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 boiling, 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 downtown Kuching, Uncle Chang is well versed in the plants and leaves best suited to treat any given ailment.
He has spent most of his life making herbal tea, first with his father who came from China in 1930, and now with his son at the Khee Hiang Traditional Herbal Tea shop which stands in the market bazaar. of Jalan Padungan since 1946.
There they brew herbal teas using formulas passed down in the family from generation to generation.
Every morning, Uncle Chang spends three hours at the stove, preparing the ingredients needed for four main types of herbal tea: Ba Xian Cha (not bitter), Qing Ku Cha (slightly bitter), Feng Huo Cha (very bitter), and Pei Yao Cha. While working, his son inventories the herbs and packages them to sell.
Prices range from RM1.50 to RM10, depending on the prescription and herbal blend required.
Like many other businesses across the country, the small boutique has suffered the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the closures which have interrupted the normal flow of customers.
“During the closings, we had to close our shop,” recalls Uncle Chang.
“We could only sell drugs to our regular customers who called me to place their orders.”
But gradually, as restrictions were eased and business started to improve, Uncle Chang noticed a change in his clientele.
Before the pandemic, it catered to customers of all ages, but mostly seniors. Now, more and more young people are also flocking to his shop, in particular to seek remedies for symptoms linked to Covid.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Uncle Chang’s son Nolan said they had received a steady stream of customers since the last spike in cases in Sarawak in April.
“Today they are also ready to opt for these herbal teas,” he said.
“There has been an upward trend, especially since March and April of this year when Covid-19 cases started to rise. I was quite surprised.”
These days they also sell their herbal blends on GrabFood, and orders have been increasing.
“The number of customers ordering our herbal tea through Grab has increased since April,” Nolan said.
At another traditional Chinese medicine store in town, a similar situation unfolded.
Winston, who runs the Kok Ann Medical Store in Carpenter Street, has also seen an increase in the number of customers coming to buy herbs, tonics and supplements to boost the immune system and maintain respiratory health.
Customers also requested Chinese herbs such as lingzhi and cordyceps, as well as herbal tonic soup sachets to soothe the lungs and treat coughs.
“We are getting more and more customers looking for complementary Chinese medicine,” he said.
“The age range is from 18 to 70.”
Most of them come for medicine to reduce their body heat and boost their immune system after a Covid-19 infection.
“Instead of taking vitamins, they want herbal remedies,” Winston added.
In his shop, herbs are sold in packets of different sizes. A bundle of medium-sized red berries, for example, is worth RM12.
“It depends on what the customer wants,” Winston said. “If they want to buy more to keep in stock, they can buy the bigger packs.”
The type of medication also depends on factors such as the client’s condition, age, gender, and body type.
“Normally they have their own prescriptions,” Winston said. “Sometimes it depends on the severity of their condition.
“But I cannot prescribe specific ingredients to those recovering from Covid-19 because different patients have different immune systems.”
Even for normal conditions, it takes years of experience to know which herbs work best for which condition. A single packet of Pe Yo Chao herbal medicine that is used to help reduce body heat and balance body temperature includes eight or nine different types of herbs, dried leaves and roots.
The herbal medicine Ji Gu Cho that helps remove heat from the liver, meanwhile, contained four types of herbs.
Most of Winston’s herbs come from China and Taiwan, although some also come from the peninsula. This last group is however limited because the production is not carried out in large quantities.
Overall, its supplies have remained adequate although there have been instances where its customers have had to wait several weeks for new stock to arrive.
And like many other products these days, the price of herbs has gone up.
For now, Winston is still able to meet rising costs. But Nolan fears that he will soon have to raise his prices.
“We usually order our stock in bulk, so at the moment we still have enough,” he said.
“But I heard that for the new stock, the prices are quite high.”
The last time Nolan and his father raised their prices was in 2015.
“But I think we can’t cope with this price level any longer,” he said. “Maybe I should raise our prices.”
Harnessing 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, herb production remains small-scale.
Albert Lee Joo Hee, deputy secretary of the Federation of Chinese Medicine and Physicians of Sarawak, said many of the herbs needed are available from Sarawak’s own forests.
“But we don’t have the factories to process them,” he added. “That’s the hardest part.”
Dr Tan Kit Weng, president of the Federation of Traditional and Complementary Medicine of Sarawak, agrees.
Tan, who has spent 46 years in the field, said Sarawak’s forests should be explored and exploited for use in local herb production.
“Fruits and vegetables can also be used, even grass,” he told MalaysiaNow.
He said developing a local herbal industry would benefit traditional practitioners in the state.
“Earlier, 100 years ago, when we had no doctors or hospitals, people in villages depended on traditional medicine to cure their illnesses,” he said.
“They used herbs and different techniques. Regardless of the type of traditional medicine, whether Chinese, Iban, Melanau, Bidayuh or Malay, each ethnicity has its own technique.”