Revisiting the Chinese Medicine Halls in the Late 1980s

[I wrote this paper a few days ago for an assignment. It’s pretty interesting and I think you’d probably enjoy reading it. =) ]

The Chinese medicine hall plays an important role in the everyday life of Chinese Singaporeans both in the past and in the present. Chinese Singaporeans visit the Chinese medicine halls for various reasons. They may visit the medicine hall to buy medicine to treat their sickness or aches, or to buy tonics or ingredients for soups or even herbal teas to strengthen their body’s physical constitution and to preserve the internal harmony within the body so as to remain healthy. In both sickness and in health, the Chinese medicine hall is a place that many visit time and time again, such that it forms an essential part in the everyday lives of Chinese Singaporeans even till today.

However, much has changed over the years, especially in the 1990s when Eu Yan Sang, one of the oldest Chinese medical halls here in Singapore, pioneered major changes in the way Chinese medicine is packaged and sold, so as to cater to the younger generation,[1] by presenting the products “to them in forms they are familiar with.”[2] Change was necessary as sales of Chinese medicine across the island were declining. Amongst the younger generation, there was rising scepticism of the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine.[3] Many also had grown accustomed to shopping in malls out of convenience, and were less inclined to visit the neighbourhood shops.[4] Moreover, amongst the younger generation, much of the traditional medicinal knowledge was not passed down from the older generations.[5] And so, many in the younger generation grew up ignorant about what herbs or tonics to use for specific illnesses, and many did not even know how to prepare the ingredients for consumption.

Seeing the success of Eu Yan Sang’s pioneering efforts, several Chinese medical halls followed Eu Yan Sang’s example, and with the aid of the Singapore government, developed franchises such as “Medicine East” and “Medical Alliance Corporation.”[6] Part of this scheme included subsidies to renovate the medicine hall’s layout to follow the layout of a modern shop in a shopping mall, and to package and sell Chinese medicinal products in ways that were attractive to the younger generation.

Today, one can find at least one Chinese medicine hall in almost every shopping mall in Singapore. These shops are brightly lit, and are decorated by the colourful and attractive designs of the many pre-packaged herbs, and pre-brewed soups, tonics and teas that fill the shelves of these shops. These shops are also manned by sales-staff smartly dressed in uniforms that are in line with the shop’s brand image. The experience of stepping into one of these shops will not be too different from stepping into any other shop in the mall.

While the appearance of Chinese medicine halls in shopping malls is a fairly recent phenomenon, the medicine halls that continue to exist in shop houses within the residential areas (as they did in the past) are no longer the same as the once-familiar medicine halls in the late 1980s (prior to the major changes in the 1990s). These medicine halls continue to retain various artefacts from the past, but clearly, they are not the same as the medicine halls of the 1980s as they have inevitably been influenced by the changes of the 1990s. Changes from the 1990s, such as bright lightings, shelves for customers to browse and buy, and even the range of pre-packaged products (e.g. herbs, tonics, and drinks) in attractive packaging with instructions for preparation and consumption (in both English and Mandarin), can be found in these shops. Artefacts from before the major changes, such as the use of pink paper to wrap herbs, or the serving of freshly brewed cooling teas (涼茶 liang cha) in ceramic bowls, or the keeping of herbs in tall wooden shelves and drawers can still be found in some shops, but the preservation of these historical artifacts are not consistent and they vary from shop to shop depending on the shop owner’s preferences. Though traces of the past still exist, the once-familiar medicine halls that our parents and grandparents used to frequent in the 1980s are now a thing of the past.

Therefore, in this paper, I will provide an account of the traditional Chinese medicine hall in the late 1980s as experienced by most people who frequented the halls at that time. I will base my reconstruction of these medicine halls based on my interviews with four different people. [One runs a medicine hall in Clementi West, another was a customer of the medicine hall, and two of them are my friends] I will discuss three aspects of the medicine halls in the late 1980s: (1) the layout and furnishing of the medicinal hall, (2) the experience of purchasing medicinal products, and (3) the types of social interactions that took place at that time.

By the 1980s, many Chinese medicine halls were housed in public housing shop houses, though some continued to operate from the colonial-type shop houses. In those days, it was possible to identify the presence of a medicine hall either from the smell of dried preserved goods or from the smell of herbs, or both (depending on what the shop sold). The Chinese medicine halls were not as brightly lit. In fact, many accounts describe these halls as “dark.” The walls inside the hall were lined with wooden drawers and cupboards that reached the ceiling. The shop owner would need a ladder to reach the drawers at the top. Different kinds of herbs and dried good were kept inside these drawers and cupboards. There were also glass bottles used to keep other kinds of medicinal products. The customer, however, could not touch the products as there was a long counter dividing these drawers and cupboards from the customer. More medicinal products were kept underneath the counters.

The only one who had access to these medicinal products was the shop owner. The shop owner was trained in the art of concocting herbal mixtures. These medicinal halls were usually run as a family business. Members of the shop owner’s family and sometimes, hired assistants, assisted the shop owner. The medicine hall was like a second home for the shop owner’s children as they would be present to assist in the family business once their lessons ended. Younger customers, though they rarely came by, often developed friendships with the shop owner’s children as they were of the same age group, which made it easier for them to connect with one another. As a matter of fact, most customers were physical neighbours with the shop owner and his family as they lived within the same residential area. The social dynamics was both transactional (for the purchase of medical goods) and cordial (since they were neighbours familiar with one another). The relationships forged can be so closed that they were more like friends and neighbours than customers in a business relationship. One of my interviewees commented that the shop owner’s son once invited him to play soccer when he met him exercising around the neighbourhood.

The customer always had to converse with the shop owner as it was never possible to browse around and buy due to the layout of the medicine hall. The customer could request for specific herbs or medicines, or he/she could describe his/her ailment to the shop owner, who will then proceed to pack a mixture of medicinal products in pink paper. For common ailments, the shop owner would have had pre-packed the herbs in pink paper during his free time (with the aid of his assistants), ready to be sold instantly. Otherwise, the shop owner and his assistants would pull open the drawers, cupboards, and bottles behind them, measure the required amounts using a wooden scale balance (with a metal weight attached at one end), before finally packing it in the familiar pink paper wrapping. The shop owner will then advise the customer on how often to consume the medicine and how to prepare it.

There was a special relationship between the customer and the shop owner. Customers placed a special trust in the shop owner, because he could prescribe medicinal remedies for various problems – even health issues that many found embarrassing. One of the interviewees was very embarrassed to tell me that she regularly buys medicine to treat some female “issue.” It takes a lot of trust to be able to visit the medicine hall regularly and to share one’s health problems, especially if it is something embarrassing. But nonetheless, if the shop owner is very effective in concocting remedies from the variety of products available, this effectiveness helps to increase the trust and confidence that customers have in order to visit more regularly and to confide their personal health matters with him.

At the entrance of some medicine halls, one may even find a table with cooling tea (涼茶 liangcha) sold in a flask. The cooling tea is served in a large ceramic bowl, as the larger surface area would allow the hot tea to cool down quickly. Back then, there was no such thing as bottled cooling teas, and so people had to pay and consume the tea on the spot. There were about two or three chairs for people to sit while they slowly consumed the hot tea. The chairs offered a place for social interaction. Sometimes, friends will come to drink the cooling tea together. Sometimes, neighbours might meet and will stay for a shot chat while they consume the tea together. Other times, strangers will engage in small talk as they slowly consumed their tea. Other than the chairs near the cooling tea table, the extended shelter just outside the entrance of the medical hall was also another place for social interaction. When neighbours or friends meet at the medicine hall, they would stand outside the entrance of the shop to chat once they have made their purchases.

For Chinese Singaporeans in the 1980s, the traditional Chinese medicine hall was not merely a place for purchasing medicinal products. The medicine hall was an extension of a neighbour’s family (i.e. the shop owner and his family). The shop owner was a neighbour, a businessman, a healer, as well as a trusted friend. And his family members, though assistants, are also neighbours and friends of their customers. All in all, the Chinese medicine hall in the late 1980s was more than just about the sale and purchase of medicinal products: it provided a space and opportunities for neighbours and friends to meet and interact time and time again during their regular visits.

[1] Cephah Tan, “New look but old traditions at this medicine store.” The Straits Times, July 21, 1992; “Second group of Chinese medical halls join forces to revitalise their trade.” The Straits Times, December 19, 1993.

[2] Sharon Loh, “Eu family regains Eu Yan Sang.” The Straits Times, September 2, 1993.

[3] Wendy Tan, “The quiet revolution in ‘yiok tiams’.” The Straits Times, April 14, 1998.

[4] Cephah Tan, “New look but old traditions at this medicine store.” The Straits Times, July 21, 1992.

[5] Sharon Loh, “Eu Yan Sang opens Bedok Branch.” The Straits Times, July 18, 1994

[6] Sharon Loh, “Eastern medicine, Western style.” The Straits Times, May 26, 1993; “Singapore retailers start to see franchising benefits.” The Straits Times, November 16, 1993; “Second group of Chinese medical halls join forces to revitalise their trade.” The Straits Times, December 19, 1993; “More owners of Chinese medicine shops join franchise.” The Straits Times, October 24, 1994.