Hong Kong elderly learning to age positively, on or off the catwalk

Modelling agency whose recruits are all elderly, and whose motto is ‘silver is the new black’, an example of businesses and services promoting the idea that its cool to be old and of embracing Hongkongers’ golden years

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 October, 2016, 5:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2016, 10:37am

David Chan Lau-wing competes in marathons around the globe. And he’s good. He recently ran a full race within the three hours and 55 minutes needed to qualify for the Boston Marathon. It’s an impressive achievement, more so considering Chan is 63 years old and only took up the sport as a hobby in his mid-50s.

Chan doesn’t let age get in the way of his endeavours, and that extends to modelling. He proved that in August when he and seven other mature models strutted their stuff at a catwalk show in Hung Hom. Wearing experimental designs by Hong Kong fashion students, the models – who received basic training from a professional choreographer – also sported bold eyeliner, futuristic metallic lipstick and, for some, a full head of natural silver hair.

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“I look like James Bond from this angle,” says one model before the show begins. Another makes modifications to his outfit so he can “carry it better”.

While this is their first catwalk, most show great poise. “The audience doesn’t know our choreography so it doesn’t matter if we take a wrong step – no one will notice as long as we stride forward with confidence,” Chan says.

The fashion show was a collaboration between the Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong and Ohh Dear Communications, a modelling agency that recruits elderly Hongkongers. Founded last year by Zip Cheung Ngai-ting, its motto is “silver is the new black”.

Cheung noticed a business opportunity in the so-called “silver economy” that is now booming globally, driven by technology and a rapidly ageing population. There are growing numbers of insurance and financial plans, health care products and holidays, for example, that target older customers with disposable incomes.

On top of that, startups providing innovative products and services to the over-50s – elderly friendly smartphones, online dating apps, technology training – are springing up around the world and they needed mature faces for TV commercials, advertisements and brochures, Cheung says. Advertising featuring families also needed someone to play a grandparent.

That’s where Ohh Dear comes in. However, instead of just taking photos and selling products, 30-year-old Cheung wants to hammer home her brand’s message – that being old can still be cool.

All too often the former journalist saw how the media associated the elderly with declining cognition, illnesses and death and how society saw ageing unfavourably, with old people perceived as weak, forgetful or senile, stereotypes often perpetuated by the media.

Last year, a study by the University of Southern California that examined the 100 top-grossing films in Hollywood concluded that old people in films are “underrepresented, mischaracterised and demeaned by ageist language”.

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For ageist language, one has to look no further than Hong Kong government TV announcements in which youngsters are encouraged to help the elderly cross roads, or local television shows with scenes where an elderly person drops a bag of fruit and needs help to pick it up. These portrayals are subtle but widespread, and reveal underlying, and outdated, discrimination against the elderly.

Cheung believes the government is also to blame. “The ageing population is portrayed as a monster. The authorities often emphasise how on average, several youngsters will have to provide for a number of old people. They frame the issue in such a way that the elderly are viewed as a burden to society.”

These views have a damaging effect on old people in Hong Kong. An index compiled by the Chinese University Jockey Club Institute of Ageing ranks Hong Kong 79th of 97 countries and territories for the psychological health of its elderly.

As a way of battling ageism, Cheung hopes to promote a positive attitude towards ageing, one that celebrates and embraces our golden years. “Dealing with an ageing population is complex and involves different policies such as retirement, pension and health care. But while there are people doing hardware, there also needs to be people doing branding, using soft methods to catch people’s attention,” she says.

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This is why Cheung is deliberate about distinguishing the modelling work from a pastime, to prove her case that the elderly still have earning power. “Because we work with the elderly, people tend to associate us with social welfare services and ask if we are a charity. I have to clarify that this is a proper job. I insist that this is a form of employment and since they are professionals, they have to be paid.”

And it isn’t all talk and no trousers. This positive thinking towards ageing is embodied by Ohh Dear’s models. Chan regularly volunteers at old people’s homes, caring for dementia patients, while another model, 68-year-old Ivy Yuen Siu-chun, does yoga and dance. Both are in their 60s and say they have never been more adventurous.

Cheung’s vision is that Ohh Dear will one day no longer be the centre of attention as elderly people break stereotypes and live purposeful lives. Modelling is simply a means and not an end.

“Modelling is gimmicky. Not everyone wants to be a model but you can do other things to keep yourself engaged and happy. You can paint, run, do tai chi, swim,” says Cheung.

Staying relevant is critical to ageing healthily and gracefully and Ohh Dear isn’t alone in spreading this message.

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The Kinnet, a private health care centre in Sheung Wan, promotes a holistic approach towards healthy ageing – one that takes into account physical, emotional and mental wellness.

The spacious centre has a gym, a lounge, a restaurant and a creative studio, where members can take classes including tai chi, aerobics and calligraphy. It also holds intermediate zumba, funky dance, creative landscape and architecture painting classes and regularly invites social entrepreneurs and health care experts to hold talks and workshops.

“As you age, what’s important isn’t just physical wellness. Your cognitive health is important, as everything stems from your brain,” says The Kinnet’s executive director, Stephanie Tan.

“It’s about delaying the effects of ageing. People who come here aren’t trying to be the next Picasso, they just want to learn a new skill or make a new friend – to engage in some creativity. It engages them and when you’re learning something new, you’re activating your brain.”

The centre’s oldest member is 94. He works out at the gym with his daughter, who is in her 50s. The centre has thought about the little details: the gym equipment runs on cables that offer greater flexibility, and instead of the boring pictures of flowers or landscapes that are common in old people’s homes, the walls here are decorated with inspiring photographs such as a hiker standing by a giant waterfall and monks by the edge of a mountain.

The key to ageing well can be summed up in a single word – optimism.

“Age is just a number. It’s not about living to 100. Hong Kong has one of the longest life expectancies in the world, but it’s about having quality of life,” says Tan. “At the end of the day, it’s about being positive and living that.”