Next week, an American woman called Besse Cooper will celebrate her 115th birthday.
Officially she's the oldest person on the planet, but in a remote Chinese village near the Vietnamese border lives a woman who claims to be much older than that as Adrian Brown discovered, she's just one of a remarkable number of centenarians living in tiny Bama County.
REPORTER: Adrian Brown
It’s a part of China that’s aged well, with scenery that could have been lifted straight from an ancient Chinese painting. Deep amid these limestone mountains, lie a small group of valleys said to hold the secrets to Longevity, where people still work in the fields at a hundred years old, and beyond. The people here are mostly from the Yao ethnic minority and many are living extraordinarily long lives.
HUANG MA SHEN (Translation): I’ve never had any disease. I haven’t had a single injection in my life.
Huang Ma Shen claims to be 106.
HUANG MA SHEN (Translation): Diet is rather important. I used to eat a lot of wild vegetables.
REPORTER: What food in particular is good for you?
HUANG MA SHEN (Translation): I mainly eat corn and potatoes. There used to be a lot of corn and potatoes.
She attributes part of her longevity to Chairman Mao, who came to power when Huang was in her 40s.
HUANG MA SHEN (Translation): When we had Chairman Mao, life became a lot better. Chairman Mao looked after ordinary people… Now the government takes care of people. People can get treated when they are sick.
But Huang’s not afraid to confront her own mortality.
REPORTER: What’s that? Oh it’s a coffin.
It’s her own coffin, waiting in the corner of her room, but it doesn’t seem to trouble her.
HUANG MA SHEN (Translation): According to our custom, when one reaches 60, the family will get a coffin ready. It’s a wish for a long life.
Tradition dictates that if a close friend or relative dies first, the coffin goes to them and a replacement is provided.
HUANG MA SHEN (Translation): This one is my fourth.
REPORTER: Fourth coffin?
HUANG MA SHEN (Translation): I hope other people will take my coffin.
In a local population of less than 250,000, there are more than 70 centenarians and over 200 people in their 90s. That’s one of the highest per capita concentrations of old-timers in the world. Seven of the oldest live here, in what is known simply as the Longevity Village. Locals insist Huang Xu Ping is 113.
HUANG XU PING (Translation): I don’t have any secret for living a long life. You need to be a good person with a balanced mind. You shouldn’t lose your temper easily. I eat corn, potatoes, that kind of food. We grow our own food instead of buying food. So I eat whatever we grow.
A former red guard, Mr Huang fought the nationalists, as well as the Japanese. On the wall, the same obligatory Chairman Mao picture.
HUANG XU PING (Translation): Because we’ve had Chairman Mao, we’re enjoying a good life. We live in a multi-level house. Life is really good and we’re living a long life.
Life expectancy in China has risen – slowly – to 74 years. But a remarkable number of these folk are living decades beyond the national average. Also above average this year were the rains in what is already one of the wettest regions of China, which threatened the next stage of my venture.
Well, we’re here in this beautiful setting because we are looking for a village called Bami. We’ve been told there is a woman living there who is 125 years old. If it’s true, she’d be China’s oldest woman. The problem is - we are lost!
Eventually, we come across the sign we’d been searching for, Bami Village. Strolling towards this secluded hamlet felt like stepping back in time. The villagers knew instinctively who I had come to see and led the way.
GUIDE: He’s asking you to take a seat.
REPORTER: Thank You.
Eventually Luo Meizhen makes an appearance but doesn’t appreciate the wake-up call.
GUIDE: When we come here, we woke her up, so she’s not in good mood today.
REPORTER: I am sorry.
She was born, she says, in 1885 and turns 126 this year. Her adopted grandson remembers what she no longer can….War and famine.
GRANDSON (Translation): “She’s lived through a lot of hardship. At times there were hardly any foods or vegetables. I don’t know how she’s lived for so long. Maybe a long life is compensation for the hardships.”
Her memory faded long ago. But her feisty spirit has not.
REPORTER: Is your grandmother quite stubborn?
GRANDSON (Translation): Well, she’s old. She often doesn't listen to others.
She’s out lived her own five children and a husband. Proof of her age though is impossible to verify. Birth certificates only began to be kept in this area after the 1949 communist takeover. This faded copy of her identity card is the only evidence that Luo is the age she says she is.
Eating habits influenced by scarcity would appear to have contributed to Luo’s long life. Local vegetables cooked in oil derived from kemp form the core of her diet but by now though she was fed up with the pesky cameraman.
I left her to eat her rice and greens in peace.
MENG LING (Translation): Bama is a longevity village. Because we live deep in the mountains, our living environment is filled with fresh air. Fresh air is very good for health. But I can’t tell you all our secrets.
Meng Ling has come to honour his ancestors at a local burial ground as part of Yao New Year. Meng is the government official charged with promoting the benefits of this Shangri La to China and beyond.
MENG LING (Translation): Why do people of Bama live a long life? Husband and wife have a sex life but sleep in separate rooms. Too much sex isn’t good to human life and longevity. One should have a discrete attitude towards it.
REPORTER: So in your view is less sex the key to a long and healthy life?
MENG LING (Translation): That isn’t just my own view. It’s been researched and confirmed by experts.
The simple life has survived here because this region has long been neglected by the central government. But that is now changing.
The local government has expansive ambitions for Bama County to become a world centre for health tourism, with its centenarians the principle draw card. Hotels are already under construction and potential investors are sniffing about.
I meet naturalised American, Tsang Hing Kwai, interested in setting up a retirement village.
REPORTER: What do you think about the fact that so many people here live to a very long age?
TSANG HING KWAI: I think there are a lot of reasons, that’s why I’m looking into it here now. The sun, the air, water, living style, The lifestyle.
TSANG HING KWAI: Yeah, everything. I’m interested in the food they eat. I think the key, you know, the water they drink. There’s no contamination.
Tourists are already beginning to flock here… At the local Longevity Museum I find bus-loads hoping to discover the source of Bama’s Fountain Of Youth.
WOMAN (Translation): Yes, we’re seeking the secrets of Bama.
REPORTER: Would you like to live to more than a hundred?
WOMAN (Translation): Of course. Very much.
These tourists have come from Xian, hundreds of kilometres away.
WOMAN (Translation): What we’ve learnt today is to take good care of our health, do more exercises, eat more vegetarian food and less meat.
MAN (Translation): The reason they live a long life is because they benefit from the sunshine, clean air and water. Those are the main things. Of course it also has something to do with their genes, right? You also need a balanced mindset. That’s one of the essential elements.
I wish you a long life!
After the museum, the next stop is the Longevity Village. On some days Huang Ma Shen is swamped by up to 200 visitors and seems decidedly unexcited about today’s arrivals. They all want to know her secret to a long life, well lived.
A photo with Ms Huang now comes at a price. Neighbour Huang Xu Ping is now also a fixture on the Longevity Tours, but seems to relish the attention that comes with his remarkable age. Bama will soon be firmly on the tourist map and Meng Ling welcomes the mass influx.
MENG LING (Translation): There is no negative impact. The better this place is developed, the more tourists will be attracted. That will improve our income and economy.
But all this development might threaten the peaceful and stress-free life that has contributed to their longevity. The tourists might inadvertently be draining the fountain of youth they’ve so eagerly come to see.
Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen