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Covid-19 brings silver lining for Sarawak's traditional medicine shops

But a lack of local herb production means a heavy reliance on imported goods.

Nur Shazreena Ali
5 minute read
Customers stop to enquire at a traditional herbal tea shop near the Kuching city centre in Sarawak.
Customers stop to enquire at a traditional herbal tea shop near the Kuching city centre in Sarawak.

Whenever Uncle Chang catches a cold, he knows what to do. He puts the kettle on the stove, adds a selection of herbs, and waits for the mixture to boil. 

After it boils, he pours it into a teapot and sips the concoction throughout the day. 

After nearly eight decades of running a traditional herbal tea shop near the Kuching city centre, Uncle Chang is well versed in which plants and leaves are best suited for treating a given ailment. 

He has spent the majority of his life making herbal tea, first with his father who came over from China in 1930, and now with his son at the Khee Hiang Traditional Herbal Tea shop which has stood at the market bazaar in Jalan Padungan since 1946.

There, they brew herbal teas using formulas handed down through the family from generation to generation. 

Each morning, Uncle Chang spends three hours at the stove, preparing the ingredients needed for four main types of herbal tea: Ba Xian Cha (non-bitter), Qing Ku Cha (mildly bitter), Feng Huo Cha (very bitter), and Pei Yao Cha. As he works, his son takes stock of the herbs and packages them for sale.

Prices range from RM1.50 to RM10, depending on the prescription and mixture of herbs required. 

Like many other businesses throughout the country, the small shop suffered from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the lockdowns which put a stop to the normal stream of customers. 

"During the lockdowns, we had to close our shop," Uncle Chang recalled. 

"We were only able to sell medicine to our regular customers who called me up to make their orders." 

But gradually, as restrictions were eased and business began to improve, Uncle Chang noticed a change in his customer base. 

Before the pandemic, he had catered to customers of all ages but primarily the elderly. Now, more and more young people are flocking to his shop as well, particularly to seek remedies for Covid-related symptoms. 

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Uncle Chang's son, Nolan, said they had received a steady stream of customers since Sarawak's last spike in cases in April.

"Nowadays, they are willing to go for these herbal teas as well," he said. 

"There has been a rising trend, especially since March and April this year when Covid-19 cases began to increase. I was quite surprised."

These days, they sell their herbal mixtures on GrabFood as well, and orders have been on the rise. 

"The number of customers ordering our herbal tea through Grab has increased since April," Nolan said. 

MNow-ChineseTraditionalMedicine-02-2Traditionally, Chinese herbal shops are frequented more by the older generation but the onset of Covid-19 has seen a shift in customer base to a younger demographic as well.

At another of the town's traditional Chinese medicine shops, a similar situation has been unfolding. 

Winston, who runs Kok Ann Medical Store in Carpenter Street, has also seen an increase in customers coming in to buy herbs, tonics and supplements to boost the immune system and maintain respiratory health. 

Customers have also been requesting Chinese herbs such as lingzhi and cordyceps, as well as herbal tonic soup packs to soothe the lungs and treat coughs. 

"We have been receiving more customers looking for Chinese supplementary medicine," he Winston said. 

"The age range is anywhere from 18 to 70." 

Covid-19 recovery

Most of them come looking for medicine to reduce their body heat and boost their immune systems after Covid-19 infection.  

"Instead of taking vitamins, they want herbal medicine," Winston added. 

At his shop, the herbs are sold in packets of various sizes. One packet of medium-sized red berries, for example, goes for RM12. 

"This depends on what the customer wants," Winston said. "If they want to buy more to keep as stock, they can buy the bigger packets." 

The type of medication also depends on factors such as the customer's condition, age, gender and body type. 

"Normally they have their own prescriptions," Winston said. "Sometimes it depends on how serious their condition is. 

"But I can't prescribe specific ingredients for those recovering from Covid-19 as different patients have different immune systems."

Even for normal ailments, it takes years of experience to know which herbs work best for which condition. Just one packet of Pe Yo Chao herbal medicine which is used to help reduce body heat and bring balance to the body temperature comprises eight or nine different types of herbs, dried leaves and roots. 

The Ji Gu Cho herbal medicine which helps to clear liver heat, meanwhile, contained four types of herbs. 

Most of Winston's herbs come from China and Taiwan although some are also sourced locally from the peninsula. This latter group, however, is limited as production is not carried out in mass quantities. 

By and large, his supplies have remained adequate although there have been instances in which his customers had to wait several weeks for the arrival of new stock. 

And as with many other goods these days, the price of herbs has been on the rise. 

For now, Winston is still able to cope with the rising costs. But Nolan fears that he will soon have to raise his prices.  

"We usually order our stock in bulk, so right now we still have enough," he said. 

"But I have heard that for new stock, prices are quite high."

The last time Nolan and his father raised their prices was in 2015. 

"But I think we cannot cope with that level of price for much longer," he said. "I might have to increase our prices." 

Tapping Sarawak's forests

The heavy reliance on imported herbs is due to some extent to the lack of a local herb production industry in Sarawak. 

Despite the state's rich biodiversity, herbal production remains on a small scale. 

Albert Lee Joo Hee, vice-secretary of the Federation of Chinese Medicine and Physicians Sarawak, said many of the required herbs are available in Sarawak's own forests. 

"But we don't have the factories to process them," he added. "This is the most challenging part."

Dr Tan Kit Weng, president of the Federation of Sarawak Traditional Physicians and Complementary Medicine, agreed. 

Tan, who has spent 46 years in the field, said Sarawak's forests should be explored and tapped for use in local herb production. 

"The fruits and vegetables can be used, too, even the grass," he told MalaysiaNow. 

He said the development of a local herb industry would benefit traditional practitioners in the state. 

"In the old days, 100 years ago when we had no doctors and hospitals, people in villages depended on traditional medicine to cure their illnesses," he said. 

"They used herbs and different techniques. No matter which type of traditional medicine, whether Chinese, Iban, Melanau, Bidayuh or Malay – each ethnicity has its own technique."