With hun­dreds of shelves and myr­iad treat­ments, the baizi medicine cab­i­net has been the source of health and well­ness for cen­turies.

Crave - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Words Tif­fany Chan Pho­tos Sa­man­tha Sin

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.”

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