The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Monday, August 06, 2007

Teresa Hsu, Singaporean Supercentenarian

Yesterday, my wife Syahidah, my son Ainan, 7, and I, went to meet the oldest living Singaporean.

It was a curious meeting. Teresa Hsu has a stated age of 110 years old. Officially, there are only 78 such people in the world. 71 of them are women and 7 of them are men. I do not know whether she is one of those officially listed. She herself says she came from an era before documentation, so we are reliant on her, for verification.

She is an alert, witty and apparently amiable person. Throughout the talk she laughed frequently and I found myself laughing, too, at her unexpected jokes. That she could have retained such a strong sense of humour so long was refreshing to witness. Ainan was very interested in seeing her - for he is not unaware of the rarity of one of such an age. However, he kept fairly quiet throughout and just listened to the adults speak.

She was of modest height, her skin was relatively unwrinkled, being less so than many aged people I have met - and she had a full head of silver hair, which she showed no signs of losing. She did not seem so old as one might expect, looking perhaps no more than 80, or so. I have seen younger people, who looked older.

Her memory for her early life was very clear, being able to tell stories of her childhood and early working days, with clarity and ease. What, however, was also clear, was that her memory for recent events was not so fresh: she had seen a friend of mine the previous day, but evidently struggled to remember the details of the meeting, somewhat. That, however, was not surprising, given her age. In general, she was very together, and responsive and able to discourse at length and interest about her life.

She was born in China to a poor family. At 16, her mother tried to arrange a marriage for her - but, so opposed to this was Teresa Hsu, that she ran away from home, to live in Hong Kong. There she made a living cleaning floors while, in the evening, she studied secretarial skills, becoming a stenographer in due course.

In time, she made her way to Singapore where she acquired a primary school level education at a Convent school at the age of 27. Later on, in her forties, she moved to the United Kingdom, where she trained and practised as a nurse. In her sixties, her sister gave her a large sum of money, which she used to found a home for the Aged (next to which she lives to this day) - and purchase some flats for the elderly to live in.

She has since worked to help the elderly poor have a better life, raising funds for them - and assisting them with food donations.

What secrets of longevity does she have? Well, I would say that key to her continued health this past century, is her ever present laughter. She laughed many times throughout our meeting, finding humour in most things. Then again, she confessed a love of ice-cream - which points to taking pleasure in the senses. Indeed, when asked whether she had ever had children, she remarked: "No. You see if I had had four children, I would have had to share my ice-cream five ways.", she then laughed.

We talked for two hours in a room surrounded by books of all kinds. There are over 2,000 books on those burdened shelves. Her recent reading has included Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie - as well as Dan Brown's entire oeuvre including the Da Vinci Code. She particularly enjoyed that - and was unable to put it down until she had finished it.

She has no truck with the modern world. She cannot use a computer. She does not watch television. She uses no modern electronic devices, referring to them as "boxes".

When I asked her about what life was like before the airplane, she said: "Simpler", but then was interrupted by her constant companion, Sharana Rao, before she could expand. He had the loudest bass voice I have encountered in my life and would repeat everything we said, so that she could understand, being as she is, rather hard of hearing. (The lower frequencies would tend to dull last - the higher frequencies being lost first, so this makes sense.)

She has practiced Yoga, for much of her life (about the last forty years or so) and, indeed, Sharana is a Yoga teacher and osteopath, himself. He looked rather biblical with a long flowing white beard - and spoke with great intensity. In all they made an interesting pair.

Ainan enthusiastically relayed news of his meeting to his brothers: "110..." he began, as he entered the house, explaining his visit to them. To a 7 year old, I suppose, such a number seems vast indeed. To me, though her life is long, it is not eternal. Even 110 seems too short a life, to me!

One day, perhaps, 110 will become a common age but at this time, the ratio of non-supercentenarians, to official supercentenarians, is 77 million to one. Those are long odds for anyone aspiring to live for 110 years or more.

It was a strange meeting. For Ainan is a rare scientific child prodigy - and she is a rare centenarian. Both are exceptional in different ways. Ainan is the youngest of his kind - and she is the oldest. There is a kind of poetry in that.

I hope Ainan remembers the day he met the oldest living Singaporean - and that it gives him a better perspective on life and its possibilities.

I think it was a rich lesson for him, to meet someone reputedly born in the 19th century. The time for when such meetings are possible is rapidly passing. By the time Ainan is adult, there will be no more representatives of that era, remaining. Yet, when Ainan is an adult, he will be able to recall the day he met such a one - and listened to her jokes.

It was a worthwhile visit - and we are thankful to Teresa Hsu and Sharana Rao, for affording us - and Ainan the privilege.

Long may she live.

(If you are interested in learning more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged 7 years and eight months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and one month, or Tiarnan, eighteen months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:01 PM 


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