Western-trained medical doctors gained widespread public acceptance in Hong Kong only in relatively recent times. In the 19th century – and well into the 20th – emphasis on surgery put traditionally minded Chinese patients off going to a Western-trained practitioner, often until it was too late for them to be saved.
People would literally rather die than risk entering the next world limbless, eyeless or minus other essential body parts, largely out of fear that they would spend the rest of eternity crippled, blind or worse if they submitted to an operation.
A steely logic ran through this thinking: the traditional Chinese view was that posthumous existence would be exactly the same as earthly life, and the physically disabled would be discriminated against and ridiculed for their misfortunes. Such attitudes, closely related to Buddhist notions of karma and retribution for previous misdeeds, have only recently given way to more relaxed thinking.
Fees were also a major consideration. Doctors and herbalists cost money, and as most Chinese people lived only a few rice bowls away from starvation, medical practitioners were consulted only when absolutely necessary. Herbalists, being scantly regulated, were far cheaper to consult than trained medical practitioners, and thus tended to get more business.
They also produced their own proprietary remedies, which eventually became separate, profitable businesses. In Hong Kong’s freewheeling economy, regulation for patent medicines was, at best, loose until recent years and – according to industry insiders – remains less than ideal.
Herbal teas were routine remedies for minor ailments, and their popularity has never abated. Various herbs, flowers, insects and animal parts are brewed up, strained and deployed as necessary. These range from mild tonics and general restoratives to specific brews that “cool” the body when the internal balance has been upset by an excess of “heating” foods (or the converse).
Others aim to clear the skin of pimples and boils – usually also seen as symptoms of an “overheated” system. Eye-wateringly bitter cold and flu teas encourage sweating, which helps break minor fevers. Essentially pleasant brewed drinks, like the popular “sour plum soup”, help quench thirsts on hot summer days, and are held to do more good than harm.
Along with herbal brews, rubbing oils, salves and other patent remedies were important stopgaps for those who (largely for economic reasons) needed to self-medicate against aches and pains.
Most contain the same basic ingredients: camphor, menthol, lemongrass and cloves, usually suspended in an alcohol, wax or petroleum jelly base. Southeast Asian varieties were considered the most effective, and well-known manufacturers’ retail outlets feature prominently on Chinese tour group itineraries to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Some are unique to a specific location – such as nutmeg-based products from Penang. Others are more generic, but certain cities have brands with an enduring international following.
Hong Kong’s generally low public hygiene standards, and the widespread habit of eating a portion of one’s daily fare outside the home, ensured that remedies for minor gastrointestinal complaints were commonplace. These have been made in Hong Kong since the 19th century.
To cite one popular example, Po Chai (“protect and benefit”) pills, manufactured by Li Chung Shing Tong, have been made locally since 1896. They are used mainly as a remedy for heartburn, indigestion and general tummy rot, and few local homes are without a packet in the bathroom cupboard.
Herbal remedy packaging now appeals to a new generation.
In recent years, as the nostalgia industry has shrewdly capitalised on Hong Kong people’s backward gaze towards an imagined “better” past, pill and potion packets have become highly collectable.