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Oct 13, 2016

Ways Done in the Past - Medicine Man

"Medicine Man in Chinatown c 1960s".

At the suggestion of Facebook friend, Kok Ah Wang, I found these archived related photos of 'medicine man' curated with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

Before working on this blog, I posted these photos on my Facebook timeline and wrote: Pls share memories of our nostalgia friends of ways done in the past for traditional medical treatments for toothache, headache, backache, sprained arms or legs, etc. These "hai kow yew" or "buay koh yok" ("卖膏药") were the alternative licensed and trained doctors with recognised MBBS certificates".

These are a few of the comments I received the responses from my Facebook friends with thanks:

Kok Ah Wang:  Hope he was not one of the "medicine men"who swallowed a big iron ball bearing; requested some onlookers to feel his tummy for it; and later used his internal strength to force it out through his esophagus, throat and mouth.

Anthony Wong:  There also A Medicine Man in Queenstown (once a upon a time in the late 60s and I was there) who demonstrated his art of kungfu and feats near Golden City cinema and Old Tah Chung Emporium (now demolished) along the current commonwealth road. He will boil his kettle.

Then he places a sugar cane on the eggs or a bamboo,one egg on each side and smashes it without disturbing the eggs. Then he will actually pour the boiling water (much to the screams and alarm of the spectator including me) on his hands and arms and pitch his 'magic medicated oil's for burns, sprains, injuries etc. He then applied the oil on his hands and arms (after the boiling demonstration) He is really amazing.

Yeo Toon Joo Peter: As a boy, I saw one pulling the tooth of a man with what looked like a pair of pliers while he squatted on the ground...brutal!

Peter Simon Yiu: These guys were very good at their sale talk. They would made sure you stay put all the way till the end. Everyone waiting anxiously to see how they are going to put their hands inside the hot pot of oil or slide their hands across hot iron chains.

But at the end, the show just ended without anything spectacular happening. Thinking back, in the first place they never said tat they are going to do it Is what we thought that they are going to do. Haha..they are master in deceiving you.

I am surprised to discover so much to learn from a long forgotten story about the "Medicine Man" during our pioneer generation friends' era. As this blog is classified under "Ways Done in the Past" topics, it is hoped that the younger generations of Singaporeans could find some interesting information about their parents, grandparents or great grandparents times.

How they grew up in Singapore under the prevailing conditions, circumstances, the environment in those days.  The ways done in the past may not be the best ways, but they were the best available for them in Singapore.  Obviously the ways done today and in the future have changed vastly, and our children and grandchildren would hope for the better and improved ways for the future generations.

"Medicine Man" in Chinatown

In a letter by "Chinatown Kids" of Singapore 0298 was published in The Straits Times on 1 July 1981. (Note: Letters to the Straits Times was not required to use real names of the writers).
"Sinseh is poor man's healer"

I am immensely displeased by your report "Bitter Truth Drive Home to Chinese Physicians"
(ST June 15).

It is necessary to point out that practising Chinese medicine was never monetarily rewarding.

The Chinese sinseh is essentially a poor man's healer, and his fee is usually in the form of a red packet (hong pau) sometimes containing as little as $2, depending on the financial capability of the patient.

If the patient is unsure of how much he should give, he may ask the sinseh.  I once had a badly dislocated elbow treated for $6.

At the present cost of living in Singapore, few Chinese physicians, earn enough to afford cars, and many still live and practise in rented pre-war houses and small HDB flats.

It is unfortunate that no one has thought of introducing Chinese medicine as a respectable course in the university.

Government moral support and financial assistance towards extensive research in this area has never been forth-coming and a witch-doctor "koyok Man" image of the Chinese physician has persisted in medical circles.
I have never heard of Chinese physicians treating psychiatric problems as suggested by a study.

People may choose Chinese medicine for its 3000-year track record, but it must not be confused with superstition and witch-craft.

The mental illness is often attributed by superstitious Chinese to evil spirits, and therefore it is more credible that many affected by mental illness usually approach temple mediums, but not Chinese physicians.
The last lines in the report "..... as long as people believer in acupuncture, ginseng and yeo sim..." are openly insulting.  People do not just believe blindly, but base their beliefs on fact.
The medical qualities of acupuncture and ginseng and many other herbs have been analysed and proven by the much worshipped Western doctors.

Let us not overlook or dismiss with ungrateful contempt the sacrifices and contributions that Chinese associations and Chinese physicians have made to the community.
Free hospitals and clinics staffed with sinsehs have never been given their deserved publicity.  I believe many people are not even aware of their existence, let alone appreciate their service.
In this regard, the modern conventional private practitioners pale shamefully in comparison.

To a majority of them, as to Prof Wong who was reported to have said:  "In Singapore we encourage a free market .....", the community is a market where their services are sold, some at rather extortionate prices.

Throughout my 10 years of learning Chinese pugilism with various teachers who are also practising physicians, I witnessed and experienced the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine. 
Much misery and pain had been eliminated or contained when conventional medicine had failed.
There are mysteries in traditional Chinese medicine which have not yet been penetrated by modern doctors, and which they therefore suspect.

Similarly, there is much room in Chinese medicine to assimilate valuable techniques which modern medicine can offer but which are not easily accessible owing to a lack of government support.

"Green Grass Doctor" of Chinatown by A.S. Lee
(Source:  The Singapore Free Press, 31 January, 1951)
On one side of a shop in China Street, there are collected and arranged in a wooden rack almost every imaginable species of green leaf, lallang, wood sorrel, reed, creeper and plain grass. Sitting beside this sea of green is an old man in the act of treating a youngster apparently suffering from very serious rashes.  
This man, because of the green plants that surround him, in the "Green Grass Doctor" - in plain English, a Chinese specialist in external diseases, who, using no other concoctions except the green plants on display in the shop, can cure all types of wounds, ulcers, bites, rashes and swellings. As expert in plants, but unfortunately, an ignoramus in medical law, he diagnoses as well as provides the medicine for his patients. 
These are washed and put into a stone container and pounded into an unguent, a portion of which is then scooped up and applied to the affected part; the remainder being wrapped up in banana leaves for the patient to apply at home whenever the applied medicine dries up.

Because of the efficacy of this method of healing, sufferers from rash, canker, abscess, bites, swellings, etc, often come to this doctor for treatment.  Moreover because of the cheapness of the medicine - a prescription does not cost more than a dollar - he is patronised by rich and poor alike.

Some of the plants are so common and useful for cooling purposes that they are bought and boiled every week by each family, and the "Green Grass Doctor" does a good business selling them.
He also makes potions from them and sells them at 10 cents a cup to thirsty trisha-riders, shop assistants and wharf coolies.

"Green Grass Doctor"

When the plants wither, they are not thrown away, but, picking the right species, the doctor has them boiled for days until they become a black steaming liquid.  This when spread on a square piece of tissue paper and sold in package of 10, is the famous Chinese KORYO or plaster, a panacea for all types of sore.

The new type of traditional Chinese plaster,  "koryo" (photo above) are manufactured in the factory.
The prescription of dozens of herbal medicines grounded into yellow powders and mixed with red vermilion powdeers; boil a pot of sesame oil and pour the powders into it when the temperature around 300 degrees celsius; stir the powders and heat them for 10 hours so that the medicine will be fully mixed and melt into thick liquid; pour cold water into the pot to cool down the liquid which will then send to the workshop, reheated and applied to coarse cloth; a medicated plaster is finished.
The traditional ways done in the past to prepare the "koryo" was different from the processes to manufacture the "koryo" today.

Medicine Men Come Back
By K.S. Chia
(Source:  The Straits Times, 7 September 1947)
Chinatown streets in Singapore are resounding again each night to the crash of cracked gongs, the wail of tortured trumpets or the blare of a loudspeaker as Chinese medicine men, setting up their pitches at street corners, announce they are back to do business.

As more and more drugs come in from China, these medicine men are finding business brisk once more.  They had a poor time during the Japanese Occupation owing to shortage of Chinese medicine.

Like the wayside Sandows who revel in an exhibition of the Chinese art of self-defence, climaxing it with self-inflicted bruises from swords and iron bars, to inspire confidence in their plasters, the ointment vendors are the product of ancient Cathay, where, because of the circumstances of their environment and the lack of communicatio nearly every other Chinese was a physician by necessity.

Most China-born still are, in their own way, proficient in the art of utilising herbs, plants, fishes, centipedes and even the dirty cobwebs to form the ingredients of their home-made medicines.  The more humble the occupation, the more they know top improvise, because, back in China, they could not afford to seek the attention of physicians, they learned how best to treat themselves, passing that knowledge to their children.

The wayside hawkers of medicine are the unpolished products of Chinese medical science.  We have in the Chinese physicians the more cultured members of Chinese therapeutics.

These physicians (the Chinese call them "Ee Seng" for medical practice, like most other Chinese professions or businesses, in handed down from father to son.

When still a child, the son would accompany his father on his rounds, watching, observing and learning by the hard way.  He would learn how to use potions made from powdered tiger bones, when to prescribe ointment made from plants, lizards or dried snakes, when best to ask a child to take dried cockroaches, or what cool drink from dried flowers should be given in case of too much body heat.

The horns of the deer, the hairs of the tiger, the teeth of the tiger, the teeth of the rhinoceros - all these go to make up his study of medicine the Chinese way.

He would remember what plasters to apply for rheumatism, boils or headaches.  His favorite remedy for mumps (so well known it is practised by every Chinese) would be to apply washing blue, or write in Chinese character the word "tiger" on the swollen skin.

Chinese physicians are by nature talkative and maintain confidence by their suggestions of pains their patients are likely to have.  It is their belief that their methods of healing always effective, they prefer to blame the patients for lack of confidence, rather than themselves for lack of skill.

But, much as the westernised Chinese may laugh at these physicians, Western men of science are continuing to make expeditions into the interior of China, to probe into the secrets of Chinese medicine.

The "E Seng", the medicine men and the "Sandows" in the street are but faithful followers of the art, as taught them by their forefathers, who learned it centuries ago before Western men penetrated their Great Wall to seek their trade and gleam their knowledge of medicine, among other things.

China made many important medical discoveries in the first century of the Christian era, when she did boast too, of many physicians of great repute.

It is admitted by local physicians however that nothing much has since been discovered and the practice of Chinese is fast fading out whilst Western medicine is making tremendous progress and great discoveries.

But the itinerant hawkers of ointment, plasters and balm, still wander ceaselessly from one street corner to another conscious of their influence over their audience, and making a lucrative practice out of self chastisement.
Memories of "Medicine Man" at Bukit Ho Swee kampong

It was strange that since I started my series of "Ways Done in the Past" blogs, my childhood memories of the "medicine man" in the Bukit Ho Swee kampong did not cross my mind.  I had too little an impression and the place was too crowded with adults.

Thanks to my Facebook friend, Kok Ah Wang who mentioned about this topic recently.

I am pleased to dig deeply into my rusty "memory storage bank" to retrieve the very little I could remember about the "medicine man".  Memories are vague and I cannot remember the details.

However, I have seen a few of these "medicine men" at the empty compound behind the Malayan Chinese Association Building at Havelock Road in the 1950s or 1960s before the BHS fire.

As these "medicine man" performances were held in the night when the kampong was not brightly lighted, my mother did not allow me to leave the house.  Moreover, I was not interested in these shows for entertainment which the "hai kow yew" and "koryo"were for sale.

A few of these related "memory-aid" photos curated from the National Archives of Singapore to share on this blog.

Another "medicine man" selling "venereal disease" products for adults



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