Chinese medicine clinics are everywhere in Hong Kong and, for more than a decade since the 1997 handover, Chinese medicine education has been part of the undergraduate curriculum.
Many Hong Kong's practitioners were trained on the mainland, and some have only apprenticeship training. But local universities have emerged as a source of talent for the traditional field, producing about 70 graduates a year.
Unlike the much-envied graduates of mainstream medical schools, these graduates end up working in clinics, and are denied a chance for key practice due to the lack of a teaching hospital.
Of the three universities offering Chinese medicine studies - Chinese University, the University of Hong Kong and Baptist University - the latter has made the strongest call for a Chinese medicine teaching hospital. It hopes to use a site adjacent to its School of Chinese Medicine, on the southern part of the former Lee Wai Lee campus .
Alumni and some members of the public support the idea, but the is inclined to build private flats on the site instead. It has applied to the Town Planning Board (TPB) to change the zoning to "residential" rather than "government, institution and community".
The site is now used by Baptist University and Polytechnic University as classrooms and offices on a temporary lease, but they will have to move out by the end of the month if the government decides not to renew the lease. A decision is expected next year, following a public hearing on its future use. A public consultation exercise conducted by the statutory body earlier this year received 25,884 representations, of which an overwhelming majority (99 per cent) opposed the rezoning.
Professor Bian Zhaoxiang, the director of the clinical division of Baptist University's School of Chinese Medicine, says a teaching hospital is needed to give Chinese medicine students a complete education, without having to spend their last year doing practicum in Guangzhou.
Students at the other two universities also spend the last year of their six-year training on the mainland. From first year onwards, they carry out observations at clinics across the territory.
"We can monitor patients' progress on a daily basis if there is a hospital. As in Western medicine training, a hospital is the best setting for students to receive clinical lessons," says Bian, noting the rising appeal of Chinese medicine studies to young people.
Students on practicum on the mainland have reported difficulties in understanding patients speaking local dialects.
To cope with an increased student population under the new four-year undergraduate curriculum, HKBU has undergone expansion like other institutions.
But its Kowloon-Tong-based campus remains the smallest compared to the others. There is limited space for student activities, says Bian, who is also the university's associate vice-president.
Marcus Gadau, a German PhD Chinese medicine student at Baptist University, has always been fascinated by the combined power of Chinese and Western medicine. One of his goals is to set up his own Chinese medicine hospital specialising in pain acupuncture.
He is involved in clinical trials with medical centres in Rome, Sydney and Chongqing to uncover evidence about how temperature change corresponds to the different patterns of tennis elbow.
Gadau arrived in Hong Kong after obtaining a bachelor's degree in integrated medicine at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine last year. He says he was shocked to find there was no Chinese teaching hospital here.
"Every medium-sized provincial city on the mainland has at least one such hospital. How come there is not a single one in Hong Kong?
"Even Germany has four traditional Chinese medicine hospitals, and Chinese medicine only has a short history there," he says. Gadau echoes Bian's view that a teaching hospital is crucial for research and further development of the discipline in Hong Kong. "It could offer inpatient care, large-scale research on Chinese herbal treatment, and refinement of administration modalities to successfully integrate Western and Chinese health care."
"Coming to this city would be a very attractive prospect for [foreign students], because the lack of academic standards and certain amenities put them off from studying the discipline on the mainland," he comments.
Bian hopes the teaching hospital can be developed in phases, with an initial 80 beds, rising to 200. In the long run, the hospital will benefit the local community, he adds, providing holistic care for patients suffering from illnesses such as cancer, pain syndrome, stroke or immune system disease.
"Stroke patients undergoing physiotherapy can benefit from acupuncture treatment. Staying at hospital means they won't have to travel back and forth several times a week," Bian says.
Alfred Leung Wing-nang, the director of Chinese University's School of Chinese Medicine, says the government should take the lead in building a teaching hospital for all three universities.
"The places where our students do their practicum are not managed by us, and we cannot control the quality of teachers guiding our students. Should local dental students do their clinical practice on the mainland?" Leung says.