Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022


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Old at heart

Beneath Hong Kong's cosmopolitan exterior, ancient traditions run deep

"That was bamboo?" I craned my neck, gawking as the car sped through one of Hong Kong's suburbs. I must have misunderstood. "On that high-rise? That scaffolding was bamboo?" My guide Nevin nodded; "It's as strong as steel and more flexible in strong winds." I sat stunned, feeling like a bird that's just hit plate glass. He had to be kidding. The thought that those rickety looking grids could help construct a 40-storey building seemed outlandish. But as we swung into Hong Kong's tower-filled business district, it was hard to deny the evidence.

I had arrived looking for the Old Hong Kong, if such a thing still existed -- some remains of the city's Chinese roots amid the high-end retail chains, thickets of skyscrapers and lingering stamp of colonial history, some proof that I hadn't flown 20 hours just to find a mecca of consumption and corporate power indistinguishable from most in the West.

I wasn't disappointed. Hong Kong has pulled off what few Western metropolises seem to have managed: to stride into the 21st century without trampling its traditions into oblivion. Heritage and customs aren't cordoned off in a quaint old quarter or annual festival, they're meshed into daily life. Where else would you find post-modern skyscrapers designed according to feng shui principles and brides fighting over banquet space on the handful of days deemed propitious by the Chinese almanac? Hong Kong may have a cell phone to its ear, but its heart is undoubtedly traditional.

And lucky for visitors, the city wears its heart on its sleeve. While there are excellent museums -- and the Hong Kong Tourism Board runs well-planned heritage tours and cultural activities (see Scratching the Surface sidebar page 68) -- the best way to get a glimpse of Hong Kong's traditions is to dive in and experience its rhythms and rituals.

Stalled in time
Perhaps more than anywhere else on Hong Kong island, the Central and Sheung Wan districts clings to their roots. Just blocks from the city's financial core, the streets are crowded with a hodge-podge of tiny, ancient storefronts. You won't find a Gap or Gucci on streets like Bonham Strand, Des Voeux or Hollywood Road: these are major thoroughfares for Chinese herbs, tailors, incense, tea shops and antique dealers.

Heading down Graham Street, I tried to keep up with my guide as we jostled along the outdoor market. Stalls covered by a patchwork of tarps and umbrellas spilled tightly piled wares onto the steep laneway, leaving a half-metre-wide path for both shoppers and impatient deliverymen to manoeuvre.

Most young Hong Kongers get their groceries at supermarkets, but there was plenty of activity here as folks haggled over caged frogs, laconic fish in plastic tanks, 1000-year-old eggs (really week-old preserved eggs that turn a delicately flavoured, purple gelatin under their shells), lotus flowers and water spinach. I had almost forgotten where I was when we emerged onto busy Queen's Road Central: there's something wonderfully surreal about a country market with live chickens set up a few blocks from some of Asia's most powerful financial institutions.

It didn't take long before I started keeping an eye on laneways and side streets -- around here that's where the action is. At lunch hour, Nevin pointed down an alley where office workers crowded around outdoor food stalls, or dai pai dong. Many have a faithful following for the house specialities their chefs brought from distant provinces on the mainland.

When we reached Man Wa lane, I had no idea what we were doing there. The white, workaday stalls seemed blandly unappealing. It wasn't until I saw the small displays of colourful, lipstick-size stone and glass that I understood. These were the raw material for chops: delicately carved ink stamps still used by businesses and individuals as official seals. You can have your name transcribed phonetically into Chinese characters on a chop in tourist areas around Hong Kong, but the vendors on this lane offer better craftsmanship and great prices.

Just my luck
It quickly became apparent that feng shui masters and the Chinese almanac hold as much sway here as Alan Greenspan does on Wall Street. Not much of any importance gets done without consulting them, from choosing the location of burial sites or multi-million-dollar headquarters to finding a propitious date to launch a new business or hold a wedding.

Even when it comes to religion, keeping luck on your side is what counts. The fluid blend of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and animist beliefs practiced here has as much to do with securing success and gaining knowledge of the future (to further lock in prosperity) as it does with spiritual fulfillment. Many local temples even have their own squad of fortune-tellers.

Wedged against greying housing estates, Man Mo Temple is one of the oldest and most popular in Hong Kong. It also has one of the most atmospheric interiors. Squinting into the darkness at the entrance, I could make out metre-high coils of incense hanging from the ceiling, outlined by the milky glow from a large skylight. The coils were tied with a slip of paper marked with a question or request and burned to get the god's attention.


This Taoist temple is dedicated to the unlikely pairing of the gods of literature and war. I visited just before university exams when bespectacled students crowded at the back around the candle-lit altar to Man Cheong, the god of literature. They planted offerings of incense in large, sand-filled, brass cauldrons before getting down to the very intense business of divination: shaking a slender bamboo canister filled with numbered sticks, or chim, until one fell to the ground. Each number corresponded to a printed message which was then taken outside for a fortune-teller to interpret.

If the sullen faces we passed were anything to go by, academic success wasn't in the forecast.

We left the temple and headed westward down Hollywood Road -- an incongruous name for a street crowded with antique stores. West of Aberdeen Street, Hollywood Road became a centre for some rather unique funeral shops. Coffins, urns and incense weren't the half of it: there were air conditioners, cell phones and DVD players stacked in the shop windows. It seemed like an odd mix, but I blithely walked by several shops before realizing that something was off. That very convincing DVD player was in fact a painstaking reproduction made of coloured paper and bamboo.

Ancestor worship is a key tenet of Confucianism. It's believed that a descendant's prosperity will depend on the good graces of the ancestors, so making sure they're well provided for in the afterlife is a chief concern. Burial sites are selected for their great views and better feng shui. Paper money (in both Heaven and Hell denominations, just to be on the safe side) is the traditional offering at the funeral, burned so that its essence will cross over into the afterlife. The more of those hyperreal paper models are offered -- from prescription glasses and credit cards to designer clothing and tiny Rolls Royces -- the greater the prestige for the deceased.

Guts, glory and gladioli
Western medicine is now the leading treatment for serious health conditions, but traditional Chinese medicine (such as acupuncture and herbal remedies) remains extremely popular for everything from skin problems and allergies to fatigue and flu. The unique Museum of Medical Sciences (2 Caine Lane, Mid-Levels, Hong Kong; tel: 011-852-2549- 5123) is the first in the world to compare Western and Chinese medical traditions. It's housed in the old Pathological Institute which was Hong Kong's first Western medical centre, established when Chinese medicine failed to cope with a smallpox outbreak in 1894.

Even this 5000-year-old tradition has caught up with Hong Kong's fast-paced life: herbal companies now offer pills and premixed tonics in addition to the raw ingredients that must be painstakingly boiled into pungent decoctions at home.

It felt like the tiny, wood-trimmed interior of the Good Spring Company Chinese Herbal Pharmacy (8 Cochrane Street, Central, Hong Kong; tel: 011-852-2544-3518), one of Hong Kong's oldest, hadn't changed in decades. Patients were queued up to see traditional Chinese doctors (including some English-speaking practitioners) at two cramped tables. Behind the counter, herbalists pulled ingredients from a grid of tiny wooden drawers with a deftness bordering on prestidigitation. They measured bark, roots and powders out onto large sheets of paper using a hand-held scale that looked like a chopstick with a weight and metal saucer tied at each end. While at the street-side counter, business people gulped down cups of medicinal tea without breaking their stride.

On Bonham Strand Street, the storefronts of Chinese medicinal wholesalers were filled with methodically stacked displays of roots, dried fish bits, animal gizzards and swallow's nests -- a puzzling sight to the uninitiated. Luckily, I had gotten my bearings earlier at the modern flagship of the Eu Yan Sang chain (155-56 Queen's Road Central, Hong Kong; tel: 011-852-2544-3268). At the entrance, the most popular ingredients in Chinese herbal medicine were displayed in glass cases, labelled in English with brief explanations of their uses. Just the thing if you've always wondered what dessicated deer antlers were good for.

Home is where the barnacle is
But Sheung Wan isn't the only spot on Hong Kong island where traditions die hard. In Aberdeen, we took a half-hour boat ride past the gaudy floating restaurants, out to something of a bobbing suburb. Neatly ordered rows of sampans and trawlers were anchored in the shadow of new housing estates. The Tanka, one of Hong Kong's four original ethnic groups, have lived for centuries on dome-roofed, flat-bottomed boats in the area's sheltered harbours. The older generation still live on these sampans, now motorized and equipped with generators for televisions and air conditioners. But like so many large ports, overfishing and pollution have hobbled the maritime economy, and it's not uncommon to spot the Tanka's distinctive flat-topped straw hats in Central Hong Kong as the wearers make their way to land-locked jobs.

Dried fish -- a staple in local dishes and Chinese medicine -- no longer guarantees a livelihood. Still many tenacious villages on the 260-odd islands in the region are sticking it out.

It's only a ferry or subway ride to lush, mountainous Lantau Island yet the fishing village of Tai-O couldn't have felt farther from the city. We passed open stone hearths with woks, piles of jumbled bric-a-brac, even a shed-sized temple along the narrow back lanes. If it wasn't for the occasional television barking from the cramped homes, we could have been in another era.

Nevin explained that the distinctive stilt houses were modelled after the shelters the nomadic community first created by raising on posts the boats they had always called home.

Changes are definitely on the horizon. Hong Kong's international airport moved to the other end of the island four years ago and a space has already been staked out for a Disneyland catering to Chinese tourists. But Lantau's particularly steep, mountainous interior and current ban on cars have kept a lid on development. Although the old rope-pulled ferry across Tai-O's main canal has been replaced by a concrete bridge, as we walked towards the mist-covered mountains we passed fishermen drying their catch in the sun as they had for generations.

Old Territories, New Towns
I thought that if I slipped a little further from the city's orbit, I might almost be able to step back in time. Hong Kong's New Territories, north of the Kowloon peninsula, sounded promising.

One thing I can now say about the New Territories is that whoever named them got it right: they're definitely new.

In the past decade, towering satellite towns have sprung up like pastel-hued bamboo groves in the otherwise pristine landscape. Despite the fact that much of the traditional housing has given way to apartment blocks, the area still holds a number of historically important sights, from elegant mandarin's homes to beautifully crafted temples.

Walled villages are a unique feature of the architecture, dating back to the days when pirates still swaggered around looking for homes to pillage. Only five of these clan-based compounds remain in the region, and you can still spot wizened Hakka matriarchs with their distinctive pipes and black-brimmed hats, clinging to the dialect and customs they brought from northern China centuries ago. These towns paint an accurate picture of village life in the 21st century: teens blast dance music and some traditional open-courtyard homes have been heavily renovated to add air-conditioning.

We hopped down to the Sam Tung Uk Museum (2 Kwu Uk Lane, Tsuen Wan, New Territories; tel: 011-852-2411-2001), a restored 18th-century walled village. At the heart of the compound was the all-important ancestral hall, where wooden tablets recording the ancestry and lineage of every man in the clan are kept. It looked like a decorator had been called in to add the colourful, intricate altar and ceiling work so different from the black-and-white minimalism of the homes. The former residents, the Chans, left in the early '80s but stuck close by so they could still drop in on their ancestors. Hong Kong residents who aren't so lucky keep a small ancestral shrine in their home.

Wandering the narrow white-washed lanes, it was still hard to shake the sense that we were in the city's shadow Something to do with those 30-storey apartment buildings looming above the walls every time I looked up. Hong Kong may have clung to its roots, but that certainly hasn't stopped it from sprinkling a few seeds of its own.

As we drove back to the hotel, we passed rows of high-rises under construction. This time I wasn't surprised to see crews lashing together bamboo scaffolding. I was only sorry to have missed the Taoist priest's ceremonial blessing before construction began.


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