Writer and Traveller

Traditional Medicine, Hong Kong

Jar of dried, gutted sea cucumbers at a Tradit...

Jar of dried, gutted sea cucumbers at a Traditional Chinese medicine emporium in Yokohama, Japan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Hong Kong good health suddenly seemed so dull. The traditional medicine shops that thronged the side streets were irresistible palaces of the weird and the wonderful, full of exotic cures and fabulous ingredients. I longed for a witch’s brew of rare tubers and animal spare parts, for soporific seaweed, relaxing dried bugs and revitalizing compounds of deer’s antlers. I rang a doctor and made an appointment straight away.

The surgery was in an alley off Wing Lok Street where the shops spilled onto the pavements selling family shrines, sharks’ fins and woks as big as shields. Outside the door, I paused to practise looking ill. I had yet to decide on my complaint so I went for an all-purpose slouch and a slight wheeze. The guide giggled, and we climbed the stairs, happily undercover in the world of traditional Chinese medicine.

To the casual observer Hong Kong seems to be populated with hypochondriacs. For all its modern surface, its citizens still harbour traditional anxieties: indigestion, flatulence and excessive sputum. At every corner were pharmacies crammed with quixotic concoctions.

There were lotions with inexhaustible properties. Apply for two or three days to the infected area, declared one box, for the relief of colds, flu, diarrhea, inflammation, seasickness, gout, hangover, and ‘discomfort caused by forest smog and epidemics’. There were crocodile bile pills for the relief of asthma and gastrointestinal pills — called Trumpet Brand — for the relief of wind. One of my favourites was San Le Jiang, an anti-fatigue tablet which, between preventing cancer and senility, also kept the user ‘regular and quick-witted’.

Sex was a continual anxiety. ‘Great Lover Spray’ and ‘Random Sexual Lotion’ vied for space with ‘Strong Penis Pills’ whose ingredients included extracts of snake, seal and deer’s willy. Not to be taken, the instructions warned, if you are feverish or pregnant.

But these were only the chemists, a bowdlerised version of the traditional medicine shops with their crates of deer’s marrow and bins of bird’s nests. Behind their counters tiers of unmarked drawers held the secrets of Chinese medicine from dried hornets to chrysanthemum flowers. Ancient clerks shuffled back and forth behind the counters weighing out mysterious substances. They were models of their own practise, quick-witted octogenarians neither senile nor irregular. With diets of ginseng they seemed to have joined the Immortals.

Hong Kong may be the epitome of the modern metropolis, an Asian Manhattan, but beneath its westernised exterior there beats a traditional Chinese heart. It is a town where people burn bank notes drawn on the Bank of Hell to appease the ‘hungry ghosts’ of the dead, where octagonal mirrors are placed on outside walls to ward off bad luck and where elderly jaywalkers enliven the rush-hour by standing so close to the passing cars that they crush the evil spirits at their heels.

At the colony’s most spectacular skyscraper, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, plans had to be hastily revised when consultant geomancers, practitioners of the ancient principles of feng-shui, revealed that the angle of the escalators would bring misfortune. Most visitors marvel at the efficiency of the underground Mass Transit System but few realise that it is speeded on its way by Taoist priests whose invocations successfully appeased the jealous earth spirits.

But nowhere are traditional Chinese concerns more evident than in medical practice. Over lunch in revolving restaurants urban sophisticates show each other their tongues and discuss their inner meridians. Account executives stuck in traffic jams ring their doctors from their car phones to order another course of weasel liver. To westerners it may appear like exotic quackery, but it is well to remember that acupuncture, aromatherapy and homeopathy  all former ‘quack’ treatments  are now widely accepted as a respectable part of complementary medicine. Bear’s gall may yet replace the obligatory course of antibiotics.

At the doctor’s office I found the waiting room and the consulting room were one and the same. A row of glum patients sat on divans of lacquered wood like medical students on job experience while the doctor conducted his examinations a few feet away. Hanging in the windows beyond his desk were bamboo bird cages through whose bars a criminal fraternity of myna birds eyed me suspiciously. During the consultations the mynas gabbled in Cantonese. Life in a doctor’s surgery had robbed them of every shred of sympathy, and they kept up a chorus of cruel mockery. The more glum the patients, the more the birds laughed, shrieked, and shook their feathers.

The patients had mysterious complaints. The first woman declared that she was too wet and the doctor prescribed rose petals. The next was too hot and got buffalo horn. A third was a stooped old lady in silk pyjamas. She seemed promising territory. Nearly deaf, she shouted her complaint across the desk: HAEMORRHOIDS. The doctor gave her honeysuckle flowers. I was unclear what she was meant to do with them.

I was desperate for the big stuff, the really weird stuff. I didn’t want honeysuckle flowers. I wanted frog scrotum, dried sea-horse, seal’s penis. As I sat on the bench with the guide, a young woman in a red miniskirt and a faint aroma of Chanel, I realised there was only one way to guarantee such prescriptions: a confession of sexual inadequacy. Chinese medicine reserves its best for the bed chamber. In front of the young woman, the other patients and the ghastly mocking birds, I would have to claim that I was impotent.

When the doctor called me forward, the guide came too, as if we were a newly married couple. He was a slight bespectacled man who had a way of cocking his head like the myna birds. He gathered my hands in his long fingers, laid them across a little red cushion and felt my pulses.

There were three in each wrist, governing different aspects of the body: lungs, digestion, kidneys and so on. He tapped and probed them with long investigative fingers. He was not simply feeling their rate, he explained, but also their strength, their rhythms, and their pattern. He made my pulses sound like symphonies, some revelation of the soul.

‘Slippery pulses,’ he sighed, ‘not good.’ Then he popped the question. ‘Any problems?,’

The other patients leaned imperceptibly forward. The myna birds paused in their stream of invective. The guide crossed her legs, a whisper of nylon. My nerve failed me.

‘Malaise,’ I said.

‘I’m sorry,’ said the doctor.

‘Malaise. You know, general… malaise. I feel run down.’

He nodded knowingly. ‘I can feel it.’ he said. ‘It is all in the pulses. Your digestive tract is in difficulty. Also your lower back hurts.’

He took up a brush and in long graceful characters painted my prescription on a sheet of rice paper.

Outside in the street the guide translated: cuttlefish bones. It wasn’t exactly toad secretion but I felt I had done reasonably well in the exotica stakes. We hurried off to the medicine shop. By the time we got there, my digestive tract was suffering from the powers of suggestion. I had acquired the stomach ache.

One of the oldest and the grandest of Chinese medicine shops is Eu Yan Sang which has been trading in Queen’s Road Central since 1926. Behind the counters ancient gentlemen were bent over stone mortars grinding and packaging the skin of cicadas. One old man was chopping deer’s antlers with an antiquated guillotine. He was a lovely old man and when the guide complimented him on his complexion he looked up and said, ‘Bird spittle’. Above him jars lined the shelves like a candy store. Instead of liquorice twists and Smarties, one got dried turtles and pigeon ovaries.

The most expensive ingredients were laid out reverently on little cushions beneath the glass counters. A veritable herd of stags’ penises, euphemistically known as deer’s tail, filled a satin-lined display case. I gazed longingly at them: this is what impotence would have got me. Then I noticed the price tag, $450 a tael, a Chinese measurement, less than an ounce and a half, normally used for gold.

The highest prices however were not for genitalia but for ginseng. The very rarest, a wild species from the mountains of Manchuria, lay like diamonds in velvet boxes. You could take home a piece the size of a cigarette for $20,000.

In wall cases the whole cornucopia of the Chinese herbalist was on display. There were terrapin shells for renal dysfunction and lung nourishment, ground gecko for asthma, burganus snake for rheumatism, seal’s testicles to replenish vital essences, monkey’s gall stones for ulcers, bear’s gall bladder for trauma, bird’s nests for facial nutrition, dried hornets to cure children of fear of the dark, pearl powder for poor eyesight, centipedes for convulsions and excessive wind, and sea horses for low cholesterol levels. When the ingredients were boiled into a ‘medicinal tea’ patients usually advised to throw in pork or chicken bones to make the thing palatable.

Suppliers for the Chinese medicine trade range from ginseng farmers in America to deer ranchers in Germany and New Zealand. In China itself however the conditions of animals, notably bears, reared for medical purposes are appalling. Wild stocks too are vulnerable. In Mongolia the demands of Chinese medicine are responsible for the poaching of dwindling numbers of deer and bear.

An old man was carefully weighing my cuttlefish bones on a finger scale. Having begun the day in fine fettle I now couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel and start taking the bones. My doctor seemed more like a soothsayer. I wondered when my lower back would begin playing up.

As he handed me my bones the clerk leaned across the counter. ‘About your back,’ he said. ‘Snake bile. Mix it with a little cognac. Works wonders.’

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