Chinese medicine

Have you ever tried Chinese medicine? If you subscribe to the “the worse it tastes, the more good it does you” view of medicine, you’d expect miracles from some of the foul-smelling soups that get served up by Chinese doctors. Still, given that Hong Kong has the second longest life-expectancy in the world, it must be doing something right!

Even if you never visit a Chinese doctor, your stay in Hong Kong will still feel the influence of the Chinese medicine system. Your first encounter is likely to be when you notice the distinctive appearance of a medicine shop, or the smell from a herbal tea stall.

The medicine shops typically have a glass counter, with rows of little drawers on the wall behind to hold all the various plant and animal ingredients that go into Chinese medicine. If you pass by when a customer is in the shop, you’ll see the staff weighing out quantities of different ingredients onto a sheet of paper. These will be taken home and boiled for several hours until the water has reduced down to a concentrated infusion – if you live in a tower block in Hong Kong you’ve probably already had days when you can smell the neighbours’ medicine brewing.

The herbal tea shops have their big metal urns brewing popular recipes – kind of a fast-food variety of the medicines described above. Commonly served teas will include ‘yah-sei mei’ (24-flavour tea) and ‘gum mo cha’ (influenza tea). They are very bitter to my taste, but MrsB tells me it’s not uncommon to find people that like their taste.

The 24-flavour tea is a common choice if you feel you’ve got too much ‘yeet hay’. Now the literal translation is ‘hot air’, but rather than being a cure for our rambling prose, it refers to the Chinese medical ‘hot’, which is one of the main ways of describing a person’s state of health. You may also be described as being too cold, wet, or dry, each of which require their own type of medical attention. But too much yeet hay seems to be the most common imbalance, blamed for the appearance of common problems such as pimples and mouth ulcers. If you’ve got too much heat, the obvious answer is to find something cool. Despite the fact they are served hot, the teas mentioned above are considered ‘cool’ from a medicinal viewpoint, and are drunk to get you back in balance.

These cooling teas are known as ‘leung cha’, (literally ‘cool tea’). Other cooling drinks include Chrysanthemum tea and ‘suen mooi tong’ (sour plum soup – usually served chilled). You might have tried them already, especially if you’ve eaten a Korean barbecue, or Chinese hotpot meal. Since fried and greasy food is considered a prime source of yeet hay, something cooling is served at the end of the meal to set things back in balance. One bit of good news is that beer is also considered a ‘cooling’ drink, and is even called ‘gweilo leung cha’. So if you’re eating out and thinking whether you can get away with ordering another beer, impress your friends by muttering something about too much yeet hay, and being under doctor’s orders to stay cool.

When you’ve been here longer, it might strike you as odd how these medical terms are used in such a wide variety of circumstances: from doctors’ medicine, through self-medication with herbal tea, to mealtimes, and even to drinking beer? This marks a big difference between the Western and Chinese approaches. We tend to think of Western medicine only when we are ill, and then concentrate on fixing the one thing that is ‘wrong’. The Chinese approach is broader, not only considering the whole patient, but also considering the things that affect the patient, including food, drinks, and even the weather.

Probably as a result of this, Chinese medicine has gained a good reputation for tackling chronic illnesses, or illnesses where a patient feels ‘not right’, but can’t pinpoint a single problem. On the other hand, Western medicine seems better at providing quick relief to a given set of symptoms. A western friend who has asthma gave me a good example of this, when he told me how a colleague reacted to him using his inhaler. The colleague had tears in his eyes as he heard how easily the inhaler worked, and how it relieved the difficulty in breathing almost instantly. The colleague had also suffered from asthma for years, and had been visiting a Chinese doctor for some time. His asthma was slowly getting better, but he had nothing that could help him quickly reduce the suffocating feeling of a bad asthma attack.

How well does Chinese medicine tackle the chronic illness none of us can avoid – old age? Should we give Chinese medicine any credit for that long life expectancy we mentioned earlier? I haven’t seen any statistics, but informally I get the feeling that local seniors take more responsibility for their good health than people of the same age in the UK. If you visit a Hong Kong park in the morning (say 6am – 10am), and you’ll see groups of people dancing, doing exercises, or practicing Tai Chi. Or if you live near the hills, you’ll see retired people returning from their daily morning walk at about that time. MrsB also says that it’s usual practice for people to eat a much plainer diet as they get into their 50s and older, cutting down on meat especially. So yes, I’d say that the Chinese approach to health encourages a healthier old age.

Despite the potential benefits, it can still be difficult to take Chinese medicine seriously if you’ve been brought up on western medicine. Here’s part of a post from a western doctor in the US that I’d guess is a typical reaction:

But you know what? I don’t think I could stand take sitting for hours in a classroom with a straight face listening to someone talk about the flow of Qi (pronounced Chi). I'm sorry, but the way Chinese medicine explains itself is still too steeped in non-scientific silliness for me to completely embrace its teachings. Don't tell me my Qi is blocked - Talk to me in real biologic terms. It's not meridians, and it's not Yin and Yang. It's neurotransmitters and antibodies and cytokines and calcium channels and renal tubule function and LH and FSH and estrogen receptors. And if you dont know how it works, that's okay. I can handle that.

I have the same reaction, feeling that the talk of qi sounds a bit wacky. But do you need to know how it works, or just take the benefits when it does? I’ve tried to keep my skepticism on one side and try it, with varied results:

#1. Around 15 years ago I injured my shoulder. Shortly afterwards a distant friend recommended me to visit a Chinese doctor. They had me visit several times, gave me medicines to take, and performed Qi Gung to fix the problem. But the problem (the shoulder would dislocate easily) just kept on happening. Then around four years ago I visited a Western sports doctor. (I’m using ‘Chinese’ / ‘Western’ to describe the medical approach; both doctors were Chinese race). He determined that it was a mechanical problem, where the shoulder capsule was stretched and torn, and an operation would be needed to fix it. I had the operation and it’s been fine since.

#2. Mum is in her 70’s, and on an annual visit she complained of her frozen shoulder – a common complaint in women that age. We took her along to see an acupuncture doctor that several friends had visited and had good results from. He was upfront that he only treated a narrow range of problems, related to body pain. She had to visit several times a week over several weeks, but at the end of it she had most of her motion back and much less pain.

#3. When we were having problems getting pregnant, MrsB went along to see a Chinese doctor recommended by a friend as specializing in womens’ health. Shortly after a finishing a one-month course of medicine she was pregnant.

The successful visits came from having a strong personal recommendation (not a ‘friend of a friend told me’) from someone who has similar problems to us, and who is happy with the results. If you plan to try visiting a doctor it’s also wise to get an idea how long the treatment will last and the likely costs. Then reconfirm them when you meet the doctor. Otherwise if you just visit the Chinese doctor and ask if they can make you better, it can be like asking a barber if you need a haircut – the Chinese doctor always has the excuse that something is out of balance, giving an opening for less scrupulous doctors to need ‘just one more visit’.

So, back to the original question – have you ever tried Chinese medicine? If yes, how do you rate it?

Regards, MrB


Hi Mr. B, I had a nasty

Hi Mr. B,

I had a nasty encounter with a TCM practitioner. He made me buy some herbs to decoct. I tried it and the improvements were marginal. However, I had a nagging suspicion that I was ripped off cos the herbs seemed too expensive to me. They amounted to over HKD$200 per pack! I checked with another shop in an old neighbourhood and he told me that it would only cost me HKD$50. I was taken aback man! That rip off's located in Causeway Bay. I figured, even if the rent in Causeway Bay is higher, it shouldn't cost me four times as much!

MrsB says she's heard of

MrsB says she's heard of similar problems before. It's another reason she only visits a doctor after a strong personal recommendation.

However she also points out that being charged $200 for the herbs is not in itself a sign of a problem. Depending on the ingredients prescribed, you could even pay up to and over $1000 for a pack. But if you take your prescription to a couple of other places and are quoted a quarter of the first price, then yes, something's not right.

Regards, MrB

hi mr. B! As a university

hi mr. B!

As a university student who doesn't have the option and time to boil "24 flavour tea". Is there another option if i am "yeet hay"? Like, chinese herbal pills at the drug stores? or a specific vitamin? if so, can you recommend me some names?

A recommendation for all of you seeking a TCM practitioner.

Hi there everyone,

is Alan here, i'm a long-time visitor to this site and I found myself encounter the similar problems and interests in this city. Let me give myself a little introduction, well I was born in Birmingham, England and moved to HK when I was 2 (if i remember correctly) then was in HK a couple of year before I moved to Australia, Melbourne. I'm of Chinese descent but had been brought up pretty much in Australia. an almost ABC as you might call me. I'm now doing my post-graduate course in Psychology in Hong Kong. Anyways enough of that ramblings. So here we go, seeing all these Chinese medicine practice in Hong Kong is creeping me sometime, without much of the govermental regulations it could be a bit out of the place. I'm sure some of you in this forum have encounter with such "mmmm I wonder if this TCM practitioner is relaible?" I probably have no place to stand when it comes to expert TCM talking. but if you guys are interested, my mum's clinic could probably offer one of the best TCM consulation in Hong Kong. My mum, formally a professor head at the school of Chinese medicine in Hong Kong, and now she has off branched in building up her own business (a college, where she is trying tremendously hard in providing the best chinese medicine eduactional courses for the next generation.) She has also opened a TCM clinic for consualtions which is located in TST. Long story short, if you guys are interested and trying to seek a TCM practitioner and have no idea where to go, and who to choose, i highly recommend my mum's clinic to all of you. Her college name is Hong Kong Academy of Chinese Medicine, and my mum Prof.Sarah Hui is the president of this college.


i just thought posting this might be able to help some of you out in sorting out whats the best for you all. Anyways thanks for reading and feel free to contact me if you would like to find out more about the college and the clinic. my email is

enjoy ur sunny arvo!


24 flavour tea

If you're in Hong Kong, just head to one of the small shops that sell herbal teas, and you buy it ready to drink, by the glass.


i'm a student of oriental

i'm a student of oriental medicine. we have just as much background in western medicine as a pre med student i can talk "neurotransmitters and antibodies and cytokines and calcium channels and renal tubule function and LH and FSH and estrogen receptors" all day long. I like to actually. I love science, i'm great at it, but i can alson talk and treat meridians, and qi, and heat, damp, cold wind, ect. Don't dis something that works. Don't dis something that is 4000 years old because the truth of the matter is that they had the body figured out before science even existed. i'm also a patient of oriental medicine, and truth be told, there isn't alot that i would see a western doctor for.



what i dont get is how they

what i dont get is how they say it can be cured by rubbing a quarter or a ceramic spoon on you

^sorry i thought the reply

^sorry i thought the reply was right below the comment i was reading
which was about "yeet hay"

my grandma use to put a quarter and a boiled egg in a rag and rub it on me to try and help my "yeet hay"

TCM does work - see NIH studies

Thanks for the interesting discussion of TCM - in 2006. Comments from 2009... wanted to add that by spooning someone's back you are actually creating a movement of blood (and qi and nervous system stimulation) which brings to the surface blood that cools the metaphorical heat in the body. As far as a linear minded western med perspective (I have been trained in West Med & TCM) there can be alot missed. They are in the fine print - TCM is in the over view and the poetry. See the Web that has No Weaver, John Chen's Herbology books, and National Institute for Health Studies on Integrated Medicines like Traditional Chinese Medicine. NIH - is supposed to study that which is affordable to the average citizen and not studies for expensive medicines that the over bloated pharmaceutical industry should be studying - ahhh ... but that is another soap box!   Blessings. 

Just wondering if we are in

Just wondering if we are in the same class at the uni, Alan? Are you also on FB?


What plant is it?

On the north slope of Lion Rock, many years ago I gathered the roots of a plant which is covered by short and yellow/golden hair.  I was told by seniors in those days that it can be used to stop bleeding.  After bringing them home, I would  trim off the excess roots to make them stand like animals.

I would appreciate if readers could educate me on the name of this plant.  Is it effective in stopping bleeding?  Thanks.  OldTimer

re: What plant is that?

Hi OldTimer, sorry, I don't think either of us are very knowledgeable about plants. There is the Hong Kong Herbarium website that has photos of Hong Kong's plants. Maybe that will help you to identify it?

Regards, MrB

re: What plant is that?

Thanks MrB, I will follow up on your suggestion.  OldTimer

re: What plant is that?

MrB:  I am sharing with your readers the reply I received from the Hong Kong Herbarium, as follows:

"Based on features you described, it is hard to say what exactly the plant is.  Hence, provision of photos or specimen of that individual would be appreciated, or you may try to check it via our Hong Kong Plant Database:
We would like to take this opportunity to advice you that under Section 21 of the Forests and Countryside Ordinance (Cap. 96), Hong Kong Laws- any person who, without lawful authority or excuse, in any forest or plantation-
cuts grass, removes turf or earth, rakes pine needles; plucks or damages any buds, blossom or leaf of any tree, shrub or plant; fells, cuts, burns or otherwise destroys any trees or growing plants, shall be guilty of an offence.  Regards,  Hong Kong Herbarium"

The message I got is that we have to behave when roaming in the Hong Kong countryside.  It would be nice to get my hand on one of these plants (legally I mean) and grow it in my garden as a pet, and bring it indoor during winter as temperature can get down to -30C. 


Are we?

Steven L, did you emailed me quite sometime ago? yeh i do have facebook. add me on


Would the prominence of Chinese medicine/acupuncture be a reason why aspirin is hard to find in Hong Kong?  After talking to friends there and finding that they did not know what aspirin is, and we did not know what the Chinese name is, we tried looking at a few Watson's but did not find any and the clerks did not know what it was either.  Now, these were tiny stores but when we got to a larger one, the clerk referred us to the pharmacist who knew was it was and got us a small bottle from the back.  Is this normally such a special item that one would have to ask for it from the pharmacist?  We were able to find other non-aspirin pain killers on the shelves, though.

Re: Aspirin

Hi there,

Aspirin has a Chinese phonetic name called [亞士匹靈]. I am uncertain if local dispensaries has it on the racks, but I am pretty sure physicians would prescribe it for cardiac-vascular patients as my old man is taking a tablet a day. We might have drugs in another name with the ingredients equivalent to Aspirin, I guess.

Maybe it is more or less the same as Tylenol. It's available in every drug store and convenient stores in the States, but we just do not have it here. But if you look for Panadol then it's everywhere here.

My 2 cents.

Re: Aspirin

Thanks for the phonetic translation, T.  I tried making up my own phonetic translation taking the "士" from "taxi" or "bus" but it didn't work on my friends.  :)

The pharmacist's first question actually was if it was the 81mg version, used for heart health, that we were looking for.  I suppose that is what aspirin may end up being known for in HK.

Now, I've never heard of Panadol...


The issue may be that aspirin cannot be used in children at all due potential Reye's Syndrome and is also not recommended for adults anymore due to potential issues with stomach lining.  (

Panadol is paracetemol or or acetaminophen which is a painkiller without the side effects of aspirin.

re: aspirin

I figured that it could also be the undesirable side-effects of aspirin that could have made it unpopular (or even banned) or had possible bad interactions with Chinese medicines.  But I still thought it interesting that it was not well-known there when it is elsewhere.

So Panadol = Tylenol.  Good to know.  Thank you Gweipo!



Aspirin is the active ingredient in the brand "Disprin" which is apparently sold here (British roots)

re: Disprin

How cool is that?!  Looking up Disprin in Wikipedia, I found that aspirin has had a very long history.  Apparently its essential ingredient was also known in Western classical antiquity.  I wonder if there was any transfer of this knowledge of aspirin and its use as an analgesic through the Silk Road?  It would be interesting if there were...

I practise TCM

I agree completely. Terms like qi etc. used in oriental medicine are concepts unto themselves and contain within them aspects of the body identified in Western medicine and also things which western medicine has not (yet) successfully described. It is wrong to think that this means there is no understanding; Chinese medicine is a complete system which can describe anything precisely because of the simplicity of the terms it uses.

It is unfortunate that while Chinese medicine is flexible enough to embrace Western without conflict, the same doesn't seem to happen the other way around. I see this as a sign that (1) the dominant western medical system does not have an understanding of how we work as an integrated whole and (2) there is ego resisting what it doesn't understand.

I should be writing this to the doctor who made the quote rather than to the converted but it makes me feel better anyway.