by Keith Addison
Hong Kong Life magazine Oct. 1994-Jan. 1996
The Valley of the Lost Decade
How to Spend 12 Weeks in Bed
Pass the Doggie Bag
If Pigs Could Fly They Wouldn't Need Cars
Stealer of Souls
On the Slow Train with a Skinful of Wine
The Neighbourhood Dragon
From 1994 to 1932 in Only Three Minutes
Singing and Laughing
Have Nose, Will Follow
Harrods to Sell Elixir-of-Life
Galahad's Secret Mission
Escape to Shangri-La
Put it in Your Pocket
What Johnny Should Have Said
The Cockroaches Went in Two by Two
A Complaint to the Inspector of Thunderstorms
What Johnny Should Have Said
"Who?" asked Paddy, puzzled.
___"Confucius," I repeated, also puzzled: Paddy works at a Hong Kong print studio and he's Chinese, how could he not know Confucius?
___"Who's Confucius?" he asked.
___"A great Chinese philosopher," I said.
___"Philosopher," he repeated, thinking about it. "No," he said.
___"His Chinese name must be different," I said.
___"English names are wonderful," he said. "I mean, terrible. How do you spell it?"
___I spelt it, he wrote it down, found a dictionary and looked it up.
___"No," he said again, shaking his head. "Yes -- Gung Ji! That's terrible!"
___"What's terrible?" I asked.
___"'Confucius' does not sound like 'Gung Ji'," he said accusingly. "It should be 'John-ny' -- you should call him Johnny."
___"Okay, I'll call him Johnny," I agreed. "Anyway, did Johnny say that old is strong?"
___"No," he replied. "Yes."
___"Choose one," I suggested.
___"I think he didn't say it, but his followers said it. Does it worry you?" he grinned. He's pushing 30, and me, 50.
___"No," I said. "But now everyone thinks old means weak and sick."
___"You mean people over 35?" he asked, but couldn't keep his face straight when I laughed at him. "People over 35 can't find a job because they're too old," he went on.
___"So they say," I said. Ageism is reported to be "rife" in Hong Kong -- an employment agent was quoted as saying that among Chinese employers "anyone over 40 is considered old".
___"What do Johnny's followers think about that?" I asked.
___"I don't know," Paddy laughed. "They're over 35."
___And old enough to know that old wine is better than new. But the ageism-challenged weren't who I'd had in mind. "I was thinking of people like my neighbour in Sai Ying Pun," I said. "He was 94, but he wasn't weak or sick."
___He could see, hear and think straight, he had lots of teeth, plenty of hair on his head, he was fit, capable, and cheerful, and his old wife was just the same. At Lunar New Year three or four generations of their descendants descended on them all at once, 25 of them altogether. There was nothing weak about these old people. When the time came, they'd probably die suddenly and easily, not "of" anything in particular.
___Such old people make me wonder how many of my generation will do as well -- and how many of today's children. Is it just the luck of the draw, or is this the way things should be, as Johnny said (or didn't say)? If so, then why, so often, isn't it?
___"My grandfather is still strong," said Paddy. "But others are weak and sick."
___Most of the modern studies of old people focus on their frailties, but a recent study of healthy, happy, active old people (and there are many of them) said they often live "challenging lives of barely manageable difficulty" -- they're too busy to get old, they just don't have the time.
___But it can be hard for old people to find a useful role in life. Some people retire from their jobs, go home, sit down, feel unwanted, and never get up again. "You have to keep your interests up," people say. A woman in her eighties, keen to begin her next project, put it more strongly: "You must keep going forward," she said briskly.
___My old neighbour was very active, and much involved in being a family patriarch, but he was relaxed -- I didn't see him struggling much with barely manageable difficulties. By the time you're 94 you should be a bit more balanced than that, like Johnny's ideal human, the old sage. Keeping yourself together, being who you've always been and not less than that, should be challenge enough at such an age.
___But staying active and involved still isn't enough to stop your health failing and your mind and senses abandoning you, though it definitely helps. Happy people are indeed probably healthier -- researchers have found a direct link between the emotions and the immune system. But a healthy immune system also depends on the supply of a lot of complicated proteins, molecules and minerals which can't be synthesised out of thin air by sheer happiness -- you also have to eat, and I think this is what has changed since Johnny's day, and since my neighbour's day.
___The modern picture is one of decreasing child mortality and increasing lifespans keeping pace with advances in medical science. ("We're much healthier now," a health professional once told me. "We have 10 times as many hospital beds as we had 50 years ago.") But the earliest statistics generally concern poor industrial workers living in cramped and unhealthy conditions with a bad diet, not peasants living traditionally on the land, who generally don't keep records.
___In the 1920s Sir Robert McCarrison, the British Surgeon-General of colonial India, spent some years studying an ancient people called the Hunza who live in the Karakoram mountains near Afghanistan and say they are descended from Alexander the Great. He couldn't find a sick Hunza -- they didn't get ulcers, arthritis, cancer, heart disease or anything else, they lived for a very long time and they didn't get senile. And they were very cheerful (who wouldn't be?).
___McCarrison specialised in deficiency diseases, and he said the Hunza didn't have any -- their diet was perfect. They ate mostly grains, vegetables and fruit, with meat whenever they had it, but it wasn't so much what they ate as where it came from. They used an ancient farming system that kept the soil highly fertile, watered by a mineral-rich stream from a high mountain glacier. Another study found perfect health among the Eskimo when they were still living their traditional way of life. They ate huge amounts of red meat and blubber, and no vegetables at all -- exactly the diet that's supposed to kill us these days.
___Such studies can't be done now -- the world is a global supermarket and hardly anybody still lives a traditional way of life. But good work was done before it became impossible. Weston A. Price was an American dentist who, in the 1930s, made dozens of expeditions to study a wide variety of traditional societies all over the world. Price was a scientist and he measured everything, collected statistics, took thousands of photographs and colour slides, and assembled an enormous amount of evidence for his case. He paints a vivid picture of traditional societies which had spent thousands of years developing a healthy and sustainable relationship with their environment, whatever it may be.
___He was able to compare isolated and modernised communities among North American Indians, Peruvian Indians, Eskimos, Scottish islanders, Swiss mountain people, Africans, Melanesians, Polynesians, Aborigines, Maoris and others. The isolated communities were invariably healthy and long-lived, with hardly any degenerative diseases, and perfect teeth. Their modernised cousins had all the diseases, and terrible teeth. Price had found that the condition of his subjects' teeth was a reliable indicator of their health status. Where he found well-formed dental arches and strong teeth without decay, he also found excellent health and virtually no disease. Where teeth were bad, general health was just as bad.
___In the Tonga islands, long isolated as a British protectorate, he found strong, healthy people with fine teeth, excepting in one section. Some years previously, the price of copra had suddenly shot up from US$40 to $400 a ton, bringing Western trading ships to barter "trade foods" -- mostly white flour and sugar -- for the islanders' copra, but after a while the price fell to only $4 a ton, and the trading ships stopped coming. Those living around the port, who had lived on the trade food, had decay in a third of their teeth. In isolated groups the figure was only 0.6 per cent.
___"The effect of the imported food was clearly to be seen on the teeth of the people who were in the growth stage at that time," Price wrote. "Dental caries has largely ceased to be active since imported foods became scarce." He details many such cases. His evidence is massive, and very persuasive.
___Many people sense the wrongness in the way we live today. They worry about pollution, the environment and about ecology, and they're surely right. The largely forgotten work of early researchers like Price and McCarrison has something to offer them, pointing a practical, down-to-earth finger at the wholeness we have lost, and what it may be costing us.
___My new neighbours are just as old as the previous ones, traditional Lantau hill farmers who're still living in the Q'ing Dynasty, in spite of their television set. He's 84, and she 94, both with all their faculties intact. They still grow a lot of their food, and they tramp up the hill every week to go to the market. One or other of them visits me every few days. The old woman chatters and laughs, but her husband doesn't say much. He likes to sit there, just being himself.
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