Most retirees spend their golden years tending to their garden, watching their favourite TV serials or keeping track of doctors’ appointments.
But not 81-year-old Hildah Lee Hung Fong, who will go down in history as the oldest Malaysian to represent the country at the Asian Games.
Never in her wildest dreams did Lee imagine donning our national colours and marching with other athletes, but that’s what she did at the recent Asian Games in Jakarta. She was representing Malaysia in bridge.
“It was a historic moment for me, especially flying the Jalur Gemilang with other athletes during the opening ceremony. It’s not every day I have a chance to represent Malaysia in an international competition. It was such an exciting moment and I am honoured, especially at 81,” says Lee.
Contract bridge made its Asian Games debut in Jakarta last month. It is the fourth mind sport to feature in the games after chess at Doha 2006, followed by Go and xiangqi at the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010.
The inclusion of bridge in the games was due to the persistent efforts of South East Asia Bridge Federation president Michael Bambang Hartono and Asia Pacific Bridge Federation president Esther Sophonpanich.
Michael, the 78-year-old Indonesian billionaire, also competed in the games and won a bronze medal for his country.
“The decision making process is the same in bridge and business. You gather information and data, make a conclusion, and plan a strategy,” says Michael in a news report, adding that he can spend up to eight to 10 hours playing a single game.
Lee is pleased bridge has been included in the Asian Games; 47 countries including Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates and Jordan participated in the Jakarta Games.
“Bridge is rewarding as it offers social stimulation, and enhances our skills in sequencing and visualisation. It is a wonderful game which allows players to interact with others and develop their cognitive skills.
“Now that bridge is in the Asian Games, I hope it will be included in the SEA Games too,” adds Lee, who learnt to play bridge from a British friend in the mid 1970s.
Greenhorns at the table
Over 200 players from across Asia participated in the bridge event. They came from various backgrounds and age groups, and included railway employees, teachers, art collectors and one of Indonesia’s richest tycoons.
Malaysia sent a 10-member team – the youngest participant was 22 years old while Lee was the oldest.
The team was selected from the Malaysian Contract Bridge Association (MCBA), and picked based on their risk taking ability, constructive and competitive bidding techniques and outside-the-box thinking.
The team was led by MCBA secretary David Law.
“After the Olympic Council of Malaysia submitted our names, we trained hard for six months. To polish our skills, we trained four times a week, three and a half hours per session.
“Coach Dick Shek worked hard to train us in speed, endurance and to develop a winning rhythm and style,” explains Lee, who has been MCBA’s treasurer for close to three decades.
This was Lee’s first international bridge competition and she was in high spirits. But during the competition, she realised the Malaysian team were greenhorns in the competitive arena.
For one, Malaysia was one of the smallest teams, compared to China (24 players), Thailand (21) and Indonesia (24). She also learnt the other teams were more experienced, having competed in numerous international competitions.
“The others were competitive and fuelled with the spirit of winning. We had to quickly pull up our socks and play to our best ability.
“There were six events including men’s pair, women’s pair and mixed pair. With only 10 in the team, our players had to compete in many games. As such, we were mentally exhausted,” she recalls.
Lee adds they had little to go on to gauge their rivals’ strengths and abilities before the Games.
“I expected our team to clinch at least a bronze medal at the Asian Games.We tried our best, despite coming in last.”
But, Lee isn’t dampened by their performace in Jakarta. She has picked up the pieces and is already gearing up for the next Asian Games in four years.
“We have started to train extra hard to ensure we’ll be ready for the next games. We are practising four times a week. We hope to groom more bridge players too.”
Playing the trump card
Contract bridge, or bridge, is a trick-taking card game that uses a 52-card deck. It is usually played by four players in two competing partnerships.
It is played in clubs, tournaments, online or at home. The game was developed out of whist, a classic English trick-taking card game. Whist is played with the trump suit chosen by chance, while in bridge it is chosen by a process called “bidding”.
Bridge was popular from the 1920 up to the 1970s.
Over the years, its popularity diminished, as more players opt for strategy-driven card games such as poker and gin rummy.
Playing bridge requires an alert and analytical mind, but these days many people tend to dismiss it as a sedentary game for the elderly.
Research by Stirling University, UK, has found that bridge provides its players mental stimulation and social engagement.
In a survey with 7,000 participants, researchers discovered playing bridge has a significant positive effect on their wellbeing.
It helps build competitiveness, facilitates socialising, is mentally stimulating and an enjoyable activity.
Some notable figures who continue to enjoy the game include Microsoft’s Bill Gates and investor Warren Beatty. Gates has been reported to declare that “bridge is the king of all card games”.
Lee says those who have experience playing other card games will find it easier to pick up bridge. Passion and interest in cards are keys to enjoying bridge, she explains.
“Prior to bridge, I played card games like gin rummy, poker and blackjack. I also love mahjong. All these games involve counting and critical thinking.
“Bridge requires similar set skills to further develop logical thinking and memory,” says the former student of St Mary’s School in KL.
Lee has now played bridge for more than 40 years, and is one of the gurus in Malaysia’s bridge community.
For close to three decades, the certified bridge club director has been conducting games at the Royal Lake Club (RLC) and Royal Selangor Golf Club (RSGC) in Kuala Lumpur.
“Members pay between RM10 and RM20 per month to participate in games. This is an affordable sport which can be played by anyone with an interest in card games, ranging from students, working adults to retirees.”
As chairman of the RLC’s bridge club, Lee organises charity bridge luncheons at the club too.
Next week, RLC is organising a Bridge Congress, with players from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
“I enjoy organising such events as it keeps me busy. Plus, it helps bring the bridge community closer together.
“I hope such gatherings will help promote bridge, especially among the younger generation. Currently, most bridge players in Malaysia are above 50 years old,” says Lee, a retired insurance claims manager.
It’s challenging to get youngsters interested in bridge or other card games.
“The youth are preoccupied with the Internet, Instagram and Facebook. It is good to indulge in mind thinking games (like bridge) as it allows students to improve their memory and grades.
“I hope schools will introduce bridge as part of its school syllabus,” says Lee, adding that a person usually can learn the basics of bridge in about nine or 10 lessons.
Keeping her mind sharp
Besides bridge sessions, Lee also keeps her mind sharp by playing Taiwanese mahjong twice a week.
“I’ve been playing the game with my friends for over two decades. It’s really fun as we chat while we play. We are also keeping our memory sharp,” says Lee, a voracious reader who enjoys poring over story books and biographies during her free time.
She enjoys solving wordsearch puzzles too.
Lee may be in her 80s but she is still as fit as a fiddle. The secret, she says, is to keep active and keep a healthy diet.
“I have been playing golf for 53 years. I go to the gym and walk regularly.
“I am careful with my diet. I stick to three meals each day.
“It is also important to keep the mind active and have positive thoughts always.”
And now Lee will also be channeling her focus and energy towards bringing home a medal in bridge in the next Asian Games in 2022.