Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Organic Materials for Chinese TraditionalMedicine.

Toronto's Chinese Pharmacy

When you’re looking for pulverised dragon bone,
yak horn or aged ginseng, the local drug store just won’t do. 
The pharmacy to visit is in Toronto, Canada.  
It may be farther than the local mall, but compared
to jetting across the Pacific, Toronto is just around the corner.

Dundas Street is a busy east-west artery through
Toronto's Chinatown, a vigorous commercial segment
in a dynamic city. The Chinese drugstore I visit is 
South China Herbs Market, near the intersection
of Dundas and Spadina, in a neighborhood
teeming with chic cafes, galleries, clothing outlets, ethnic restaurants
and international food markets. There are other
Oriental pharmacies close by, and almost any 
city in the U.S. and Canada with a large Chinese population will have reliable stores selling
Oriental medical supplies.  But I like the continuity of
visiting the same herbal emporium for three decades.

Inside the brightly-lit ground level store,
colorful boxes covered with Chinese characters 
are stuffed in floor to ceiling shelves. Teas,
herbal compounds, and beauty treatments share space
with aphrodisiacs and hair restoratives.  As in any
drug store, the products promise to make you smell,
look and feel better.  

Another customer with gray hair smoothed
back from her unwrinkled brow smiles at me
and taps the jar of Lion Balm on the counter.  It's a Korean version of
Singapore’s famous Tiger Balm, an aromatic salve.
The sales clerk tells me the old lady
is commenting on my choice of Lion Balm, “such a
wonderful product.”  I smile politely and also buy
one of the little plastic jars of the no-name brand the woman is testing, 
just in case the old lady was really saying, 
“only foreign devils are so dumb they buy Lion Balm."

I discovered South China Herbs during the 1970s. At
the time I suffered from sciatica, a condition that flared after 
a violent car accident.  The nerve that runs from hip to heel at the back of
the leg roared with inflammation. After an orthopedic surgeon prescribed industrial grade Motrin that upset my stomach, I tried acupuncture, shiatsu massage, exercises and aspirin, but the shooting nerve pain persisted. 

While in Toronto, I noticed the Chinese
pharmacy and explained my chronic problem to the
counter clerk.  She brought ginseng tea and led me
to the back of the shop. Seated in the closet-size
consulting room, I described my symptoms while an
elderly Fu-Man-Chu look-alike stared at me, felt my pulse,
examined my eyelids and skin temperature.  He chattered questions
while the counter clerk translated. 

The old pharmacist scribbled columns
of characters on a pad of paper. 
Just so you know prescriptions in Chinese characters are just as illegible as those written by English speaking healers.

Choosing from many packages of herbs, organic
powders, insect corpses, bark, dried blossoms,
leaves and sea urchins, the pharmacist mixed
four doses of my treatment. The translator explained how
to prepare the potions and cautioned me to drink them
all, even if they tasted bad.  They wrapped the piles of
dried stuff in white paper and heat-sealed plastic.

I boiled, strained and drank the vile-tasting black potion as directed.
To my surprise – I wasn’t a believer yet -- the sciatica pain waned.  On
the rare occasions it flared up, I used topical
remedies such as medicinal plasters that I found at South China Herbs.  Ever since, I’ve been a return customer and share the remedies with my friends who shun invasive western medicine.

The medicinal plaster is a wide sticky tape
impregnated with healing lotion used for lower back
pain, joint aches, nerve pain and rheumatism. The
instructions include line drawings of people applying 
squares of plaster to knees, lower back, shoulders and ankles. 
The translation claims the plaster relieves complaints
from poor circulation to slipped disc, 
but you probably want to take that slipped disc for high-tech diagnosis.

The main attraction at South China Herbs are the shelves
crammed with mysterious organic elements wrapped
in paper or cloth, stored in jars and boxes. 
Take away the florescent lights and you could be in
a medieval alchemist's den. In fact, Chinese herbal
medicinals date back at least 3,000 years in 
written records and earlier in the oral tradition.
The compounds are used by about a fifth of the
world's population.

The custom-mixed herbal remedies are expensive and 
to be reasonably effective, the potions should be consumed for several days.
Treatments work best on conditions such as
insomnia, fatigue, circulatory disorders, muscle
pain, skin ailments, joint aches, nerve
inflammation, discharges and swellings. While the
Chinese drugstore is not the place to look for
cures for AIDS or cancer, their products are
effective on general low-grade complaints brought
on by lifestyle or environmental exposures. 

South China Herbs Market, 493 Dundas St. W.
Toronto, Ontario Canada M5T 1H1, 416-596-8527. 

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