“Your yin is weak,” Dr Zhang says, peering over his silver-rimmed glasses. “You feel unhappy, find it difficult to say what’s inside.” The herbalist has taken my pulse, looked at my tongue and is busy writing neat Chinese characters on his notepad. There is no computer, no fancy office furniture, just a beanbag, for pulse readings, on the table at which Zhang sits. In the corner, a mouldy orange and incense ashes lay at the feet of a Laughing Buddha statue; hopefully this symbol of happiness means I have found the person able to improve my mood. As a travel writer based in Western Australia, I scratched six overseas trips (three to Asia) from my diary when Covid-19 forced the closure of international borders. Instead, I’m looking for a cultural fix in Northbridge, central Perth. With its Chinese acupuncturists and massage centres and Asian restaurants and supermarkets, it is an ideal place to come for someone wanting to experience Asia without being able to fly. To find a Chinese herbalist, I wandered from Northbridge’s main hub – a collection of eclectic cafes, vintage stores and international restaurants – into Chung Wah Lane. Chinese immigrants went to Australia looking for gold and found communities It was as though I had stepped through a portal into China itself; narrow alleyways housing Chinese restaurants barely big enough to seat 20 diners, dimly lit food stores, and nail salons from which escaped strong chemical odours. Nailed to the wall of Zhang’s Hoaping Clinic was a large green board promising treatment for more than 20 common ailments. Inside, row upon row of red lacquered drawers, each one marked with a Chinese character, lined the waiting room walls; patients bantered quietly in Chinese while ointments were prepared for them with a mortar and pestle. “Everybody must have yin and yang in balance,” Zhang finally looks up. “When yin low, you have dry mouth at night, sore legs and sore back.” As a member of the Australian Acupuncture Chinese Medicine Association, 79-year-old Zhang knows his business. More than 35 years ago, he was approached by an Australian businessman to trial Chinese medicine in Northbridge for a week. He was practising both Western and Chinese medicine in Beijing, but his stint in Northbridge was so successful, he says, he migrated to run the clinic he now owns. He reaches into his drawer and pulls out a bag of tiny black pellets. “Take 20 pills, two times a day, come back to see me in 10 days, OK.” He says the two main ingredients are shu di , the steamed root of an herbaceous plant, and shan yao – an East Asian mountain yam. Both are believed to nourish the body’s yin force. The doctor’s calm demeanour alone has already given me a lift, and I leave clutching my cure to the lockdown blues to go in search of some nourishment for the stomach. The Asians I pass on the street have their faces covered in a higher proportion than non-Asians, but not all are wearing masks. Being June, and winter in Perth, the air is crisp under a clear blue sky, the sun hinting at a change of seasons and warmer weather to come. The sunlight catches the golden tassels of lanterns twisting in the breeze from a row of Asian restaurants, a pungent fusion of ginger and garlic wafting from noisy laneway kitchens. I plump for a Vietnamese restaurant and a spicy chicken curry. The background chatter is a mix of Chinese dialects and Aussie drawl. Waitresses carrying plates of steaming dishes sidle past tables spaced to conform to social distancing rules. In the 1890s, the social elite of Perth, including the attorney general, lived in Northbridge. Private schools for the children of the gentry and wealthy businessmen were established in the suburb. After the first world war, the upper class spread out to waterfront properties and European migrants moved. During the 1980s, Northbridge was again refashioned, as Chinese Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian immigrants settled there. The alleyways are awash with street art vibrant enough to warrant wall space in the Art Gallery of Western Australia, in Northbridge’s Cultural Centre. Flashing neon signs hanging on cheap chains advertise A$2 (US$1.40) peep shows at a row of adult stores on James Street. Scantily clad mannequins and soft porn posters “dress” the windows. At one end of the X-rated strip is a heavily curtained massage centre offering “sensual” service. Wanting a “no extras massage”, I head in a different direction. “You didn’t sleep well last night.” It is a statement, not a question, as Ann Lin’s oiled fingertips push down hard on tight muscles across my shoulders. It feels like acupuncture without the needles as the Malaysian masseuse pinpoints acupressure points. “Tight, your shoulders too tight,” she says as she kneads the knots, rolling them out like dough. The sound of soft flutes and Tibetan sound bowls soothes as she eases the tension away, until a hot towel signifies my time at the Chinese Massage Centre is up – all too soon. The smells of dried herbs and fresh spices perfume the air as I pass supermarkets selling everything from ginseng roots to dried lily flowers; phallic-looking sea creatures hang in seafood shop windows; I pass a sign that offers to “Consult Horoscopes, Feng Shui and Taoism”. I try my first bubble tea at the aptly named Teamorrow. The “Dirty Brown Sugar” option, with a healthy heart sign on the menu, seems one of the better choices. Sweet, marble-sized jellied bubbles pop into my mouth through a wide straw, making me wonder about that heart symbol. The warm tea is delicious, providing an instant explanation for the long queues that are often to be found outside bubble tea shops. Beyond the Cultural Centre, railways tracks bend away from Northbridge. A tinge of pink lights up Perth’s skyscrapers. There’s time left for one more taste of Asia, so I head back to William Street and order a chilli basil chicken at the tiny S&T Thai Restaurant.