Hong Kong grandma, 99, with a zest for life and her tips for health and happiness: play mahjong, exercise, eat vegetables and enjoy the love of family and friends
- Brain games, little or no meat, a low-calorie diet, and a glass of good red wine now and then – that’s the recipe of ‘Mama’ Cheng Li for a long and happy life
- Doctors and researchers agree on the role of community in people living longer and healthier lives, but say it is often overlooked in fast-paced Hong Kong
On her 99th birthday in September, Cheng Li Shuk Kam had just one wish: to celebrate her special day with her immediate family. After all, love and loyalty are key to a long and fulfilling life, says the near-centenarian, who has three sons, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Cheng – or ‘Mama’ as she is fondly known by her loved ones – was born in Chiu Chow in Guangdong province, southern China. In 1948, she moved to Hong Kong, a city that boasts the longest life expectancy in the world, according to researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. On average, men in Hong Kong live for 81.3 years and women for 87.3 years. Like many of the women in her family, Cheng has surpassed the average.
Family keeps her going, Mama says. Her granddaughter, Therese Cheng Tee, explains.
“My grandma would say her greatest achievement is her family, and her legacy is her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She always makes the effort to stay connected, be it through phone conversations with family here and overseas, or by welcoming the many visitors in her home who stop by for tea,” says Tee, a mother of two.
“For festivals like Dragon Boat Festival or Chinese New Year, she’ll wake up at 4am over those couple of days to prepare traditional Chiu Chow food from scratch for family and friends. It’s incredible how much stamina she has. Mama has taught me the importance of keeping family close and enjoying our time together.”
Prioritising family is one of nine qualities shared by communities where people live longer, healthier lives, often past the age of 100, according to explorers and researchers Nick and Dan Buettner.
Despite her busy and active life, Mama always takes time out for daily naps and meditation. She practised tai chi for three decades from the age of 66 to 96, and enjoys a low-calorie, plant-based diet. She encourages her family to eat healthily and avoid fatty foods, too.
According to Tee, her social network has played a significant part in keeping her grandmother young both physically and mentally. She took up mahjong in her early 60s, and now plays once or twice a week with friends.
“Our family believes Mama’s love for mahjong has kept her mind extremely sharp and her social circles active. She has shown me the importance of having supportive and caring friends and having hobbies that I can enjoy well into my retired years,” Tee says.
Community is a huge contributing factor to how happy and healthy a person is, says Benita Perch, managing director and naturopathic physician at IMI, a natural and integrated healing clinic in Hong Kong’s Central district. Citing clinical observations by her team of practitioners, she lists seven factors that contribute to health and longevity in Hong Kong: body, mind, emotions, environment, energy, community and purpose. But in Hong Kong’s frenetic culture, community is often overlooked, she says.
“We all need to feel like we belong to a community that resonates with us. The company we keep impacts our mental, emotional and physical well-being, which is why it’s important to have positive relationships and avoid toxic ones,” she says.
Mama’s dedication to her family is intertwined with her sense of purpose – another hugely important factor that can be forgotten, says Perch.
Cristina Rodenbeck, emotional wellness coach and founder of Manipura Wellness Practice, says the benefits of purpose to well-being should not be underestimated. She often works with parents whose children have flown the nest, and executives in transition, who share a sense of emptiness and loss which negatively affects their emotional, mental and physical well-being.
“Purpose is what makes you wake up every day with a sense of joy, a sense of belonging, and a sense of meaning to this world. It’s the difference between driving the car and sitting in the passenger’s seat of life.
“Once you have clarified your purpose it clarifies your choices, your commitments and where you want to put energy and time. It clarifies your direction in life and brings a huge sense of relief. You realise ‘I know who I am, how I can contribute to this world and which legacy I want to leave behind’,” Rodenbeck says.
Asked for her thoughts on ageing, the 99-year-old smiles. “Don’t think about ageing. What’s the point? We all age! Just thinking about my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren makes me very happy. And that’s the most important thing: to be happy. When I’m really old, I’ll think about ageing.”