Engineer and dance contest winner Anisha Thai wants women to have it all

Anisha Thai is a young half-Asian phenomenon who has taken the hearts of Hong Kong’s young audience after her victory in TVB’s dance competition this year. She talks about being taught to work harder than anyone else to achieve her dreams

Photo: Zoltan Fodor

At the end of their evening shift, two young women who waited on Anisha Thai’s table approached the young dancer. They wanted to take a selfie with the winner of the 2021 TVB show Dance Champion. Both women have been giddy since they found out the Parisian-born half Vietnamese, half Comoran was exactly who they suspected her to be.

When they finished, Thai said, “This never happened before the whole TVB experience.” Though she may have been overwhelmed at first, she is settling in her new role as a rising star with ease.

Jill of all trades

Before entering the competition, Thai had already amassed a healthy number of followers on Instagram with dance challenges she posts on her social media account. A civil engineer by trade, Thai pivoted to a career as a professional dancer and choreographer. She has been teaching afrobeat dance classes when she entered the TVB dance contest show, Dance for Life, this year. On top of all that, Thai also models for Harmony HK, a refugee-curated social enterprise that uses fashion and music to spotlight minority talents to raise awareness of the plight of refugees in the city. She is now learning Cantonese to allow herself to further integrate into Hong Kong’s culture.

The 26-year old doesn’t take her sudden shot to Instagram fame lightly. “Honestly, I still can’t believe it. It is very nice,” she says with a smile. “Only because I get to engage with so many people and feel like I represent something. That if you work hard and don’t be afraid to chase your passion, you’ll be rewarded.” 

Photo: Jada Poon

No pain no gain

From a very young age, Thai’s mother instilled in her the belief that nothing is gained without hard work. “That’s probably the reason why I have always created obstacles for myself to surmount,” she says. “My mom always told me that life is fucking hard. And I have to work harder if I want better things for myself.” 

As a child, Thai witnessed her mother getting up at 5 am to go to her cleaning job every day. She understood quickly the value of having big goals and achieving them, and to follow her mother’s advice to find ways out of a tough life. 

“We were struggling,” the dancer says. “We had so many of my friends with domestic violence issues. Deep inside I was like, ‘I need to get out of here’.” And dance would become her tool to flee that harsh neighbourhood. 

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A dream for dance

Throughout Thai’s childhood, music videos she watched on TV provided an escape. “I love watching celebrities and the Disney channel. The people seemed to shine and live a life that seems impossible for me to have,” says Thai. 

“When I was five, my mom asked me what I wanted to do,” she says. Remembering the people from television, Thai knew exactly what that was. “I told her I wanted to dance. To me, the people dancing on TV seemed so happy and they seemed to make so many other people happy. At that time, I was convinced that dancing was the avenue for me to stay close to my dreams – an escape route. Something that would take me out of that [rough] environment.” 

And thus, Thai’s mother signed her up for ballet. A far cry from the hip hop and afro dance that she will end up pursuing. But even then, child Thai was nothing but pragmatic. “It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I take what I can get and go from there.” 

Photo: Iris Fest

Earning her place

Understanding that life may be an uphill battle doesn’t deter Thai from choosing difficult avenues. On the contrary, it may have contributed to her pursuing a career in Civil Engineering. “I may subconsciously have chosen one of the hardest courses I can think of because it was instilled in me that I needed to work hard, and I wanted to prove to people and myself that I can do difficult things.” 

Back in high school, Thai was aware she wasn’t white in an overly dominant white school. As a woman of colour, she realised her background – compared to those of her schoolmates – is different. “I knew their parents had better jobs, they could go on nice vacations, have nice gifts, get pocket money every month, and so on. I knew I couldn’t have that. But, maybe with hard work, I can. I can get a little bit closer. I’ve never been that type of student that is very good at math or understand things quickly. I’m pretty slow, I have to admit,” she says laughing. “I need the extra time.”

Photo: Jada Poon

Going the extra mile

Being well aware of her own limitations, Thai made sure to spend added effort in her studies. “I stayed in school longer than other students because I needed to compensate,” she explains. “I always felt the need to do things perfectly because I’m not at the same level.” 

Once she obtained her graduate credentials, Thai found an internship in Hong Kong as a civil engineer on site. “I was 22 wearing a helmet and long braids trying to give direction to men 20 years older than me, and I don’t speak their language,” Thai remembers. “And again, I had to prove myself. I had to show them that although I’m young, I know what I’m talking about and you have to have respect for what I’m saying.” 

She admits it’s an ambiguous feeling of knowing she was so young in the industry, but at the same time, having worked hard to be where she was. “I kept reminding myself that I’m supposed to be here.” And the young dancer isn’t only doing it for herself.

Standing her ground

“It has always been important for me to become a role model with a strong character,” Thai explains. “A strong female that is a woman of colour who is pursuing her dreams. But I also like to show that she can take all society’s expectations and shut them up.”

“It’s all about shutting people’s mouths,” she emphasised. “Because when you hear stereotypical comments so many times, day after day, you get tired of it. I’m going to show with my actions that it is not true. It is over. You need to think differently.”

Thai isn’t afraid to stand out, whether in voicing her thoughts or dancing in public. “We are claiming our identity by loving ourselves, and I’m not afraid of saying, ‘Hey, I’m setting out to be special’. I know it can be very intimidating whenever I go on the street and dance, but it also builds confidence.”

“At the end of the day, it’s not you against people, it is you against yourself. You have to show yourself that you aren’t afraid and that you are comfortable and confident enough with being you and not care about others.”

“So no, I am not afraid of standing out.”

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