How a south Edmonton mall became a tai chi hub for seniors

Before the stores open at Southgate Centre, the hallways of the mall aren't for shoppers, instead five tai chi classes use it as recreation space, primarily for local seniors.

Weekday classes start before stores open

Yuen Lam, a volunteer who has been practising tai chi in Southgate mall for nearly ten years, practices with students on a Wednesday morning. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Shoppers at a south Edmonton mall may not realize the hallways between the stores have a secret — they've quietly turned into an improvised community centre on weekday mornings.

Between 8:30 and 10 a.m., Monday to Friday, around 100  people gather in Southgate Centre before the stores open.

Five separate tai chi classes, a dance class and mall walking groups have set up in the hallways. Many of the participants are seniors, who credit the classes with keeping them happy and healthy.

"I feel like it's getting out into the land of the living," Winnifred MacLeod said jokingly.

MacLeod said she joined one of the tai chi classes in the mall six years ago, after she discovered it while mall walking in Southgate.

Seniors pursue health and community at Edmonton's Southgate Centre. 1:40

"Walking you only do so much exercise, with tai chi you exercise every part of your body and all your muscles and it just keeps you in better shape," she said.

Winnifred MacLeod, 91, joined a tai chi class in Southgate Centre after she saw them while walking through the mall for exercise. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Many of the students attend the tai chi class five days a week and take the bus to the mall even in –30 C temperatures. Some students have been attending for more than 10 years.

Volunteer Yuen Lam said the main class started in 2003, when a tai chi instructor who owned a cookie and muffin store in Southgate Centre negotiated to offer a free class there. When that instructor closed his store to retire, local tai chi master Ken Chui took over the class.

Chui said he has studied tai chi for close to 10,000 hours and he now practices tai chi for about 90 minutes each day. He said he teaches classes throughout the city an average of six hours each day.

Tai chi master Ken Chui has been teaching a free class in Southgate mall for ten years. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

He said he still loves it. "It's elegant," he said.

"If you reach your arm out and then you raise your arm with all the muscles working it makes your movements smooth and light."

More than exercise

The class is taught in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

Since Chui joined 10 years ago, several splinter classes have started up in the same hallway.  

All classes are free.

ICAN, the Immigration Community Alberta Network Association, started a class specifically for immigrant seniors. The classes have become an important resource for newcomers, said Pauline Li, a board member with ICAN.

"We teach people from the very beginning," Li said in Mandarin through a translator.

"And our senior programs not only teach tai chi, but also English and other skills to help them overcome the multiple barriers they face."

ICAN organizes a tai chi group for immigrant seniors, one of five classes happening in Southgate every weekday morning between 8:30 and 10 a.m. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Students in his class have come to rely on the tai chi class as a resource for more than exercise, said Chui. 

"They come here because they take this as a family," he said.

"We care about each other, and we also help each other."  

Students who don't speak English have come to him or his wife to help translate when they've needed to make medical appointments, said Chui.

Micheline Smayra, the manager at clothing store Northern Reflections, which is located near the hallway where most of the classes gather, said she's never seen anything like it before.

"I was surprised because none of the other malls do it," she said.

Many of the women from the classes come to shop in her store after they pack up, and leave the class with no trace that they were exercising there minutes earlier, said Smayra.

"Maybe one day I'll join them."