I’m feeling awkward now. I don’t want all this praise since I’m not doing this to be admired. I’m not as good as people are saying. I’m just a normal guy, like you.” – Athiwara Kongmalai (Toon Bodyslam)
When I last crossed paths with Toon, I was among the very few people who were desperate to see the singer fail. It goes back decades, to when Athiwara Kongmalai and his friends, all sporting school haircuts, were competing against my younger brother’s band in a music contest at the Bangkok (Thai-Japan) Youth Centre. The two groups had made it through to the final, and my brother’s narrow victory by the end gave my family long-lasting boasting rights, not least because Athiwara went on to become one of the country’s most famous rock stars.
Needless to say, I’m now among tens of millions of Thais praying for Toon to succeed. That boy has turned into one very fine man. His ongoing charity run to raise funds for under-equipped hospitals is not something just anyone can do. It requires athleticism and strong determination but also a deep spirit of generosity. So much has been said about what a great guy he is, though, that I guess I should focus on his humility.
To me, the Toon “phenomenon” owes much to his humble personality, which is at odds with his day job as a rock star. He’s not just one of the most polite frontmen I’ve ever seen on stage, but one of the most grateful, too. Great portions of his concerts are spent thanking the fans and marvelling at the opportunity to perform in front of so many people.
“If my songs are liked by just one person, I will still sing for that person,” he often says.
It sounds like a pop platitude, along with the name of his fund-raising run – “Step by Step” – and the quote at the top of this article. But they all reflect his true character and belief: if we are to accomplish anything in life, each and every one of us needs to help and support others.
Toon’s sincere and unassuming character has often been noted. When he joined Thai media on a trip to London to watch Tottenham Hotspur, his favourite football team, the hardened hacks loved his friendliness and modesty. When media covering his charity run hailed “Super Toon Fever”, he was quick to point out that the real heroes were doctors and nurses working to help people in need day in and day out.
“I just run for a few days,” he noted. “The doctors and nurses run around all their lives helping people.”
When Samsung made him the face of their Galaxy smartphone, he turned the spotlight on the nameless technicians who toil behind the scenes to create our tech gadgets. Music awards are typically dedicated to fans, without whose loyalty and recognition the success “would have been impossible”, and to technicians in the studio.
A monk he encountered on his run in Songkhla a few days ago called him a “legend”. Toon’s reply, according to the monk himself, was that “the real legend” was being created by everyone involved. He was referring to kids donating their pocket money, the elderly villagers handing him whatever they could despite never having heard of his band Bodyslam.
“This is not an advertising gimmick,” Toon has said. “This is very real. Even if I run out of gas and can’t go the distance, the money donated remains real. What it will do, helping people who need help, is very real.”
The Songkhla monk was right about one thing, though. He said Toon’s run had brought down, temporarily at least, racial, religious and political walls that have deterred Thais from helping each other.
Toon’s humility and friendliness are also causing concern, though. Every province in his path is preparing welcoming ceremonies that can eat into his precious rest time. There’s nothing to stop selfie seekers, autograph collectors and plain admirers approaching him. Greeting them gives him strength, but for an amateur marathon runner it can also contribute greatly to fatigue.
But the pure humility on display is contributing to the Toon phenomenon as well. The modesty brings out the good side in all of us because we know there is no hidden agenda in what he’s doing. In a way, Toon is ambitious in trying to convince everyone that not getting over-ambitious is the way to get things done. One small step at a time, is the man’s message, spread through his countless steps from the southernmost to the most northerly point in Thailand.