JUST THE TONIC

Hong Kong’s tra­di­tional doc­tors and herbal­ists have cures for al­most ev­ery­thing, re­ports Stan­ley Ste­wart

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - China Holidays -

IN Hong Kong, good health sud­denly seems so dull. The tra­di­tional medicine shops that throng the side streets are ir­re­sistible palaces of the weird and the won­der­ful, full of ex­otic cures and fab­u­lous in­gre­di­ents. I long for a witch’s brew of rare tu­bers and an­i­mal spare parts, for so­porific sea­weed and re­lax­ing dried bugs. I ring a doc­tor and make an ap­point­ment.

The surgery is in an al­ley off Wing Lok Street in She­ung Wan on Hong Kong Is­land, where the shops spill on to the foot­paths, sell­ing fam­ily shrines, shark’s fins and woks as big as shields. Out­side the door, I pause to prac­tise look­ing ill. I have yet to de­cide on my com­plaint, so I opt for an all-pur­pose slouch and a slight wheeze. The guide gig­gles and we climb 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 about in­di­ges­tion, flat­u­lence and ex­ces­sive spu­tum.

At ev­ery cor­ner are phar­ma­cies crammed with quixotic con­coc­tions. There are lo­tions with in­ex­haustible prop­er­ties. Ap­ply for two or three days to the in­fected area, de­clares one box, for the re­lief of colds, flu, di­ar­rhoea, in­flam­ma­tion, sea­sick­ness, gout, hang­over and dis­com­fort caused by for­est smog and epi­demics’’. There are croc­o­dile bile pills for the re­lief of asthma and gas­troin­testi­nal pills (Trum­pet Brand) for the re­lief of wind. One of my favourites is San Le Jiang, an an­tifa­tigue tablet that, be­tween pre­vent­ing can­cer and se­nil­ity, also keeps the user reg­u­lar and quick-wit­ted’’. Sex is a con­tin­ual anx­i­ety. Great Lover Spray and Ran­dom Sex­ual Lo­tion vie for space with Strong Pe­nis Pills, with in­gre­di­ents in­clud­ing ex­tracts of snake, seal and deer’s willy. Not to be taken, the in­struc­tions warned, if you are fever­ish or preg­nant.

But th­ese are 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 hold the se­crets of Chi­nese medicine, from dried hor­nets to chrysan­the­mum flow­ers. An­cient clerks shuf­fle back and forth be­hind the coun­ters weigh­ing out mys­te­ri­ous sub­stances. With di­ets of gin­seng, they seem to have joined the im­mor­tals.

Hong Kong may be the epit­ome of the mod­ern me­trop­o­lis, an Asian Man­hat­tan, but be­neath its West­ern­ised ex­te­rior beats a tra­di­tional Chi­nese heart. It is a town where peo­ple burn ban­knotes 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 ap­pease 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 widely ac­cepted as a re­spectable part of com­ple­men­tary medicine.

At the doc­tor’s of­fice I find the wait­ing room and the con­sult­ing room are one and the same. A row of glum pa­tients sits on di­vans of lac­quered wood like med­i­cal stu­dents on job ex­pe­ri­ence, while the doc­tor con­ducts his ex­am­i­na­tions a few me­tres away. Hang­ing in the win­dows be­yond his desk are bam­boo bird cages; through their bars, a crim­i­nal fra­ter­nity of myna birds eyes me sus­pi­ciously. Dur­ing the con­sul­ta­tions the my­nas gab­ble in Can­tonese. Life in a doc­tor’s surgery has robbed them of ev­ery shred of sym­pa­thy and they keep up a cho­rus of cruel mock­ery. The glum­mer the pa­tients, the more the birds laugh, shriek and shake their feath­ers.

I am des­per­ate for the big stuff, the re­ally weird stuff. I want frog scro­tum, dried sea­horse, seal’s pe­nis. As I sit on the bench with the guide, a young wo­man in a red miniskirt and trail­ing a faint aroma of Chanel, I re­alise there is only one way to guar­an­tee such pre­scrip­tions: a con­fes­sion of sex­ual in­ad­e­quacy. Chi­nese medicine re­serves its best for the bed­cham­ber. In front of the young wo­man, the other pa­tients and the ghastly mock­ing birds, I must claim I am im­po­tent.

When the doc­tor calls me for­ward, the guide comes too, as if we are a newly mar­ried cou­ple. He is a slight, be­spec­ta­cled man who has a way of cock­ing his head like the my­nas. He gath­ers my hands in his long fin­gers, lays them across a lit­tle red cush­ion and feels my pulses. There are three in each wrist, gov­ern­ing dif­fer­ent as­pects of the body: lungs, di­ges­tion, kid­neys and so on. He taps and probes them with long in­ves­tiga­tive fin­gers. He is not sim­ply feel­ing their rate, he ex­plains, but their strength, rhythms and pat­tern.

Slip­pery pulses,’’ he sighs sadly. Then he pops the ques­tion: Any prob­lems?’’ The other pa­tients lean im­per­cep­ti­bly for­ward. The my­nas pause in their stream of in­vec­tive. The guide crosses her legs, a whis­per of ny­lon. My nerve fails me. Malaise,’’ I say. I’m sorry?’’ puz­zles the doc­tor. Malaise. You know, gen­eral . . . malaise. I feel run down.’’

He nods know­ingly. I can feel it in the pulses. Your di­ges­tive tract is in dif­fi­culty. Also your lower back hurts.’’

He takes up a brush and in long grace­ful char­ac­ters paints my pre­scrip­tion on a sheet of rice pa­per. In the street, the guide trans­lates: cut­tle­fish bones. It isn’t ex­actly toad se­cre­tion but I feel I have done rea­son­ably well in the ex­ot­ica stakes. We hurry off to the medicine shop. By the time we get there, my di­ges­tive tract is suf­fer­ing from the pow­ers of sug­ges­tion. I have ac­quired the stom­ach ache.

One of the old­est and the grand­est of Chi­nese medicine shops is Eu Yan Sang, which has been trad­ing in Queens Road Cen­tral on Hong Kong Is­land since 1926. Be­hind the coun­ters an­cient gen­tle­men are bent over stone mor­tars, grind­ing and pack­ag­ing the skin of ci­cadas. Jars line the shelves as they do in a lolly shop but in­stead of liquorice twists and Smar­ties, one gets, say, pi­geon ovaries.

The most ex­pen­sive in­gre­di­ents are laid out rev­er­ently on lit­tle cush­ions be­neath the glass coun­ters. A ver­i­ta­ble herd of stag’s penises, eu­phemisti­cally known as deer’s tail, fill a satin-lined dis­play case. I gaze long­ingly at them: this is what im­po­tence would have got me. Then I no­tice the price tag, $HK450 ($64) a tael, a Chi­nese mea­sure­ment, less than 43g, nor­mally used for gold.

The high­est prices, how­ever, are not for gen­i­talia but for gin­seng. The rarest, a wild species from the moun­tains of Manchuria, lie like di­a­monds in vel­vet boxes. You could take home a piece the size of a cig­a­rette for $HK20,000.

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

Sup­pli­ers for the Chi­nese medicine trade range from gin­seng farm­ers in the US to deer ranch­ers in Ger­many and New Zealand. In main­land China, 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 is care­fully weigh­ing my cut­tle­fish bones on a fin­ger scale. Hav­ing be­gun the day in fine fet­tle I can’t wait to get back to my ho­tel and start tak­ing the bones. My doc­tor seems more like a sooth­sayer. I won­der when my lower back will be­gin play­ing up. As the clerk hands me my bones, he leans across the counter. About your back,’ he con­fides. Snake bile. Mix it with a lit­tle co­gnac. Works won­ders.’’

www.dis­cov­er­hongkong.com

Weigh up the dif­fer­ence: Nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents are made into a heal­ing tea at a Hong Kong herbal­ist shop

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