Old Herb Shop

Traditional Chinese medical hall
In old Johor Baru, there once was a Chinese herb shop named Thye Hoe Tong Medical Hall located at the corner of Jalan Wong Ah Fook and Jalan Siu Nam.  It is no exists but I still remember going there with my mum or grandma and being enveloped by a distinct cloud of herby smells.  Even though traditional herb shops have Chinese origins, they have been serving the medicinal needs people of all races in Malaysia for generations. 

My grandma, a firm believer in herbal tonics, knew that “Prevention is better than cure,” and used to slow-boil herbal soups for us regularly to build up our resistance against any health attacks.  I am no expert in the benefits of Chinese herbs but I know that they have long-term positive effects on health if the right herbs are consumed regularly.  Grandma has handed down a few tried and trusted herbal recipes that my mum and aunts are still using to fortify general health and I’m also convinced that the absence of any serious illnesses in my 100-year old grandma may be attributed to her conscious consumption of herbs throughout her long and eventful life!

Facade of Kedai Ubat Tet Onn Tong in Kampar, Perak
Most Asians are brought up with traditional ideas on the Yin-Yang balance and “cool” and “heaty” conditions of the human body but for the uninitiated, these concepts are far too challenging to grasp or explain.  One of the simplest equations is after eating too much “heaty” foods, the body will need some herbs to “cool” down and regain its harmony and balance or risk falling ill.  Instead of just drinking plenty of water, an herbal tonic concoction will do wonders for the general well-being of a heated body!

One of the most unforgettable images I have of traditional herb shops are the shocking sight of dried creatures stored in the glass showcase of the counter.  Unfortunately my kiddy-height bought these objects almost directly to eye level and I would shudder and avert my eyes from the remains of ugly geckcos, seahorses and snakes!  These shops usually stock a range of liquor and I cannot forget the bottles of wines not just with roots soaking in them but some with snakes that purportedly are of great medicinal value!

Squares of pink paper are still used to wrap Chinese herbs
Even though old herb shops are fast disappearing, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is here to stay as established TCM brands are modernized with re-branding and marketing campaigns to match a new generation of consumers.  While there are still many herb shops in modern malls and suburban townships here, I was fascinated by a traditional herb shop in Kampar, Perak, that is doing business just like they used to generations ago.  I thought its sagging signboard and ancient floor-to-ceiling shelves and drawers seem to reinforce its credibility as a trusted destination for health remedies!

Stocks of trusted brands of
medical remedies in the old shop
I paused to watch as two young ladies assembled an herbal recipe by referring to a menu and heaped little piles of herbal ingredients onto pink squares of paper that are traditionally used to wrap dried herbs for customers.  One of the ladies weighed some herbs with a little brass hand-held weighing scale before adding the ingredients to the piles laid out on the counter.  My guess was that the carefully measured portions of herbs on each of the four squares of paper are prescribed to be taken four times for the best results.

In olden days, the herbalist was usually an elderly man dressed neatly in a white cotton collar-less Pagoda singlet teamed with tailored trousers, skilled in giving advice and prescriptions for ailments.  It is interesting to see a younger generation of herbalists taking over now and serving customers, very much in the same way, recommending remedies to help alleviate ailments.  These herbalists also often double-up as sinseh or traditional Chinese physicians to give health consultations and prescriptions to patients.

A brass bowl with stainless steel pestle
is a typical instrument used to grind
herbs in traditional medicine shops
I distinctly remember a sinseh, reputed for being so accurate with his diagnosis that he used to receive a steady stream of patients at the back of his provision shop located along Jalan Ngee Heng, adjacent to our grandfather’s old house at No.154.  He would rest the patient’s wrist on a tiny pillow to check his pulse, examine his tongue and advice against taboo food or drinks during his treatment.  His usual method was to diagnose and write an herbal prescription for the patient to buy from an herb shop to boil and drink the brew according to his instructions. 

With a tradition of drinking slow-boiled soups at home, I enjoy delicious and fortifying herbal soups brewed in meat stock but drinking herbal tonics, however, is a totally different experience. 

I remember how mum would have a sweet or sour-plum ready for me to pop into my mouth right after I pinched my nose and quickly swallowed the evil-smelling, bitter potion!  I know now that what mum said is true but at that time, I could not be convinced that such a horrid tasting herbal potion could do me any good!

A photo from the archives circa 1950s of Jalan Wong Ah Fook with the corner shop to the left
of adjacent road, probably Jalan Siu Nam, that could be Thye Hoe Tong Medical Hall
[I can't be sure because photo is not clear and I can't read the Chinese words!]

Now even non-Chinese are aware that the habit of maintaining general health with alternative methods like TCM could keep the causes of common ailments at bay.  In fact, alternative medicine is getting popular as a new generation of TCM practitioners is hygienically producing their prescriptions in convenient capsules, powder and brew sachets.  As more people discover the holistic nature of TCM, herb shops are earning a permanent place in our modern lifestyle.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 18 September 2012

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