Mr and Mrs Ong are owners of Guan Ann Chan Ginseng Supplier, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) hall that has been around for more than two generations. Their daughter, Mevis, is pursuing studies in TCM in hopes of continuing her father’s legacy by taking over the business in the future.
The earthy smell of ginseng and traditional herbs wafted towards us as we entered the premises of Guan Ann Chan Ginseng Supplier. The shop was packed with customers hoping to speak with Mevis’s father, Mr Ong, an experienced TCM practitioner with close to 30 years of experience.
Mevis looked slightly apologetic as she arranged for us to sit down with her mother and her as her father busied around the shop.
“I think you can only talk to him later,” said Mevis. “Usually at this time it isn’t so packed, but there are still so many people now.”
The busy Mr Ong in front of rows of herbs displayed behind the counter. Photo by Wong Xin Qin
As we continued our conversation about Mevis’s and Mrs Ong’s involvement in the business, the first thing they wanted to clarify was the distinction between zhongyao (中药; Chinese herbal medicine) and zhongyi (中医; TCM practice).
“Zhongyao is more about the various Chinese medicine and herbs, and their effects,” explained Mrs Ong. “Zhongyi refers to traditional Chinese medicinal practices, and it involves everything: acupuncture, cupping, tuina (推拿; massage), neike (内科; internal medicine), waike (外科; external medicine), erke (儿科; pediatrics), fuke (妇科; gynaecology) and so on.”
One of 12 children, Mr Ong came from a family of TCM practitioners. According to him, his father used to ride a bicycle around the kampong where they lived, and went from house to house with a bag selling ginseng. After the government resettled them in public housing, they moved into a shop space in Ang Mo Kio in 1980. The current shop in Jurong, which opened in 1983, is the second outlet.
Mrs Ong joined the trade after meeting Mr Ong. “I was a hairdresser,” said Mrs Ong. “When they opened this outlet in Jurong, his father said that they didn’t have enough manpower, and asked me to join them. So I did.”
This was in 1986, when Mrs Ong was only 23 years old. While working in the shop, she continued to upgrade herself by taking a course in Chinese herbal medicine at the Singapore College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (SCTCM). This was akin to a diploma in TCM, which covers medicine and herbs only.
Mr Ong, on the other hand, did a five-year fulltime course in TCM, where he learnt everything related to the practice—from acupuncture to cupping—much like a medical degree.
“Other than selling herbs and providing consultation, we also sold provisions like laundry detergent,” said Mrs Ong. “That was how we kept the business going.”
Today, an assortment of goods is still sold in the shop, such as baby diapers, toiletries and sanitary pads. According to Mevis, it’s a way for them to attract customers. When mothers come to the shop to buy diapers, they would also use the opportunity to speak to Mr Ong about their health problems.
Some of the workers in action. The man on the right is weighing traditional herbs, while the one on the left is unpacking stock. On the far left of the photo, you can see the small section of household goods. Photo by Wong Xin Qin
As mother and daughter spoke about changes in the industry, they shared that there are various reasons as to why the prices of certain medicinal herbs have gone up tremendously over the years. They attributed it to the decline in production of herbs and the mandatory safety inspection when importing them from overseas.
“Cordyceps used to be sold at about $60 per bunch, but now it can go up to $800,” said Mrs Ong. “Herbs imported from China back then were very cheap. Now these herbs are required to go through inspection and regulation, which add to its cost. Furthermore, production of some of these herbs has gone down.”
Likening the landscape to the availability of oil, Mevis emphasised that there is a decrease in wild herbs that are available for harvest. “They’ve all been dug up already.”
“There’s a difference between herbs from farms that you can harvest in four years, and herbs that grow in the wild,” added Mevis. “The effects are different.” Hence the price difference between naturally grown herbs and factory-produced ones.
While so many years have passed, some things still remain the same. For example, the pink branded papers they use to pack herbs.
“The packaging has always been like that,” said Mrs Ong. Brandishing a traditional Chinese weighing scale, Mrs Ong continued, “And we used to use these scales to weigh the herbs. You have to hold it in a certain way. I took very long to learn how to use this instrument. You don’t see it used often now because it’s an art in itself and you need to spend time to learn how to use it.”
Mrs Ong explaining how a traditional Chinese weighing scale works as Mevis looks on. The sheets of pink paper on the table are used to wrap herbs for customers. Photo by Wong Xin Qin
“Now we use these modern scales,” said Mrs Ong, pointing to a small weighing machine on the counter. “And we’ve upgraded in other ways, too.”
Referring to bottled pills, Mrs Ong shared that some of these traditional herbs have been ground into powders and packed as pills for the convenience of today’s modern consumers.
Technology has also enabled them to work more efficiently. The herbs and roots that we know and buy over the counter are usually already sliced. In the past, Mr Ong’s father had to heat the root over the candle to soften it before slicing it by hand, an arduous job that has been taken over by machines now.
It may be hard to pitch the idea of TCM to youths today, but Mr Ong believes that young people are beginning to be more accepting—and that they must experience TCM for themselves to truly believe in it.
This was perhaps why Mevis decided to pursue TCM at the Singapore College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It seemed like an unusual educational path for any other 24-year-old, but given her family’s long history in TCM and her experience in health and medicine, it was a natural choice for Mevis. However, she had her reservations.
Mevis shared that her first working experience at the shop was as a cashier when she was younger. Photo by Wong Xin Qin
“It was a struggle because I didn’t know if I was doing it for my parents or for myself,” said Mevis, who studied nutrition in polytechnic and biomedical engineering in the National University of Singapore prior to enrolling at SCTCM. “But I didn’t want to give up without trying, because I don’t want my dad to do this forever. Plus, I think it would be such a waste if no one inherits his skills, because I think my dad is pretty good at what he does.”
When we finally got to speak with Mr Ong about his business, his tone exudes confidence and wisdom from his years of experience with TCM. He believes that this is a dying trade, and shares his hope for TCM to gain more recognition and validation from governing bodies. He believes that, with this added support, TCM would be able to garner more credibility and benefit a wider group of people.
Having seen so many patients in his career as a Chinese physician, Mr Ong said that at the end of the day, what keeps him going is his passion and sincerity in nursing his patients back to health.
Written by: FJ Sai
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