Old-time remedies enjoy new favour

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2001, 12:00am

Chinese medicinal herbs have the reputation of healing naturally and progressively, compared with Western medications which emphasise speedy results.

In recent times, Chinese herbal medicine has also gained the cachet of curing potentially fatal illness without surgery, although this should not be taken as proven.

There is no hard scientific evidence to support anecdotal claims for the superiority of one or the other medical tradition, but it is true that Chinese herbal cures enjoy popularity not only among the older generation, but are also gaining favour among the young.

This should not be seen as a recommendation, however, and any medical complaint must be taken seriously; proper, professional advice should be sought for health-related problems.

One example of an old-time preparation that many people in Hong Kong swear by is a mixture known as herbal jelly.

Made of about two dozen Chinese herbs as well as tortoise shell which has been rendered down, this product is also known as 'tortoise jelly'. The gel is said to reduce fever, control phlegm, overcome indigestion and beautify the skin.

Many herbal teashops claim to be the only makers of quality, 'authentic' herbal jelly, but the shop many regard as the first in Hong Kong to sell the traditional product is Kung Wo Tong.

Kung Wo Tong was originally located in Shanghai Street near the present Yau Ma Tei Public Library where it opened for business in 1904.

The shop relocated to Temple Street in the 1950s and then to its present location in Yau Ma Tei in the 1980s.

It all began with company founder Yim Pat. Yim Pat's father, Yim Yee-man, was a court physician in the Qing Dynasty under the rule of Emperor Tong Zhi (Qing Mu Zong).

He developed a salve designed to control fever which was said to be successful in curing an ailment that had plagued Emperor Tong Zhi.

This kind of success was bound to be good for business - much like the 'by appointment to Her Majesty' and 'purveyors to the Crown' endorsements you see on products that have found royal favour in the United Kingdom.

After Yim Yee-man retired, he returned to his home in Guangzhou. His formula was developed further as herbal jelly, and achieved fame among local farmers who were easily infected by skin disorders.

The reputation of herbal jelly spread, and by the early 20th Century Yim Pat opened the first herbal jelly shop - Kung Wo Tong - in Hong Kong with a product based upon his father's formula.

The main shop in Yau Ma Tei retains its traditional decoration, easily recognised from the outside by a green tile roof, red brick wall and a big tortoise sign.

Another easy indication of the herbalist's trade is the tripod and gourd customarily displayed at shops. The tripod and gourd have been used since antiquity as cooking and storage utensils, and their use to warm herbal jelly and tea gave rise to their use as symbols for the herbalist.

Most of these shops are distinctive for their displays of a huge variety of herbs and the distinctive smell that pervades the air long before you arrive at the actual place of business.

You can literally 'follow your nose' to locate one of these shops.

One distinctive feature of Kung Wo Tong's shop are the period portraits of Yim Yee-man and his wife dressed in their traditional Qing garments. Kung Wo Tong manager Chu Shek-ming said the gourd, tripod and portraits were 'the symbols of Kung Wo Tong' and were found in all of their branches.

In the old days, Kung Wo Tong sold herbal jelly, a rhinoceros skin product and herb teas, but in the 1970s under a law designed to protect endangered animals and plants, the rhinoceros products were forbidden for sale in Hong Kong.

But this prohibition did not affect the herbal jelly business, and the brand continues to attract devotees who swear by the product's effectiveness, as well as tourists who want to buy something from an authentic Chinese herbalist.

Mr Chu said Kung Wo Tong's herbal jelly was different in colour, taste, smell and texture from other brands.

'Herbal jelly should be red-brown and nearly transparent, not bitter, and with a herbal smell and jelly texture,' he said

According to a Chinese proverb, it's more difficult to maintain a business than to start one, and the herbal jelly business was no exception.

In the past, Chinese herbs were not as well recognised as Western medications in Hong Kong, and the trade was faced with outright scepticism from a younger generation.

Over the past 20 years, however, numerous shops have opened to trade in traditional medications, and herbal jelly has become a commercially viable proposition.

Despite keen competition, Kung Wo Tong has maintained its original formula for herbal jelly, but has added new products such as cold pear tea and red mulberry tea, which are popular among youngsters.

The modernisation has extended to decorations for the Causeway Bay and new Tsim Sha Tsui branches, which are designed to appeal to a younger market as well as to attract tourists.

Peony was a Young Post summer intern from Hong Kong Shue Yan College .