China Odyssey

Hong Kong

Street View in Sheung Wan

The history of the medicine trade in Sheung Wan district is documented in the Queen Street Rest Garden:

The Development of Chinese Medicine Trade in Sheung Wan

The development of Chinese medicine trade in Sheung Wan can be traced back to more than a hundred years ago. At that time H Kong was an entrepot for trade between Mainland China and Southeast Asia, and many goods were shipped from northern and southern China to the city for re-export. For ease of loading and unloading cargoes and re-exporting goods near the port, merchants chose to set up their shops along Bonham Strand West. These shops, which were collectively known as"Nam Pak Hong" (literally meaning "traders selling goods from northern and southern China"), mainly traded products of ginseng, velvet antlers, Chinese medicine, bird's nests dried seafood, grain and oil, rice, sugar, beans, gum, corn starch and the like, and as the years go by, Bonham Strand West has become known as'Nam Pak Hong Street".

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common for Chinese people to consult Chinese medicine practitioners when they were not feeling well This explained why many shops selling Chinese medicines in those days had resident practitioners, so that customers could obtain medicinal products conveniently with the prescription given by a practitioner under the same roof. Some benevolent shop owners also showed generosity towards the poor by offering free consultation service to those who could not afford the fee. The patients only needed to pay for the medicines.

In the early days, shops that sold Chinese herbal medicines were renowned for their honesty and integrity. The shops were easily recognisable by their traditional eye-catching black signboards on which the name of the shops were written in big, golden Chinese characters. Inside the shops, different types of medicinal products were stored in cabinets known as baizigui. There were also a big cutting knife for slicing medicinal herbal products and a balance for weighing the medicines. Whenever a customer came with a prescription form issued by a Chinese medicine practitioner, the experienced counter staff would double as dispensers. They would also give away candied fruit such as preserved plums and haw flakes when told the formula was prescribed for a child, who usually could not stand the bitterness of herbal decoction.

While these shops mainly sold Chinese herbal medicines and crude slices for medical use, many of them also supplied ginseng, velvet antlers, pearls, cow bezoar, bear galls, deer musk and other valuable products of plants and animals (which are collectively known as shenrong) for making tonic cuisine. Most of these products were usually kept inside transparent glass jars so that customers could easily tell their condition. Since these Chinese medicine shops successfully served as a centralised place for selling genuine medicinal products at reasonable prices, they had become an icon representing Sheung Wan, attracting both local customers and visitors from different parts of the world. Nowadays, the hundred-year-old Chinese medicine shops in Bonham Strand West still enjoy the patronage of regular customers.

In the course of time, the area extending from Bonham Strand West to Wing Lok Street has become a wholesale and retail market for shenrong products while a cluster of Chinese medicine shops gradually took shape around Ko Shing Street in the past 30 to 40 years, making the area a well-known centre for the wholesale and retail of Chinese herbal medicines.

Thanks to the professional dedication of shop owners and staff in the traditional trades, the distinct character of Sheung Wan has been well preserved. We hope that the opening of the Chinese Herb Garden will promote better understanding of Chinese herbal medicine and greater interest in this field among members of the public. This will help raising the standards of products and services of the traditional medicine trade in Hong Kong, thereby establishing Hong Kong's reputation in Chinese medicine trade in Asia and even other parts of the world.

Tommy Li, BBS, JP

Founding Chairman,
Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Industry Association

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© Derrick Grose, 2014