Ninety-year-old Mr Chan, known around Macau’s Coloane Village as “Fat Suk” or “Rich Uncle”, has practised the same routine every morning for as long as he can remember. The sprightly and wiry man dons an oversized white T-shirt, slips on his black leather shoes and takes a morning stroll along the Coloane waterfront. It’s one of his favourite routes, though sometimes he mixes it up with a walk through the parks or across the black sand of Cheoc Van Beach.
“I spend most of my days outside,” said Chan, who has eight children and 10 grandchildren. “My wife and I sit at the pier and admire the beautiful view. [Our] days pass by in joy and laughter."
Chan attributes his long, happy life to this simple routine (plus a steady diet of rice and garlic) – and it seems this nonagenarian is far from an anomaly. According to the CIA’s 2015 World Fact Book, Macau citizens enjoy the 4th-longest life expectancy in the world with an average age of 84.51. Monaco topped the list at an average of 89.52, while Japan came in 2nd at 84.74 and Singapore came in third at 84.68.
But in a place that’s better known for gambling than helping you grow into your golden years – what is it about this special administrative region that promotes a long and happy life?
Sometimes, money can buy happiness
Interestingly, the casinos that give Macau such a sinful reputation are also one of the prime drivers of the territory’s longer life expectancy. Not only is Macau is the fourth-wealthiest territory in the world, but it also has the fastest-growing economy, reports the CIA World Fact Book. From gaming revenues alone, the territory raked in 351.5b patacas in 2014 and has consistently maintained a low unemployment rate, presently at 1.9%. Though currently on a volatile downturn, gaming has buoyed the economy over the years, with revenues accounting for 80% of the total GDP last year and gambling taxes contributing to the lion’s share of the government’s fiscal revenue. “Every tourist that visits Macau goes to those casinos. Of course that’s a good thing,” said Chan. “That’s how the government can afford to take care of us.”
Casino revenues have been used to provide free healthcare, a monthly pension and an annual cash subsidy to all citizens over 65 years old. The elderly also have access to more than two dozen community centres located throughout the city where they can enjoy performances, socialise, have lunch, play games or join organised field trips.
This government spending aligns almost exactly with the results of the 2007-2012 Macau Quality of Life Report. In this series of 12 large-scale public surveys conducted by a team of researchers at the Macau’s University of Saint Joseph – more than 90% of respondents reported they were satisfied or very happy with life. Contributing factors included clean air, excellent education, easy access to health care and a strong economy.
Community matters more than you might think
It’s impossible to measure, but Chinese culture is another contributing factor to longevity in Macau. Among these intangible traditions, family and community relationships are considered the most important. Multi-generational families live together for the majority of their lives and rarely do elderly parents move into nursing homes.
“People in Macau emphasize the harmony of family relationships,” said Dr Zeng, head of the Nursing and Health Education Research Centre at Kiang Wu Nursing College of Macau. “They often have morning tea together every morning. If they live separately, then it’s traditional to have dim sum at least once a week.”
While most have family nearby, locals also find comfort in the community that lives around them. “Our neighbours are our lifelong friends who we have known since we were children,” said Mui Je, 66, who has lived in Coloane since birth. “It’s a very simple life, but I think happiness is the key to longevity.”
A long life means finding pleasure in the simple things
Fat Suk’s wife, Mrs Chan, is still in her 80s. “We live a simple life, and I eat simple food, too. Usually blanched vegetables, some rice, fish and very little meat,” she said. A typical breakfast is toast and coffee or tea, and she looks forward to the weekends when her children take her to dim sum and spend the day together catching up on family matters. She wears a thin jade bracelet every day, a gift from her daughter, which she says brings her a sense of calm.
Mrs Chan spent much of her adult life looking after her children, and later her 10 grandchildren. Now teenagers and adults, her grandchildren no longer need as much attention, so she spends most of her time playing mahjong by the water with her closest friends who she has known since childhood. And almost every night, she and Mr Chan can be seen strolling along the waterfront or huddled together on a park bench, admiring the sea view.
“You have to learn to let things go and be optimistic,” said Mr Chan. “Are you married yet? Find a partner, fast. When you have a partner, you have someone to talk to and discuss things with. The other key is hot showers. If you take cold showers, you’ll get sick. Simple as that.”
This simple, slower pace of life seems to permeate the village of Coloane. There’s no need to rush or stay tethered to technology, and there are certainly no skyscrapers – at least for now. On the main peninsula, parks like Luís de Camões Garden come alive in the morning with dozens of women practicing Tai Chi or dancing in groups. On the opposite side of the park, rows of men intently play chess, read the paper or walk their caged birds.
These may not be scientific indicators, but mix together simple meals, a sense of community, family values and loads of mahjong — and you’ll have Macau’s recipe for the elixir of life.
Additional reporting by Sin Chan Yan.