Getting physical in Da Lin

What do you know about Taiwan? Well, it’s where one-time communist Chiang Kai-Shek fled in 1949 after defeat by Mao, to become a thorn in the flesh of mainland China and darling of the US right. It’s where most of the world’s bikes are made. And it is home to that company that may or may not make most of the iPhones, albeit they employ people in the mainland to do it.

Well, Taiwan’s status as an irritant to Beijing remains. While its claim to house the legitimate government of China has lapsed, a range of existential “cross-straits” issues still looms large in political debate. And future possibilities for the well-armed island range from integration into the mainland to full nation status.

This unique situation dominates discourse, and may be the reason why the visitor (me, last week) is sometimes unprepared, even after many years of showing my face there, for the fact that the normal things that go on in any other country happen here too. Green energy, gay marriage, school quality, the ups and downs of the stock market: all these turn up in the newspaper here as anywhere else, in a lively democracy which supports a vigorous civil society.

As an example, try a visit to Chiayi, a modest and far from affluent city that’s half-way down the island on its West side. It’s subject to a challenge familiar around the world – an ageing population, driven partly by falling birth rates but also by the region’s lack of reasons for young people to move there, or to stay once they hit the job market.

To attack this problem, the Chiayi region has built a striking partnership between the local university,  National Chung Cheng, and the voluntary bodies that exist to keep older people healthy and busy. I was honoured to visit one such centre, in the small town of Da Lin, and to hear about its plans to become an age-friendly “slow city.”

Some of the activities that go on at the centre are familiar. Board games are a standby mental simulant for old and young alike on all continents. Less expected was the Ocarina band that greeted my arrival and which was well up to on-stage standards. It now goes on tour.

And there were surprises too. One is that because we’re in China, calligraphy is big business. Any parade of shops is likely to have somewhere selling brushes, pens, ink and special paper for this activity. It’s apparently brilliant for keeping hand, eye and brain active and coordinated.  Another is the sheer quality of the art produced at the centre. It includes saleroom-grade paintings of the area and of other subjects, on show at a gallery formed from the railway station manager’s hut, a beautiful building dating back to the Japanese occupation. Yet another: I have never seen yoga done with this level of physical intensity, even by people in their twenties.

Or try a visit to the bus station. Here a series of sculptures has been created by a group with an average age of over 70, all representing the snail that is the symbol of the slow city. Tyres, bottles and other rubbish, destined for landfill, have become the raw material for a charming and evocative piece of art on what seems to have been unused land.

In total, 316 people are active “students” of the centre, one per cent of the local population. They are helped by a volunteer group of about 30. While it would be good to grow to about twice its current size, teachers and volunteers are both in short supply. One specific aim is to bring in more men. Apparently, males are reluctant to risk looking foolish in class, and are a rarity in this setting.

There are 369 such active age centres on the island, but the group around Chiayi is specially interesting for its links to academic life. Teachers and volunteers have been trained at CCU, which has a deep commitment to education for older people and to other aspects of the ageing issue, and papers in international journals have emerged from the connection.

One strong emphasis is on the physical shape of older people. Asked to take part in tests, I could hardly say no, and a bunch of Masters students were soon attaching me to wires and making me do surprisingly punishing exercise. I was told (eeek) that my body is several years older than I am, and I dd not need telling to lose some weight. And yes, I already knew that my physical coordination  wouldn’t get me a job as a goalkeeper. But maybe this message, transmitted to me by proper scientists in a real science lab, is one that I needed to hear and that others could usefully absorb too.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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