In the third of a continuing series highlighting the multifaceted role of the
Kingdom's Chinese community, Post reporter Phelim Kyne gets a clean bill of
health from Phnom Penh's practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.
Chinese pharmacist Dr Wu Jing Swun labels a herbal concoction. Traditional Chinese medecine shops are booming in Phnom Penh
"ALL the best medicines and good food in the world cannot help one achieve longevity
unless one knows and practices the Tao of Yin and Yang" wrote Ko Hung, Third
Century AD Chinese alchemist.
"Balance," Dr. Shung Jen Ya says in trying to explain the essence of Chinese
medicine. "Balance and harmony, body and spirit, that's what real traditional
Chinese medicine attempts to achieve."
As Shung speaks, an elderly man, his face impaled with a quiver of acupuncture needles,
glances up from his cot at the back of Shung's cramped Shanghai Medical Clinic and
then returns to his late morning nap.
"He's senile," Shung says with a shrug. "Acupuncture is the only thing
that helps him."
For Shung, the road to his establishment of a traditional Chinese medical clinic
on a side street off of Kampuchea Krom three years ago involved a Damascene conversion
from decades of practicing modern western-style medicine in his native Shanghai.
"I realized that there were lots of medical conditions and sick people who were
just not being helped by modern medical techniques," Shung explains.
"[Traditional] Chinese medicine is effective in many types of medical conditions
which modern medicine really can't help."
Shung is just one of a growing number of doctors of traditional Chinese medicine
who are setting up shop around the Psah Thmei district of Phnom Penh.
Offering what they claim as the fruits of 2000 years of Chinese medical expertise
combined with a select variety of modern diagnostic and treatment methods, Phnom
Penh's traditional Chinese medical clinics aim to fill a gap in a city in which medical
treatment consists of imprecise diagnoses and prescriptions provided by untrained
Dr. Lai Xiao Hui opens one of the many wooden drawers that line the north wall
of his Tai Shan Medical Clinic on Street 139 and pulls out a handful of what to the
untrained nose and eye appear to be scented wood chips.
Dr Shung Jen Ya: "Balance" is the key
"Herbal medicine is the heart of traditional Chinese medical practice,"
Lai says, putting the pieces of cork tree bark back into its drawer. "Herbal
medicine is natural, gentle and has no side-effects."
According to Lai, qualified practitioners such as himself can provide customized
herbal medical prescriptions for virtually any illness, though with one proviso:
"Herbal medicine works slowly, on the whole body," he cautions. "People
impatient for quick results shouldn't ask for herbal medicine."
Chinese herbal medicine operates on principles first codified in the first and second
centuries AD in the pioneer Chinese medical texts The Yellow Emperor's Classic of
Internal Medicine and Chang Chung Ching's Discussion of Fevers.
In both these works, specific herbs were identified for their "natural affinity"
to particular body organs and the effect the herbs have on the body as a whole.
For example, fresh ginger is associated in Chinese herbal treatment theory with both
the lungs and the large intestine and is used to induce perspiration, while seaweed
has affinity with the kidneys and bladder and has a combined diuretic and laxative
The Director of the South China Medical Center on Sihanouk Boulevard, Dr. Zhang Yong
Jiang, says the efficacy of many modern drugs has led to an adjustment in how herbal
medicines are now prescribed.
"Our policy is to use western medicine for acute conditions, and reserve herbal
treatments for chronic conditions," he explains.
Over at the Beijing China Medical Clinic on Kampuchea Krom, however, Dr. Yan Xing
Hua says herbal treatments and modern western drugs can be used in tandem.
"They can't be used together at the same time," he says, "but it's
possible to take both kinds of medicine at different times of the day to maximize
the benefit for the patient."
However, Yan stresses that the capacity of herbal treatments to address the wider
bodily ailments that cause acute conditions to manifest themselves make them inherently
superior to modern western drugs.
"If you really want to kill a cold virus, modern western medicine is of limited
use because you need to address the (wider body) environment in which the virus lives,"
Yan says. "Chinese medicine is more effective at adjusting the bodily conditions
that allow things like viruses to thrive."
Surprisingly, in spite of the Kingdom's thriving trade in endangered animal parts,
those cruising local Chinese clinics to sample tiger penis, a famed traditional Chinese
virility treatment seem bound to be disappointed.
"Too expensive," Dr. Lai says of such exotic ingredients. "My patients
can't afford to pay what they'd cost."
"Illegal," says Dr. Zhang resolutely. "The Chinese Traditional Medical
Association has banned the use of all endangered wildlife parts.
Over at the Shanghai Medical Treatment, however, Dr. Shung is slightly more forthcoming.
"I've got some deer horn, but it's not cheap" he admits.
Pinpricks and Rubdowns
Along with herbal therapy treatments, the city's Chinese medicine clinics provide
more physically demanding traditional routes to health and happiness - acupuncture
("jyan-jeo") and accupressure ("tway-na").
Acupuncture is an ancient system of medicine based on the theory that health is dependent
on the strength and balance of an electrical "life force" known as "chi".
Blockages or depletion's of "chi" can be rectified by the insertion of
needles at vital points along the "meridians" or pathways along which "chi"
"Some people are afraid of the needles," Dr. Shung admits, "but if
acupuncture is done correctly, there is no blood and no pain."
Mindful of the concerns of needle sharing in the AIDS era, all of the Chinese clinics
use hygienic, disposable needles. Acupuncture treatments average around US$1.5 per
Acupressure is a form of rigorous medicinal massage in which the practitioners thumb
is pressed deeply into a meridian, muscle, joint or nerve, rubbed rhythmically for
10-12 minutes and then released.
"Don't think of it as 'massage' because that word is too closely associated
with prostitution in this city," urges Dr. Lai. "It's a medical technique
to release stress, reduce muscle pain as well as improve powers of concentration."
Clinics of Last Resort
With their routine combination of modern and traditional Chinese medical treatments,
Phnom Penh's Chinese medical clinics have become magnets for local AIDS sufferers
for whom drug treatments common in western countries are either unavailable or unaffordable.
"These are just from this week," Dr. Yan says as he grimly flicks through
a pile of "HIV positive" blood test reports. "A lot of AIDS patients
come to us for help."
Up the street at the Ba Qing Ling Sexual Disease Research Clinic, Dr. Ba Qing Ling
has made a career from offering special formulations of herbal therapy and modern
drugs to treat STDs, including AIDS.
"In isolation, neither Chinese nor modern western medicine is effective in controlling
the effects of HIV," Ba says. "But used together, the Chinese herbal medicine
can strengthen the overall immune system while the modern drugs can work directly
on controlling the spread of the virus."
The Temple of Tao
For purists, however, there is one traditional Chinese doctor in Phnom Penh who
scorns the use of western medicine by Chinese practitioners and specializes in what
he calls "pure and original" Chinese herbal medicine.
From a distance Dr. Wu Jing Swun - with a bristly crew cut and stony demeanor - looks
more like a PLA martial arts instructor than a doctor.
A photographic display posted outside Wu's "Taoist Clinic" on Street 130
- depicting Wu in aggressive poses with a wooden pole - furthers the impression that
Wu would as quickly pummel malingerers as he would treat the sick.
Up close, however, Wu is warm and personable, and anxious to explain the effectiveness
of his pure herbal therapy methods.
"People come to me after they've tried everything else, when other methods have
failed them," he says proudly. "When other doctors have given up, I've
been able to cure them."
Wu directs the credit for such miraculous recoveries on the efficacy of the herbal
medical formulas he personally concocts at the back of his clinic.
"Real medicinal herbs from China and the knowledge of how to use them,"
he explains. "That's a very powerful combination."