Fangfang Chen’s son and daughter expected her to stay home in smoggy Beijing and provide on-call babysitting when they had children of their own—but she had other ideas. She and her husband headed south.
“The retirement age in China is so early—55 for women, and 60 for men. What should we do with all this time? Better go on vacation!” Chen told Goldthread.
Inhaling deeply, the 63-year-old former accountant stretched her arms high above her head in a lush garden. We were at one of the “Longevity Villages” in Bama county in China’s Guangxi region. Near Chen, a small wooden sign nearby marked the garden an “oxygen bar.”
Tourists typically rent small apartments in these villages, tucked amongst rolling karst hills in the far west of the region, where the climate is pleasantly warm and breezy year-round.
Longer life, by way of inner peace providing a path to better health.
The main draw of the longevity villages is the promise of exactly that—longer life, by way of inner peace providing a path to better health.
Bama’s astonishingly high proportion of centenarians are often held up as testament of the area holding the secret to long life. Over 90 centenarians reside among Bama county’s 300,000 residents, and the oldest local is a 118-year-old man named Huang Puxin, according to a two-year-old government billboard.
This makes the number of residents aged over 100 in Bama roughly ten times China's average. To put that in perspective, the world’s officially oldest living man is Masazo Nonaka of Japan, who turned 113 in July. The oldest woman has not been announced by Guinness World Records yet after the previously oldest woman, Miyako Chiyo, died last month at age 117.
Bama villagers said Huang was still alive, but Goldthread reporters weren’t able to locate him to verify his age.
Outside, the fields are an exuberant scene of older tourists enjoying a range of activities. Under a pagoda, retirees belted out karaoke songs with a man on keyboard, while others square-danced and some simply sat around in a circle talking and laughing under the shade of a tree.
Over at the Baimo Caves, some visitors swear by the healing benefits of its “geomagnetic therapy,” by inhaling its air packed with a higher-than-usual concentration of negative ions.
“I’m so sick of the smog. The number of places in China with clean air are getting fewer and fewer. It’s good here,” Chen said serenely, as she swung her arms in wide circles.
A retirement paradise
Chen and her husband are renting an apartment suite for only 700 yuan ($100 USD) a month. They prepare most of their own meals. In comparison, the average monthly rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Beijing is over 5,000 yuan ($730) a month.
The low costs and astounding health promises have proven irresistible to many of China’s middle-class retirees. According to recent data from Ctrip, the country’s largest online travel agency, the number of travellers to Bama has doubled each year since 2015 and the majority of visitors are over 50 years old, while tour group bookings have seen annual growth of 100 percent or more.
“Old-age tourism (related to physical health) is a huge market,” said Ctrip spokesperson Wendy Min.
“Relative to young people, middle-aged and elderly groups have more money and leisure time, and China is becoming an aging society,” she said.
That Chinese are increasingly concerned about their health in their golden years must be good news for authorities facing a looming demographics crisis. The country of 1.4 billion is already home to some 230 million people over the age of 60 and with births in decline, a quarter of the population is expected to be over 60 by the year 2030, according to official estimates.
Newly constructed apartment buildings of up to eight stories line the banks of the Bama River, dwarfing the metal-roofed shanty homes still standing.
“Some of the tourists seem to have moved here indefinitely and that’s no surprise. Just look around. Breathe the air,” said local taxi driver Xiao Wang.
“Developers lease the land from villagers usually for about 30 years and let the landowner stay in one of the new apartments,” he added.
A real estate agent from the “Bama Hundred Years” agency told Goldthread that most of her tenants are older people from the northern cities and they usually stay for at least a full month.
The “long life spring water shop”
A villager who said she was 101 years old said she didn’t do anything special for her health.
“Locals here eat quite oily dishes and not many vegetables, but since I was a girl there was a spring close to my family’s house where we got all our water. The water is our treasure,” said the woman, who was crouched on a low stool chatting with friends that she had seen almost every day of her long life.
Water bottling companies have been fiercely competing for the last several years and their stores dot the streets of the longevity villages and surrounding towns.
The water is our treasure.
Inside, the only products on the shelves are bottles and jugs of spring water of various sizes.
At the “Bama Longlife Spring Water” shop, a salesman said business has been picking up in the last year.
“Our main income is from shipping water anywhere in China but mostly in the northern cities where people are particularly concerned about health,” he told Goldthread.
The shop ships about 20 tons a month and one ton’s worth of jugs of water costs 4000 yuan, which will last an average family 2 months.
“Some people even bathe in the water,” he said.
But can longevity villages retain their claim to fame as local industries develop faster and faster—potentially altering whatever conditions fostered such impressive lifespans?
Bama’s population has already swelled with some 100,000 non-locals living in the area semipermanently, Bama’s deputy county mayor said last year.
Villager Xiao Wang, who is 40 years old, opened a health food store earlier this year and told Goldthread many locals welcome the change of pace and new faces after toiling on farms most of their lives.
“I sell only healthy things like buckwheat noodles, fresh eggs, vegetable oil and herbs. The visitors are friendly. There are benefits to the lifestyle of a farmer too, but I want to try something different,” she said.