At the Chinese Pharmacy

by on Tuesday, 08 November 2011 Comments

It is a dark and humid Friday night, we are wandering around Sanchong, a district of Taipei when we encounter Mr. Wu, the owner of a traditional Chinese Medicine shop.

"What are you doing here," he says. 
"Oh, just taking in the atmosphere of Sanchong."



The man raises an eyebrow, as if to question that there could really be anything to enjoy in this old street he has lived on for 22 years, this creepy, boring, badly-lit street, as he would see it, which to me was a quiet picturesque little street, full of atmosphere. On such occasions as this, I appreciate Taiwanese people’s natural distinctiveness; while I can clearly see he thinks we are totally crazy, he relaxes and smiles at us. At least we are harmless!

It is not yet 10pm, the shop has not closed for business for the day, an old lady is still browsing inside, obviously with no plans of buying anything, and time enough for a chat. Part of the job of a shop owner is to attract customers to his shop, to make them feel good, to employ their magnetic charms to entice them from the porch to the counter, have them sit down, and in the space of a few minutes, to form a relationship with them that has the potential to last forever! There’s some magic in that, indeed, and that’s exactly what Mr Wu is doing now.

So here we are, on the porch, with little chance of becoming regular customers, but we bring a fresh eye to his worn shopfront, and maybe even more, a complacent ear, and so the conversation starts. With a vague gesture of the hand, he shows us the end of the street, some one to two hundred metres away, “Before, my pharmacy was over there, everyone knew me! I was the king of the market! You know, people came from near and far to see me!"

"Where did they come from? Why are you famous?"
"They came from other districts of Taipei and even from Taipei County, some from as far as Taichung! They all knew I was good at healing articulations, that’s my specialty you know, and so they came. Ah! I treated many people. Actually, much better than those doctors with all their western medical skills." When he says that, he looks at me, with a certain air of defiance.
It is true that many foreigners do not believe in chinese traditional medicine, but the stance we have in France is slightly different, as I explain to him, "Oh, you know, France is open-minded towards medicine, we like our medicine, but many people also follow chinese or alternative medicine as a way to protect their body and get along better with it. My grandmother has been doing acupuncture since almost as long as you have had your shop!"
"Ah?" (he looks at me again). "You know, last time someone in my family was sick, she got a hip surgery, and the doctor told her she would need six months to recover, but luckily I came to her aid and found what she had, so, after six weeks, she was already jumping in the room! She was almost embarrassed before the surgeon when he asked her how come she had recovered so quickly! She didn’t dare to say it was thanks to me.
"I’m not surprised, we consider often that while surgery is a real good point in western countries, some kinds of medication and drugs are inappropriate, and by no meansis the western way the exclusive means of healing people."
"These western surgeons, they feel they know everything, but I tell you, I still have many patients coming to see me that ain’t so happy with them." In the back of the shop, it looks like the old lady, still there, imperceptibly grinning at those words…
"So that’s why people keep coming to see you? They know it works, right?"
"Yes, they know I have experience, I've been in the business 22 years, I know what I am doing."
"So, how come you had to move from the market to here?" I find it curious the way he pointed out the market, a subtle mix of disappointment and avarice: looking in the direction he shows, we can clearly see a market announcing its presence in the distance, with the usual hustle and bustle, flavours and food, excitation, noise, old people and unclear of the attractions it could exert on visitors, an endless variation of the same kind of shops, with just enough variety to please everyone. The beauty of Taiwan!

He said that even though business was still OK, he had an issue with his landlord and had to move into this quieter street. All I can tell is that the new shop looks good, a pretty traditional setting, similar to other traditional medicine shops I know, but with a flavour of modernity on top of that, some shelves selling ginseng and 'packaged' drugs. Business is business!

“How did you come to start this business?”, I ask.
“Well, you see, I didn’t want to go to university or anything academic,  I wanted to start my own business. I am a bit lazy like that you see”, he smiles. I have heard this before, so I smile too, people are so honest, here. Again, I think about Europe, who would say that kind of thing there?
“But still, why this business? There are plenty of other things you could have done."
"Oh, after my military duty, well, you know, I started to read books and got myself into chinese medicine. I felt attracted towards it, and also the prospectives for business were good. So I had to work hard and finally I got my diploma. Have a look." We move into the shop, his diploma is hanging on a wall facing the entrance. I have always been impressed by official diplomas in Taiwan, it makes everything look so official and endows it with a certain gravity; as Taiwan developed very rapidly over the last few decades, it also stands as a reminder to us that 22 years ago, things must have been really different from today. I feel that for a self-professed "lazy" guy, this is still quite a tough career path to follow.

While I admire the diploma, the magic charm keeps working – by some undetectable sleight of hand we find ourselves sitting before a cup of herbal tea that has conveniently materialized out of the back of the shop.  I start to relax a bit, it is more convenient to sit while having a chat.

"Let me take a picture of you."
"Like this? OK?"
"Perfect, smile."

In the whole length of the shop, there is huge shelf standing, full of herbs, medicines, roots, remedies and secret ingredients. How can one really call oneself a good pharmacist without one? The piece of furniture seems even more huge when seen from my tiny seat; it looks good despite a rough design, and you can immediately tell it has been taken care of: everything is perfectly clean, not a single trace of dust, and all the pots perfectly aligned. That’s the heart of the business, for sure.

"Cost me 20000NT. The boss gave me his business, and I bought this piece. It was empty."
The shelf seems to me disproportionally big compared to the space of the shop, with all its mysterious shiny glass and porcelain boxes neatly lined up, it feels almost like a person, another grandmother or something, but one who wouldn’t ask questions all the time and look at you from behind, no, one big, nice, grandmother that would care about you and bring you remedies when you are sick. It is truly precious beyond its price, I realize. Who knows when it  was made, and who knows what it has been witness to?


"Show me, what do you have inside?"
"All kind of things. You know, my customers do not all want the same things, some of them come back often, and they buy regular things, but some other need more delicate treatments."

He stands and grabs a bunch of papers, "You see, those are the treatments reminders I make for everyone, I write down everything here! Today, for example, I sold some herbs against sore muscles for two customers, and the weekly treatment for an old friend is noted here!"

I don’t know what thought crossed my mind first at that moment, maybe it was: "Wow, there are a lot of customers!" or "Wow, that’s a pretty old fashioned way to keep accounts," and I can’t help but think about my ipad and all the technology that, as it turns out, may not be as useful as I presume… Anyway there’s a lot of sheets, with people who seem to need all kind of treatments.

"Some of them buy almost nothing, some roots to chew, some piled mushrooms, but some also need more expensive and difficult to find items, wait… let me show you…" He stands and from an old plastic bag extracts cautiously an american deer horn. "See, this one has to be boiled and then mixed with a special tea, it is quite rare."

"I guess so, can’t believe you have to import it from America!"
"That’s the best quality."
"But where do you get all that stuff?"
"I go to a special shop, they sell everything."
"And everyone does the same?"
He smiles, again.

I have never thought that because chinese medicine partly relies on rare ingredients, having the right ingredient, at the right time, for the right customer, is important, and you have to buy just the right stock or know exactly the person who will provide you swiftly with the boiled deer horn for example. I also understand that the art of Chinese medicine lies a lot in the doctor himself, and this may be what builds his reputation: healing customers, building a reputation, having good and stable retaliations, this all makes a good chinese medicine store, and I don’t doubt one second that Mr. Wu is one of that kind.

"Ha! You see! Yesterday we had some ginseng come in, take one, you’ll see!"
He gives us two pieces of "chinese chewing gums" and that inspires the old lady to add, "Oh! You know this is very expensive!"
"Ah really?" I look again at the piece of ginseng, and feel immediately more important
"Eat! Eat! It’s good for health!"
While I chew and find in this unexpected delicacy a pleasantly bitter taste, the old lady gets even closer, she is now totally part of the group, she looks at me and my girlfriend, and she asks, "Are you two married?”
That’s it, she said it. I knew she would ask. I think I have never talked to someone over forty who didn’t ask me this question in Taiwan! And Mr. Wu seems interested as well. Unfortunately my chinese is too bad to ask if chinese medicine also deals with matters of love, that will be a question for next time probably. My usual technique is to ignore the question and pretend I didn’t understand, a big luxury actually when you live in foreign countries!

Nevertheless, called back to reality by this ever-so-boring question, I realize we have been sitting here for almost forty minutes; it is time for Mr Wu to close his shop, and we decide to leave. I have a last look at the small shop, the big shelf, all the exotic bags and ingredients randomly perched everywhere around the shop – who knows what’ s in the plastic bag close to me? I see the old lady who is now also close to the door, something tells me that she’s gonna talk about us even after we leave, I have a look at the bay window where a large sign in chinese explains why it is good to trust chinese medicine and what the top 10 treatments you can get from this shop. I have a last look at all this: what I see is a world different from the one I live in, where remarkably little change has pervaded life over the years, the same furniture, the same method of bookkeeping, I am sure customers come and go, many talks similar to tonight's have happened again and again, creating a comfort and a certain quality of life that is difficult to appreciate, nowadays. Maybe chinese medicine is a daily dose of reason and stability in an ever more hectic environment, where while we cure better every day, we also create stressful living conditions day after day, pollute and kill ourselves at work.

This story is pulled out of a real conversation in Chinese, made a few months ago, thus I couldn’t understand everything and had to make up some parts. This is not the real story of Mr. Wu, but the perception is close to what I really imagine from him: loyal to the spirit, not to the word!

(Originally published on

Benoît Girardot

I'm Benoit, a French guy, arrived in Taiwan around 5 years ago, and it's already hard to remember what I did in my old life! Maybe I lived in Germany? I used to have a weird job, selling breast implants all around Asia, but I quit and am now learning Chinese. I love Taiwan, and I don't really have any words to describe why Taipei is such a cool city... so I'm taking pictures instead.

I have a blog about Taiwan, the idea is to get a deeper understanding of Taiwan-as a foreigner, with language barrier and all kinds of pre-conceived ideas, it is not always an easy task! I post a mic of pictures, videos, articles about the cool people and things I meet on the island! You're welcome to come have a look by yourself!


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