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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Hong Kong Long Life

I am still alive. And so it continues.

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Last week I took a calculated risk and flew to Hong Kong and back for a fact-finding mission. Since going public with this record attempt several people have told me how safe flying is (in the short term at least) so I was fairly confident stepping inside the big metal tube that would, they told me, go 10,000 feet up in the air, forward 6,000 miles, then down again right into Hong Kong airport. On paper it seemed like a more dangerous way to travel than walking or even running, but apparently the air-people know what they're doing.

 

I did indeed survive. In fact I even gained an extra 7 hours for my total thanks to the time difference (although I did have to hand these back on repatriation to the UK). And any stress on the flight was definitely outweighed by the facts I found when I got there. Facts, I've discovered, are almost always heavier than stress.

 

According to calculations by the United Nations for 2005-2010, the people of Hong Kong have the second highest life expectancy in the entire world. At birth, a Hong Kong resident might expect to live for 82.2 years (although only 79.4 if you're male, quite modest compared to the females' mighty 85.1). This is just 0.4 years less than a resident of Japan which, at present, is the world's longest-living country.

 

At the bottom end of the scale, countries like Zambia, Monzambique and Swaziland have a life expectancy that is literally half as long, thanks to high rates of HIV infection and infant mortality. It's a sobering thought that the average person in Swaziland won't live to 40. And here I am, at the age of 31, blithely stating that I want to live for another hundred years. 

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As a UK male, I can expect to live to the age of 77.2. We come 22nd in the World Rankings, just ahead of Germany (for once), a full decade above the overall life expectancy at birth throughout the world (67.2 years; 65.0 years for males and 69.5 years for females). I know I'm lucky to live where I do. 

 

But as soon as I started wandering the streets of Hong Kong it was evident that the people there really do live longer than the people here. There were, quite simply, old people everywhere. In parks, shops and cafes, sitting, squatting and manning booths (there are a lot of booths in Hong Kong); they were everywhere I looked. It was actually quite scary. Thankfully, while they looked old, they didn't look old old. Lines on their faces betrayed the lengthy lives they'd lived but their bodies were still fit and nimble. It was hot in Hong Kong. I staggered up stairs and sweated. They glided up (glid up?) and smiled.

 

After a couple of days I plucked up the courage to ask a couple of elderly folk what their secret was. They both shrugged and returned to their game of mah jong. I asked a couple more. They didn't speak English. Finally the wisest-looking man I'd ever seen told me that there was no secret.


This was not particularly helpful.

 

Instead of asking questions I decided to observe. How do they do it? How do they live so long when the city is so grimy (in quite a clean way, admittedly), the air so sticky and tap water so dirty (according to one guide book, anyway)? It's not a verdant place, Hong Kong. It's an incredibly busy city. It's like London but even more busy. Everyone's still up at 2 in the morning and then everyone gets up again at 5 in the morning. It's noisy, over-crowded and thick with exhaust fumes, not peaceful, relaxing or in any way natural.

 

But within this frenetic whirr lies the answer. Maybe. It is, I think, this raw energy that keeps people going. It's the fact that people do get up early and do things, and then stay up late still doing things, that keeps the country fit. Every morning the parks are full of people doing tai chi, ballroom dancing or some other form of, to my eyes, idiosyncratic exercise, and throughout the day people continue to stretch, bend and move. They are active.

 

This was not a surprise to me. In 1997 I spent 4 months teaching in an industrial town called Quanzhou in the Fujian Province of China, some 200 miles north of Hong Kong. As a naive 18 year old, my biggest culture shock came at 7am, every single morning, when the entire school would troop out onto the football pitch and partake in 45 minutes of group exercise, with loud Chinese pop music blaring out of a tannoy system. It was remarkable. And no-one seemed to mind it. They liked it. And I can't remember a single over-weight kid at the school.

 

At weekends we'd occasionally make our way to some seaside resort where people didn't lie on the beach like whales. Instead they did more exercise. Children played football or baseball incessantly, while the adults did more tai chi, or went jogging backwards or stood on their heads for hours at a time. I'm sure I'm remembering this correctly. As we topped up our tans and flirted with skin cancer, Chinese men in tiny pants would run backwards past us, up and down the beach.

 

So is it as simple as regular (and creative) exercise? Probably not. I can't help thinking that traditional Chinese medicine might have something to do with it (Hong Kong spends far less per person on healthcare than the US but has far fewer sick people), and will soon post up a video of my own dabblings in this area. It might also be something to do with their diet. In my week-long stay I ate a goose and drank about a gallon of tea and felt excellent after doing both. 

 

It's probably important too to note that while they do often exercise, they also counterbalance that with sleep. Researchers at Portland State University, Oregon, studied 15,638 people across China and found that those who slept 10 hours or more lived longer than those who didn't and as well as seeing more people exercising than ever before, I did see an inordinate number of people dozing too. At markets, in restaurants, on cable cars, people were more than happy to nap in public. Some lay on the ground by bus stops, I even saw one man fast asleep leaning against a lamp post. They're good sleepers.

 

But the most important thing I took away from my trip is that if I want to live for a long time, I need to keep doing things for a long time. It's not enough to sit on a comfortable chair, avoiding danger and waiting for the time to pass. I need to get out there, fly to Hong Kong, run backwards on a beach, and sleep on the bus on the way home.

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Comments

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Hi Alex, I think I know where you were in the first picture. Were you in Sham Shui Po?

I was in Sham Shui Po! In a Bridal Tea House. The best sort of tea house.

I don't know why Hong Kong people have long life span, but as a Hong Kong local, I think it's mainly related to the food we eat. We eat rice, we drink a lot of tea, we have small portion of food in every meal (not as small portion as Japanese). And then one of our traditional cooking methods is "Steaming". By the way, we don't like sunshine as much as the people in other countries. Don't know if you saw anybody using an umbrella even when it was a sunny day. =)

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