With hundreds of shelves and myriad treatments, the baizi medicine cabinet has been the source of health and wellness for centuries.
Top-drawer design: a peek inside the traditional Chinese medicine baizi cabinet
Han dynasty physician Han Tuo once nursed a carpenter back to health, so the legend goes. The grateful patient built his healer a sturdy medicine cabinet with 400 drawers and Han loaded it with herbal treatments. He called the chest his baizi cabinet, or 100 sons cabinet, because healthy patients would be blessed with 100 children and grandchildren after a successful course of treatment. Walk into one of Hong Kong’s traditional Chinese medicine pharmacies today and you’ll notice the wall of wooden cabinets behind the counter. You’ll see – perhaps with a feeling of awe and a sense of ease – the long, steady arm of the experienced pharmacist selecting handfuls of herbs from the pull-out drawers to his left and right, from the top to bottom. He weighs the herbs loosely, using intuition, and wraps them into a paper bundle tied with string, like a present, at the counter.
The Chinese apothecary cabinet, the baizi gui, is a ubiquitous, iconic feature of the traditional pharmacy. Wider than a standard cabinet, it holds hundreds of small drawers, each with three to four compartments, labelled with the names of herbs and medicines.
Hong Kong is fortunate to have historic examples of the baizi gui. The Cheng Ji Tang Chinese medicine shop opened in 1885, squeezed into an impossibly narrow space on Queen’s Road Central. When it closed in 1980, the owner preserved the store’s irreplaceable furniture, which is now located at the Hong Kong Museum of History. There, visitors can see the original teak counter and, behind it, a striking stretch of hundreds of drawers that once housed herbal treatments.
The Good Spring Company Chinese Herbal Pharmacy has been open for just over a century. Since 1916, it has moved just once, across the street on Cochrane Road when the Central-mid-levels Escalator was being built. Good Spring also happens to be where the team at Crave buys our herbal teas every afternoon.
Third-generation owner and manager Martin Lam says his cabinet is an original. “There is a reason traditional Chinese medicine shops are always a long, rectangular room: to fit the baizi cabinet. Otherwise, it’s impossible to have.
“The oldest, most original baizi cabinets are made of only wood. It was so strong that the pharmacists would step on the open drawers and use them as ladders to climb up the wall,” he says. “We’ve kept the exterior of the cabinet, but we’ve outfitted the inside with stainless steel to withstand the humidity, otherwise mould would be a big problem.”
There is an order to the way the medicine is organised in the drawers. “The most common herbal medicine, such as liquorice root, which serves as a ‘mediator’ herb and flavour enhancer, will always be placed closest to the pharmacists,” he says. “Other herbs for the common flu, such as perilla leaf and schizonepeta, would be placed together in one drawer, never mixed but in their own compartments. And the least common and expensive herbs, such as cordyceps, to the far side or at the very top.”
The drawers are refilled every day to keep the herbs fresh, while the rest is stored elsewhere. “The best temperature for the herbs to be stored at is between 6 and 9 degrees. We only add a little bit at a time to make sure it doesn’t go bad,” he says.
A more modern pharmacy is unlikely to have baizi cabinet, Lam says, and is more likely to store their herbs in jars or plastic boxes, faded by the sun. “There are few remaining shops in Hong Kong with a baizi cabinet,” Lam says. “People prefer to keep them in boxes now, the cabinet takes up a lot of space, you know? Too much space.”