Hongkongers are no strangers to either traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) or spas. Now the two are being brought together under one roof.
TCM is based on balancing yin and yang, increasing the flow of chi, and restoring vitality to the patient. A number of methods are used, such as Chinese herbal medicine, qigong, tui na massage, acupuncture, acupressure, scraping (gua sha), cupping and bone-setting.
There are more than 6,500 registered TCM practitioners in the city, says the Chinese Medicine Council of Hong Kong. TCM spas offer another way to tap into these methods.
Chuan Spa at Langham Place dedicates itself to TCM. The idea when it launched in 2005 was to provide a different kind of TCM experience. "When the brand was developed, they were looking at a holistic spa experience, with a five-star environment to experience it in," says Victoria Childs, spa director.
The Mandarin Oriental also uses a TCM doctor for guests to consult, and the therapies have been "meticulously researched in consultation with experienced Chinese doctors, chemists and holistic practitioners" says Yumi Kwan, treatments manager.
But outside of hotels, a number of independent spas in Hong Kong are widening their repertoire by incorporating TCM-themed treatments and bringing in TCM doctors.
"If you read magazines like Cosmopolitan you find lots of ads with TCM-oriented treatments offered in spas, not always in big ones but in the smaller operations," says Kelly Chain, a registered TCM consultant who runs Chain's Medicare Centre. "Before it was quite rare but it is a trend now. Even one-man operators will team up with a TCM consultant."
New TCM practitioners are flooding into the market each year and targeting spas, she says.
"We are producing 200 graduates a year and we also have graduates from China. They are young, educated and open-minded," says Chain.
For smaller outfits, hiring TCM doctors has been too costly, so bringing in outside help makes sense, says spa consultant Rhett Pickering, who runs Vast River Consulting.
"The therapists have to be skilled in everything the spa does, but you get watered-down kinds of treatments, so the way around this is to get a specialist TCM consultant."
Spa consultant and CEO of Conceptasia Management & Consultants, Suzanne Ng, notes that the increase in interest in spa-based TCM treatments has been driven mostly by tourists.
"Travellers coming into hotel spas are very interested in trying something from the region," she says. "Hong Kong locals would already have a strong interest in TCM anyway, so they probably wouldn't be going to the spa."
In the case of the Four Seasons Hong Kong Spa, for example, treatments such as jade stone therapy (based on gua sha) are designed to give international visitors a "taste of the orient" when they are in Hong Kong, says Claire Blackshaw, director of PR at Four Seasons Hong Kong.
"We want to reflect the environment so people can have an experience of the country they are going to. But our therapists are Western trained. We wouldn't claim to know how best to do this," Blackshaw says.
The inspiration behind the Four Seasons Beijing's decision, this January, to bring in a qualified TCM doctor, came from a foreigner - the hotel's Sri Lankan general manager, Sanjiv Hulugalle, says Jennifer Sun, director of public relations.
"When our GM arrived in China, he had back trouble and he had seen a lot of Western doctors who didn't do anything other than give him painkillers," says Sun. "So he saw Dr Lan Jirui twice a week [for some massages] and after a few months his pain was gone and no medication was given. So he became fascinated with TCM."
Lan speaks fluent English so is accessible to foreign guests. But he is proving as much a pull for locals as he is for visitors, notes Sun. "Dr Lan is very well known in the TCM field, so people come to Beijing to see him," she says.
Curiosity about ancient wellness disciplines is increasing worldwide, says Childs.
"I think it is more well known now. Our property in Boston launched a workshop on TCM. It started out as a half-day event and ended up as a sold-out three-day event," she says.
Clients now come to the spa seeking a TCM doctor before consulting a Western medical doctor, she adds.
Chain sees a match between the principles of TCM and those of spas. "TCM practices have a lot in common with spa treatments such as massage. Normally, what you do in a spa, like get a facial or anti-ageing treatment, has a lot to do with TCM," she says.
Spas look set to morph into overall wellness clinics, with TCM being a natural component in each of them, says spa trainer Victor Rinaldi.
"The next generation will be wellness centres, where more specialised treatments and services will be provided," he says. "They will certainly look to include a TCM specialist, in the same way they would hire a naturopath, for example."