City Weekend

Meet the 63-year-old fitness guru thousands of Hongkongers swear by – and her classes are free

  • Mona Chan Man-lai uses 26 simple signature moves to keep both the young and old in shape. Hongkongers are flocking to city parks to learn her secrets
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2018, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2018, 12:33pm

Slim, bendy, and with a following of almost 120,000 on Facebook, Mona Chan Man-lai is what most people would consider a fitness guru.

But you won’t see her showing off her curves in trendy workout clothes or sipping expensive teas reputed to aid weight loss. For 63-year-old Chan, being a fitness instructor is about connecting with people, and giving back.

For the past two years, Chan has been teaching classes at public parks across Hong Kong – for free.

“Nothing gives me greater fulfilment than helping people get fit and regain mobility,” the retired stockbroker says.

Her students are aged anywhere from 30 to 90, and occasionally children take part. Chan’s Facebook page is filled with testimonials from sufferers of aches and pains, stroke survivors, and even a man with arthritis of the spine. All claim that practising Chan’s 26 signature moves helped their conditions improve significantly.

“I’d been experiencing stiffness below the neck, which made it hard for me to fall asleep. But thanks to Teacher Mona, the stiffness is gone and I can now sleep through the night,” wrote Facebook user Helen Wun.

Fellow happy customer Lee Kuen-kuen wrote: “It works! Thank you, Teacher Mona, for helping me find relief from my oral ulcers.”

Chan teaches simple stretches inspired by disciplines such as yoga and qigong. But some of her moves are less common, including tongue exercises and basic pressure point massage.

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“I make sure my moves are easy to follow. It’s not about striking complicated poses, but making sure they count. I always tell my students to hold a certain position long enough to feel a deep stretch,” Chan says.

After retiring at 54, she began volunteering at social service centres, distributing meals and daily essentials to the underprivileged. Earlier this year she branched out on her own by setting up her own food distribution movement.

“I hope to do something for Hong Kong, even if it’s something small,” she says.

Her fitness venture first took off when she began volunteering as an instructor at a social service centre run by the Methodist church. It was here that she originally gained a following. However, when the church ended the arrangement, she took to teaching in a public park.

“By then I’d already gathered a following of about 40 students,” she says.

“We didn’t know where to go next, and I didn’t want to disappoint them, so we started having our classes at Aldrich Bay Park.”

These free sessions at the venue in Sai Wan Ho on Hong Kong Island attracted large groups of curious onlookers, some of whom later became her students. Attendance at some of her classes has since ballooned to more than 700, she says.

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“I never expected to gain such a following. It’s really puzzling.”

Other venues include Victoria Park in Causeway Bay and New Town Plaza in Sha Tin. Community centres also now offer her services, but for a fee of between HK$40 (US$5.10) and HK$90, to cover rental costs.

She teaches a total of seven classes a day, six days a week.

“Yes, it gets tiring,” she says. “But it’s meaningful. When people come to me with issues, I research their problems and experiment with exercises that may be able to help them. It’s a great learning process for me as well.”

What keeps Chan going is her attitude – she is positive and always grateful.

“We should all learn to be happy with what we have, and comfortable with what we don’t,” Chan says. “There’s always going to be someone else out there who’s having a worse day than us.”

Chan says she will continue to teach until her body tells her she can’t. In the meantime, she hopes people of all ages will try to stay as active as possible, even if their busy schedules do not make it easy.

“Get up and take a coffee break,” Chan says. “You’ll be more productive if you give yourself a breather every hour or so.”