By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
I call her Tai Tung Mom, and she celebrated her 100th birthday recently. At her party, she was animated and alert, recognizing everyone around her, including more than 40 grandkids and great grandkids.
Shiu Jing Louie Chan is the mother of Harry and Tommy, owners of Tai Tung Restaurant. What’s impressive is her resilience and capabilities. Her longevity illuminates many life lessons.
Despite some forgetfulness, Chan remembers those who greeted her and those who didn’t, not just at her birthday party, but at any family gathering.
“You don’t see me, I see you,” she told her family members.
“How did you know?” one of her children asked.
“My heart knows,” she replied.
Chan’s longevity does not follow America’s rule books of health. She doesn’t count the number of calories she eats each day.
She doesn’t jog for a half an hour like one website’s tips for longevity. She doesn’t avoid fats or sugar. In fact, she often eats fatty foods, especially pork in her work life, for valid reasons. Going on a diet has never been a part of her lifestyle. Her appetite is never limited. She doesn’t have a special hobby like many health magazines suggest to keep herself young. If playing mahjong is considered a hobby, she doesn’t do it enough. Work was her main agenda most of her adult life.
So what contributes to her longevity?
Harry said his mother is hardworking. “Chinese immigrants complain about how hard they work nowadays. It’s not even close to how people worked in my mother’s era. She woke up at 4 or 5 in the morning. She was the first person to arrive at Tai Tung to prepare the food, such as har gow (Chinese shrimp ball), shu mai (Chinese dumpling), and rice cake for the day.”
In the late 1960s, it was not easy to operate Chinese restaurants because there were no big Asian supermarkets to supply authentic ingredients. With her bare hands, Chan made everything from scratch. For instance, rice flour was not available. So she used a traditional stone grinder to grind the rice, mixing it with water to make flour for the rice cake — very time-consuming and labor-intensive.
Those of us who buy Chinese barbecued pork from restaurants have no idea the amount of work and organization it takes.
She was the chef and the butcher — opening up the whole pig, cutting out the belly or ribs for barbecue meat, chopping the bones, feet, and tendon for soups, and slicing out the neck meat for stir-fry. Nothing is wasted, and every part of the pig has a purpose. Her famous tale of holding a big knife, cutting open and dividing a pig which weighs as much as 35 to 50 pounds, all by herself, is legendary in the family. Harry said, “She did the work of many people in one day. She also worked fast.”
Her kids and grandkids followed in her footsteps. No wonder they can multitask — waiting tables, washing dishes, and bartending in the family restaurant throughout its 80-year history.
Not only that, Chan taught Harry to make humbow, rice cakes, cheung fun (wide rice noodles), and other items.
Laura Wong, Chan’s daughter, said her mom has a good appetite. At her birthday party, she never refused any food offered to her by her grandkids or caretaker.
So what kind of personality does Chan have?
“She’s a sweetheart,” said Al Quan, her oldest grandson.
“Always lively and energetic, active, social, easy to get along with,” said Harry. “She was like a boy, she rowed boats.” It was not common in her generation.
Laura said her mom likes to talk loudly, and likes people. She praised her mom for always taking care of her family. Born in Taishan, China, Chan also lived in Hong Kong before she immigrated to this country.
The following are a list of factors that I think contributed to Chan’s longevity. Does it mean that if you copy Chan’s lifestyle, you would live to be 100? Well, I know it wouldn’t hurt.
- The Centenarian is physically active. She never liked to sit down when she was younger. Chan has worked hard most of her life by being a Jill of all trades in the kitchen. Work is her hobby. Discipline is her belief. She never complained about working too much or too hard. She just did it. Studies have proven that our bodies love routines, especially physical ones.
- Nutritious wine. Her daughter Laura said Chan also made wine soaked with ginseng, a Chinese tradition to better health and energy. This is similar to the theory of drinking red wine.
- Stewed soups. It’s another Chinese tradition to enhance health by boiling ingredients like chicken and Chinese herbs together for long hours. Chan drinks those soups daily to strengthen her energy and bones.
- Optimistism. Chan is funny and optimistic, according to her daughter, and she laughs easily.
- Independence. In the olden days, women were conditioned to rely on men. Without fear, Chan trained herself to solve all challenges and problems when running the restaurant. She taught herself how to survive without getting help from others. Her independent spirit gave her a sense of fulfillment and joy.
- Never give up. She has endured many major obstacles. What she learned is the significance of never giving up. Consequently, she is physically and emotionally strong.
- Family is important. Research has found that it is crucial that seniors not be socially isolated. Being socially connected is a key to longevity. She sets an example by taking care of her family and the business. She is loved by all her grandkids, who had driven her in a wheelchair, from her nursing home to the restaurant, to celebrate her birthday. She likes their hugs and attention.
- The right DNA. Harry recalled that Chan’s parents also lived into their 80s and 90s. This is unusual as people born in China, in the latter part of the 19th century, normally had a life expectancy of under 60 to 70. Not everyone is lucky to have the right parents and inherit the right DNA. Your future is hard to predict. Perhaps stick with Dr. Atul Gawande’s advice. His book “Being Mortal” will tell you having a good life is far more meaningful than having a long life. It’s not the number of years you have, but the quality of life. Living your best life with a purpose is entirely up to you. We can’t escape aging and death. So start living every moment with joy, peace, and love. Make every day count. And count your blessings, even when you are faced with adversity. It will always work out sooner or later.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.