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Fading aroma of herbs

RARE GEM: Phooi Yen Thong is one of the few remaining fully functioning Chinese apothecaries in Malaysia./Sin Chew Daily

Publication Date : 29-11-2013


Once thriving Chinese apothecaries in Malaysia have become reduced to mere convenience stores


Traditional Chinese apothecaries in Malaysia were once upon a time a place where respected experts prescribe treatment for various illnesses and ailments.

However with the rise of modern medicine, the same pharmacies have been forced to transform themselves into convenience stores that sell groceries and other household supplies, along with Chinese herbs.

In the small town of Slim River, Perak state, there is an 8-decade old traditional Chinese pharmacy named Phooi Yen Thong. It is one of the very few that has retained its large antique cabinets filled with peculiar herbs, spices and other remedies nature has to offer.

The current owner, Chen Lin Xiang, 78, whose father started the business, has worked in the pharmacy since he was a teenager.

He never expected to work at the shop his whole life, he says. But it has helped him make ends meet for his family.

Although the original apothecary cabinet which his late father bought when he opened the shop has since been damaged, a second-hand one that Chen bought from another pharmacy that is now a convenience store now replaces it.

The variety of herbs Phooi Yen Thong carries has been systematically arranged: commonly used herbs are stored in the lower, easily reached drawers, while the more expensive and rare herbs are kept in the upper drawers.

After so many years of selling traditional medicine, Chen does not need to rely on labels to know where the right herbs to treat different ailments are - he knows knows exactly where they are by heart.

However, due to old age his memory sometimes fails him, he says. So he has removed some herbs from the cabinet and stores them in glass bottles now.

He recalls a time when Phooi Yen Tang was never short of customers. His father, a Chinese medicine practitioner, ran the shop then and provided consultation services. In those days, Chinese apothecaries also produced herbal ointments, pills and powders.

The instruments: mortar and pestle, hand hay cutters and Chinese steelyard, were still displayed in the shop, though rarely used. But the tradition of passing the Chinese traditional medicine trade down the generations has waned.

None of Chen's four children are interested in inheriting the shop, so he will have to sell it off when he is no longer able to run it.

Nowadays, the only regulars the old apothecaries like Phooi Yen Thong sees are friends who come by for a chat with old Chen.

*translated by Soong Phui Jee


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