Picture the scene: it’s the middle of winter and you’ve just dressed up in your coat, hat and gloves and gone for a morning stroll along Macao’s coastline. Sure, the city is hardly freezing during the winter but some warm clothes are nevertheless important as the sun is rising in the crisp sky. You marvel at the vistas and the birds as you walk by the water’s edge and then – what on Earth is that? It looks like a man in his swimming trunks paddling around in what must be an icy cold sea. Surely he has lost his mind?
No, that man has not lost his mind. It’s Mun Hong Cheong, one of Macao’s stalwart open-water winter swimmers, who swears by the health benefits of hitting the ocean’s waves when the city’s temperature is at its coldest. As we enter spring, these low temperatures are already a distant memory but Cheong and his brave friends will be in the sea again next winter and every winter after that. In fact, Cheong doesn’t even just go for a swim every winter – he’s been doing it almost every day for the past three decades. So it’s a good time to ask him why he does it.
Before sunrise every day is the preferred time for Cheong to embark on his morning swim. The 64-year-old wakes around 5.30am and canoes for more than an hour from Cheoc Van beach to Lotus Bridge, which connects Cotai with Hengqin Island, before returning to Cheoc Van to swim in the – at winter, at least – icy cold water. “After canoeing,” he says, “swimming is a way for me to relax. You never know the zing of winter swimming if you haven’t tried it.” During the winter, according to Cheong, the water temperatures around Macao range from one to eight degrees Celsius. “Once you have finished swimming and cleaned off,” he says, “you feel enveloped in freshness. You also experience a better appetite, deeper sleep, better mental strength and will be less likely to catch a cold.”
Like Cheong, many people have fallen in love with winter swimming in Macao over the years. Not only do they cite many health benefits but they also appreciate the social, relaxing atmosphere at clubs like the Macao Winter Swimming Club – officially known as Clube de Nadadores de Inverno de Macau. As one of the city’s 19 dedicated swimming clubs, the group welcomes roughly 50 swimmers who regularly enjoy the open-water exercise all winter long. “You can still go winter swimming in Cheoc Van without joining our club,” says Cheong, “but our members really appreciate the community atmosphere. We have members from all walks of life, from various industries, such as finance, construction and navigation. What we share in common is that we want to stay healthy and meet friends who also love winter swimming.”
Wave of interest
Brave Macao residents may have always swam in the SAR’s surrounding seas during the winter but it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that the pastime began to first gain popularity. Intrepid icy water enthusiasts from across town would regularly head for the coast during this period – particularly at NAPE, where a series of changing sheds had been installed next to the shore. These served as places to shower and relax after a chilly dip so many locals would convene in the area throughout the day. By 1975, the most hardy of these swimmers had started to get to know each so they took the natural next step: They formed a club.
The Macao Winter Swimming Club was not officially registered as an organisation in 1975. In fact, that didn’t happen for another decade. But between the mid-1970s and the official club establishment in 1985, the roots of the organisation were formed by like-minded individuals who simply loved taking a dip in the waves during the winter. And it was only two years after the club was formally established when the city held its first New Year Winter Swimming Competition, pulling in at least 100 participants to brave the icy waters of the Outer Harbour. It was a success and shone a spotlight on these swimmers – even inspiring other similar clubs to pop up, like the Macao Workers Swimming Shed organisation which set up five divisional sheds along the coastline. One of these was open to the public, while the other four were assigned to different water-based organisations.
In the late 1980s, the Macao Winter Swimming Club grew in size. It merged with another organisation, the Tung Hoi Winter Swimming Club, and became even bigger, showing quite how this pastime that to some people would seem so odd had become so popular. The group was then ready to set up a private clubhouse on Cheoc Van Beach in 1990. “When the two clubs merged,” recalls Cheong, a long-time swimming coach who is now the Macao Winter Swimming Club’s executive, “our founding president, Ping Ming Wong, bought a [building] in Cheoc Van with its ground floor for the club to use.” Cheong reckons there were about 20 members of the club in 1990. That may not seem big by today’s standards – he notes that there are about 50 members now – but it is still impressive for such a niche activity.
“What we share in common at Macao Winter Swimming Club is that we want to stay healthy and meet friends who also love winter swimming.”
Mun Hong Cheong
Open-water swimming in cold temperatures is not for everyone, says Cheong, who is no stranger to the activity. He worked as a frogman – a scuba diver and underwater swimmer trained for tactical operations – for the Macao Customs Service department from 1984 to 1994, and also led the custom department’s diving team for a few years. He says that even experienced swimmers who have trained as part of a team and hit the water every day might find the pastime disorientating at first because they’re used to exercising in pools. “You have a sense of direction in a pool,” he says, “however, since Macao’s seawater is quite turbid, it’s hard to adjust. Once you’re used to open-water swimming, though, you’ll love it.”
Cheong may prefer the early morning swim like many retired individuals and office workers but he claims that many strong athletes prefer swimming in the dark. It’s less about the time of day and more about the time of year. According to Cheong, a deep-rooted community spirit ‘holds everyone together’ at the Macao Winter Swimming Club, even though its members tend to hit the waves in small groups or solo on their own schedules. The club also participates in events and competitions in mainland China and Hong Kong, he says. “We have been invited to various places,” he notes, “such as Wenzhou and Shaoxing [in Zhejiang province] and Xishuangbanna [in Yunnan province] for competitions. We also join the Hong Kong New Year Winter Swimming Lifesaving Championships every year.”
Those championships were sadly cancelled this year but normally the approximately 800-metre race starts on Middle Bay Beach and finishes at Repulse Bay Jetty. “It’s a great gathering,” claims Cheong, “where we travel to Hong Kong in the early morning, swim first thing, then kick about town and enjoy dinner together.”
The club’s vice president, Kei Kin Chao, is one of its most dedicated swimmers. The 72-year-old is strong and experienced due to the fact he has swam nearly every day for the past 40 years. “When I was in my 30s,” he recalls, “I remember visiting the swimming sheds – they were made of bamboo at first, then solid wood, followed by cement – and competing with friends in our own winter swimming competitions. Now old friends, [some of us] still meet regularly, diving into the water and relaxing together. It is delightful to swim with friends. They are the reason I still maintain this habit.”
Of course, many things have changed, too. Over the past few years, Chao says he’s seen improvements when it comes to water clarity and cleanliness – a positive development for athletes and residents alike. “There used to be quite a lot of rubbish in the sea and on the beach, floating from Hengqin, especially during the summer,” he says. “It happened quite frequently. Over these years, the Municipal Affairs Bureau has done a great job to clear the rubbish. Now Cheoc Van is cleaner.”
Wellspring of choice
This all brings us up to the present day when age, perhaps, is now a factor for the Macao Winter Swimming Club. Cheong says that members now range in age from 35 right up to an impressive 90 years old. This puts the membership on the more mature side and Cheong puts this fact partly down to the ‘wellspring of exercise options’ in Macao. Outdoors, there’s hiking, running, team sports, sailing, paddleboarding, cycling, canoeing and much more besides across the city’s open areas and waters. Then there’s even more indoors, such as gyms, dance and exercise classes. There are even video games and virtual reality devices these days that have an element of exercise to them.
“Unlike the old days,” says Cheong, “when we did not have many choices, the youth of today can do so many things. We do see many young people swimming but open-water winter swimming is usually not their first choice.” He says that it isn’t just the case of rocking up at a beach and jumping into the sea, either. He reckons the pastime really tests your stamina and endurance – and it can be dangerous, depending on the weather conditions, so you have to ‘know what you are doing’. “When it gets very cold,” he says, “with a whipping wind, it is hard to bring yourself to dive into the water. You must have great stamina. But once you get in, your body temperature adjusts to that of the sea.”
Such tough challenges haven’t stopped another Cheong. Felix Keng Fong Cheong – Mun Hong Cheong’s son – is the youngest member of the club and he too regularly dives in. Guided by his father, he has been swimming in the sea since he was a child. The 35-year-old has also been part of the Macao swimming team for the past decade, competing at national races such as the open-water swimming championships at Qiandao Lake, southwest of Hangzhou in mainland China. He’s also competed in the Hong Kong New Year Winter Swimming Lifesaving Championships and Hong Kong’s New World Harbour Race. Around five years ago, he joined the club because he loved the warmth of the community. “Whenever I go to the club,” he says, “I always see the same people. It feels so different from swimming at a public pool where you swim and leave. Sometimes, the club arranges gatherings and events, such as group dinners or a ceremony for Chinese New Year. The community spirit is strong.”
Like many members of the club, Felix Cheong prefers to swim in the mornings before he goes to work. He describes the activity as a ‘natural’ and ‘invigorating’ way to start the morning, adding that it makes him feel more alert and efficient at work. “Every day,” he says, “the sea feels different – the temperature, surroundings and weather. Sometimes it is too foggy to swim safely. But the hardest part is the moment when you dive into cold water – it really tests your stamina. It’s always a new experience and a challenge.”
Floating his boat
Not everyone has to be a member of the Macao Winter Swimming Club to, well, swim in Macao’s waters during the winter. Take Manuel Geraldes, who doesn’t have a formal membership but nevertheless regularly joins the members for chilly outings. The 70-year-old, who sits on the Macau Military Club’s board of directors, fell in love with open-water swimming about two years ago following a lifetime of simply swimming in pools. However, a year before he found his new passion, he suffered from nose inflammation and his doctor recommended that he avoided swimming pools. So he took his first plunge at Cheoc Van Beach – and he was hooked instantly. Ever since, he’s visited the beach every morning for a swim.
“The sea gives me a sensation of freedom. When I swim, I can open my mind and think about my work, day and life deeply.”
“I have been in Macao for 33 years now,” says Geraldes. “It took me 31 years to discover the joy of open-water swimming. Now, I go swimming at 6am every day.” Geraldes says that his water-based morning routine takes about an hour. “I park my car and walk to the beach, carrying just my shoes and shorts,” he says. “The sea gives me a sensation of freedom. I have many ideas on my mind – about my work, my day and my life. When I swim, I can open my mind and think about them deeply.”
It’s not just the tranquil calm of the ocean in the morning that has hooked Geraldes. He says he also enjoys the social side of open-water swimming. “It’s all about the friendships,” he says. “The club members are very friendly and the atmosphere is inclusive.” He says the club comprises people from all walks of life – some arrive by motorbike, others in luxury cars or vans. Yet a mutual love for swimming in the sea connects them all. “It’s a pity that I can’t speak Cantonese and some members don’t speak Portuguese but we can still communicate,” he says. “They always give me advice on swimming in the sea.”
“When you swim,” continues Geraldes, “you don’t put any pressure on your body parts, unlike in jogging. I feel a sense of harmony. I sleep deeper.” After two years of regular open-water swimming, he says he feels stronger and more in tune with his body. “Morning swims make me feel a little bit tired [at first],” he says, “especially at my age, but I feel more energised [in the long run].” For Geraldes, Chao and the Cheongs, this is as much a lifestyle as it is a sport or pastime. Maybe next time you spot someone swimming in Macao’s open waters during the winter, you won’t think they’ve lost their mind. Instead, perhaps, understand that they’re just going over things in their mind as they take their healthy and bracing swim at a time when you’d rather be sipping a coffee and reading a newspaper indoors.