Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.
— W. Somerset Maugham
A fixation on immortality has doubtless plagued humankind since the first cadaver met with a good sniff. Pondering immortality, the Greeks gave us the tale of Sibylla, a mortal granted eternal life without eternal youth, with a sardonic nod, while the Christians gave us Jesus, with a wink. Not a lot has changed in the meantime: Folks offer death as an illustration of human futility or as justification for faith and hope, and still, they attempt to outthink or postpone the predictable, trying everything from diet (blood, urine, Grape-Nuts) to science (the Human Genome Project, cryogenics) to supernatural pacts (fill in the blank).
Thirty-year-old San Francisco resident Alex Yuan Chun Chiu offers an even simpler solution: Immortality Rings, which can be purchased from him for $25. Guaranteed, or your money back.
Chiu began research on his Eternal Life Devices in 1990. Based on the Chinese study of Chi Kung, his patented rings and foot braces hold small magnets at pressure points, with the goal of balancing the negative and positive forces in cells, perpetually reconditioning the body to withstand, and even reverse, the ravages of time. After some prolonged self-administration and some serious setbacks (according to Chiu, reversed polarity causes exhaustion and irritability), Chiu began to sell his magnetic athanasy from his Web site, www.alexchiu.com.
Over the last few years, Chiu and his site have developed a bit of a cult following. Numerous vigilant Chiu tribute sites have popped up on the Internet to relate and monitor the inventor's ever-expanding thoughts on teleportation, Darwinism, the handicapped, Armageddon, and space colonization. Chiu fans alert each other by e-mail when the entrepreneur adds a new link or diagram to his site, and they collect his interviews and clip out his magazine ads. When an infomercial for the Eternal Life Rings ran on local television with little success, fans scrambled for taped copies. Chiu himself has appeared on TechTV, The Roseanne Show, Comedy Central's Daily Show, and numerous radio programs, and his popularity has grown, as much for the idiosyncratic way he presents his claims as for the outlandish claims themselves.
On Chiu's Web site, he states that teleportation is both necessary and inevitable, but while the “Eternal Life Device is already patented and is proven by many people to be working,” unfortunately “Teleportation is not.” Chiu entreats scientists to begin working on this project because “Once China reaches 1.6 billion, China will blow up! That means it will invade Russia, India, Germany, France, and lands among rest of Europe. If we don't hurry up and invent this stuff, you people will face the consequences! I'm Chinese myself, and I truely [sic] know Chinese in China are now preparing for war!” At the bottom of the page is a simple diagram of Chiu's teleportation machine that reminds me of a fourth-grade drawing of how peanut butter is made.
Alex Chiu greets me at the door of the immaculate, nondescript Outer Mission home he currently shares with the family of his initial investor, Richard Chui. A row of shoes sits on the outer landing. Inside, a series of small cardboard boxes sits on the floor along a sun-washed wall. Chiu sits on a black couch facing the window, looking fresh-faced and only slightly mistrustful. (“Some people make fun, but I don't care. If people don't want to live forever, that is their loss,” said Chiu in an earlier phone conversation.) His business partner, Chui, goes down to the garage to fill orders. (Since my interview, Chiu has incorporated his business; all orders currently go through an office in New York City.)
“I don't believe in spiritual immortality,” says Chiu, “but I believe in biblical prophecy. It says everyone will become immortal. It has to be. The deaf, blind, and lame will be cured. In 2000. According to Bible code, immortality must be discovered by 2000. It has [been discovered]. It is accurate. It is like math, a formula that governs the universe.”
A leaflet accompanying a package of Chiu's Eternal Life Devices — two adjustable black plastic bands fixed with two small magnets — begins with a Bible quote, from Matthew 5:5: “Everlasting life will be on earth, for men and women whose bodies will be changed to be immortal.”
Chiu tells me about his aunt who stopped losing her hair after using his rings; and his grandfather who ceased being cold; and his grandmother who stopped coughing and aging.
“For diabetes or other diseases, I suggest the foot braces,” says Chiu. “They are stronger.”
Chiu brings out a prototype held together with duct tape. (The devices are currently manufactured in Korea.) I examine photocopied diagrams of three magnetic machines for curing the “blind, deaf, and dum [sic].” They are accompanied by the admonishment, “But is it Alex Chiu's job to build these? Of course not. I only help invent a method to cure handicaps and deformation. The rest depends on mechanical engineers.” On the other side of the page is a comic strip, drawn by Chiu, illustrating how the elderly will become obsolete in the future.
“In the future, everybody is young,” says Chiu earnestly. “Everyone will be smart and look young and attractive. Everyone will be thin and healthy. There will be no envy or greed. If you live for 1,000 years, money is boring. People who are short can be fixed by technology.”
What about overpopulation?
“Younger people don't want kids as much,” points out Chiu. “But people will have to live in space. You can build rotating globes that produce centrifugal force and orbit the Earth with crops and places to live. … There will have to be teleportation,” Chiu reminds me again, “but teleportation is not simple, like immortality.”
Chiu gives me a small plastic bag with two rings inside.
“Wear them for eight hours when you are sleeping,” he says. “Make sure to follow the directions.”
That night I try wearing the rings, but sleep is impossible. I toss and turn furiously, my heart racing, my body sweating. The next night, I check the polarity and try again. Same thing. The photographer who accompanied me on my visit to Chiu complains of a similar phenomenon. Richard Chui corroborates our experience, explaining that he can only wear the rings once a week, when there is no work to do the following day.
“You get used to it,” says Alex Chiu. “Or then you die.