Picturing Positive Ageing In Chinatown “乐”在牛车水
Samsui Women, icons of historical Chinatown
This erhu player always has a cheerful greeting for passersby.
I could hear the sound of the singers’ strong voices from blocks away.
Just as how ageing buildings can be given a new lease of life, we can add quality of life to years, instead of just adding years to seniors’ lives.
Mr. Lee Lee Kuan Yew: a fine example of lifelong learning, as well as active, productive, successful aging.
Beautiful old tiles still shine through the ages. Can we create lasting images of positive aging together?
What does ageing mean to you and me? Very likely different pictures of ageing come to our minds.
Picture (1): Samsui Women, icons of historical Chinatown
Some people say that the old people in Chinatown are poor, sad, isolated, alienated, lonely and belong to an era long gone by, like the Samsui women, the construction workers, of our pioneer generation. Some may well be, but are they in the majority?
As an ardent advocate of positive ageing, I set out to find alternative pictures of ageing in Chinatown. Pictures which depict ageing as a positive experience.
Picture (2): This erhu player always has a cheerful greeting for passers-by
Friendly with an indomitable spirit of cheeriness, I saw an amiable erhu player. He showcases his musical talent not only in Chinatown, but elsewhere as well, so I’ve heard. Unlike other seniors who may shy away from wearing fire-engine red, he does not let his years get in the way.
Not only does he remain independent by earning his own living, he also brings smiles to the faces of people around him through his contribution of music.
Picture (3): I could hear the sound of the singers’ strong voices from blocks away
Kreta Ayer Square has much to offer the usually more senior audience. The few weekends I was there, there were concerts taking place, allowing older folk to while their time away in an enriching way. Even wheelchair users were out of their homes and amongst the audience. The two senior Cantonese opera singers, dressed to the nines, are still vocal powerhouses, singing with great stamina.
Elsewhere near the square is a common sight: a group of intense older men engaging in a battle of wits over a game of Chinese chess. I have often wondered where the older women are in this men’s-only domain. The women are probably chatting with friends, or watching concerts at the square. Ah well, which Ah Mah can break through the stronghold of the Ah Gongs at that spot in Chinatown?
Picture (4): Just as how ageing buildings can be given a new lease of life, we can add quality of life to years, instead of just adding years to seniors’ lives
The generations to follow will also benefit from looking beyond the wrinkled exterior to the inner wealth of life experiences and personal stories that seniors can pass to us. As nicely written in a poem by an American senior, Anne Whitlock:
I like to think that we enrich this city.
We are its old buildings and facades,
but like the weathered walls
of old domaines in southern France,
we harbor vintage wine and cheese.
Picture (5): Mr. Lee Lee Kuan Yew: a fine example of lifelong learning, as well as active, productive, successful aging
Surely one such vintage wine, which tastes better with age, is the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Our former Prime Minister and the Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar has served his district in Chinatown for more than half a century. This founding father of modern Singapore was a fine example of lifelong learning, as well as active, productive, and successful ageing. Despite his passing, we will still savour his wine for generations to come. His was a life well lived. He will be fondly remembered for a very long time.
During the past few weeks of walking around Chinatown with my camera to capture positive experiences of ageing, I found that the same image of an old person can evoke different feelings and attitudes within people. Given my training in social work, gerontology and my years of working in eldercare, I strive to look for the strengths and potential in seniors. I regard them as unique individuals in their own right. The wider community, more often than not, tends to view and depict ageing in a less positive light.
Myths, misconceptions and stereotypes about ageing and seniors abound:
“In general, older people are alike.”
“The majority of seniors are senile and demented.”
“Older adults are unproductive, uncreative, and incompetent, and cannot work as effectively as younger people.”
“The majority of elders are socially isolated and lonely.”
Seniors are often pictured carrying walking sticks. The increasing number of seniors resulting from population ageing is described as the “Silver Tsunami”—as if the total number of older adults is a destructive force that sweeps and engulfs everyone in its way.
Such ageism stems from the tendency to regard seniors as debilitated, unworthy of attention, or unsuitable for employment. It is as if when you hit a certain age, your knowledge, skills and experience acquired throughout your life dissipates into thin air! It is as if overnight, your social value and place in society has crashed like the stock market!
Sadly in meritocratic Singapore, this is still so. The headline for a Straits Times article dated 4 January 2014 states, “Singapore ‘still very much an ageist society’. The paradox is that people want to live a long time, but they do not want to be old or to acknowledge that they are old, as if old age is an undesirable stage of life.
Singapore is ageing rapidly. In 2030, 1 in 5 persons will be 65 years and above. We need to regard ageing in all its reality with clarity, as a very real part of life. After all, we start to age from the day we are born. Making ageing a positive experience starts with you and me. This requires us to change our perspectives and attitudes towards ageing. We can create a Singapore for all ages, where seniors are accepted socially and their life experiences treasured. We can provide opportunities to harness the potential and continuous contributions of the older population.
Picture (6): Beautiful old tiles still shine through the ages. Can we create lasting images of positive aging together?
If I were to ask again, what does ageing mean to you and me? Very likely positive and negative images of aging might still come to mind. But it need not continue to be so. We can create beautiful pictures of positive ageing together—images that will continue to shine through the decades, like the beauty of old tiles that have withstood the passage of time.
But it must start from you and me, in the here and now.