JUST THE TONIC
Hong Kong’s traditional doctors and herbalists have cures for almost everything, reports Stanley Stewart
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.’’
Weigh up the difference: Natural ingredients are made into a healing tea at a Hong Kong herbalist shop