prasad, 23, became the first Singaporean woman to win a 400m hurdles medal at the SEA Games when she took bronze in Myanmar two years ago.
She also became the first Singaporean woman to go under one minute in the event when she clocked 59.96 seconds.