City Weekend

After Chinese cough syrup takes New York by storm, what will be next ancient remedy to find favour in West?

From ginseng to ginger, cordyceps to congee, traditional Chinese medicine is full of healing mediums waiting to be explored by a new generation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 March, 2018, 6:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 March, 2018, 6:04pm

A Chinese cough syrup has taken New York by storm after The Wall Street Journal published an article on its healing powers last week.

Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, often just “Pei Pa Koa” for short, is not new or secret to Hongkongers. The cough remedy can be found in most households, lining kitchen shelves or medicine cabinets, patiently awaiting its call of duty – a sore throat.

In traditional Chinese medicine, colds are associated with a breakdown of the lung’s dissemination of protective qi (energy flow) over the body, brought on by a disturbance in the balance between the body’s yin and yang. Symptoms of illness are a result of the war waged between external pathogens and the body’s natural resistance with the protective qi.

Made from a blend of herbal ingredients, including the loquat leaf, chuanbei and honey, Pei Pa Koa is a sticky brown syrup often poured onto and eaten off of a soup spoon. The medicine works quickly at soothing the throat and easing itchiness and pain.

The remedy, produced by the Hong Kong-based Nin Jiom Medicine Manufactory since 1946, is rumoured to have been created by a provincial official in the Qing dynasty to cure his mother’s persistent cough.

Typically sold at less than HK$40 for a 300ml bottle, Pei Pa Koa is going for as much as US$70 (HK$548) in New York this flu season. The city’s new-found obsession has caused the Hong Kong-listed Chinese pharmaceutical company Kingworld Medicines Group to see its shares surge by over 55 per cent, according to The Wall Street Journal report.

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According to the article, Alex Schweder, architect and professor at Pratt Institute, tried Pei Pa Koa for the first time after being sick for a week and a half. He claimed it worked its magic in 15 minutes – prompting Schweder to recommend the syrup to his friends.

Among those who have publicised the fad is Netflix’s Stranger Things star Matthew Modine.

Will New York’s current infatuation bring other traditional Chinese cold remedies into the limelight? This week, City Weekend explores other potentially fad-worthy mediums of Chinese medicinal healing.


Known as the “king of herbs”, ginseng has long been exalted by Chinese healers as a magical medicinal plant. The simultaneously bitter and sweet herb is neutral in nature – making it good for the spleen, heart and lungs. It is restorative, reinforcing the body’s energy and tranquillising negative forces. Ginseng has a diverse array of consumption methods: it can be stewed, chewed, ground to a powder, sliced into boiling water to form a tea and even soaked into liquor to make ginseng wine.

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Ginger tea

A simple blend of boiling water and ginger slices is a commonly used remedy. Ginger is a very yang, or warming, herb that works wonders on the lungs, stomach and spleen. Drinking ginger as tea reduces fever by increasing sweating to break the body’s overheating. Ginger is recommended for nausea, cold and flu prevention and treatment, as well as menstrual cramping, and is purported to facilitate digestion and balance the forces at play within the human body.

Chicken soup

The Chinese have been treating colds with chicken soup for centuries because of the warming properties of this yang food. The chicken is stewed in a broth and combined with other ingredients such as spinach (for cooling and digestive health) and cordyceps (a Tibetan plant for increasing stamina). Herbal chicken soups are recommended to strengthen the body’s protective qi and blood, and serve as a strong digestive tonic for the system – perfect for cold and flu prevention in the cold months of the year.

Chicken soup recipes: Samgyetang Korean ginseng soup, and chicken vegetable soup


While at the same time a traditional Chinese breakfast food, congee, or “jook”, is often consumed when one is sick as well. Congee is made simply by combining rice and water with other flavouring depending on taste and the type of illness. The soup-consistency rice is easy to digest, making it the perfect food for an upset or nauseous stomach. Rumour has it that eating a steaming bowl of congee after taking in other herbal concoctions reinforces their medicinal functions by warming the body and expelling the negative pathogenic energies.

Pak Fah Yeow

While not exactly a food, no list of Chinese healing remedies is complete without this pungent and instantly recognisable oil. Pak Fah Yeow (White Flower Oil) is one of the most popular Chinese healing ointments. It soothes by simultaneously heating and cooling the skin it touches. The distinct smell of the oil, made from a combination of lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint, and wintergreen essential oils, is one of the omnipresent scents associated with Hongkongers. Inhaling the sharp smell can clear congested noses and chests from a cold or flu. Muscle, joint and head pains can be assuaged by massaging the oil into the area most in need of relief.

Traditional Chinese Medicine: the rise of ginseng

Only time will tell if these other Chinese healing remedies will also get swept up by fads of infatuation. Perhaps all it will take is another internet post about the magical properties of ginseng to skyrocket a means of healing that East Asians have religiously followed for centuries. Or perhaps more concrete proof is required. Regardless, these remedies will patiently remain in the hearts and on the kitchen shelves of Hongkongers, ready and waiting to jump into action to heal our bodies.