If you’ve ever contemplated exploring the world of Chinese medicine, it might be worthwhile to hop on a plane to Kuala Lumpur to see Dr. David. From what I’ve heard, he is a healer for the masses, from the heart; a legend in these parts.
You’re likely to dispel any notions of quackery once you step into the nondescript herbalist’s pharmacy (Kedai Ubat Kian Yin) tucked away in a little corner of the real Chinatown on Jalan Landak, and take in the seriousness of this operation; even more so, when you are led towards the hallway at the back of the pharmacy and slip into Dr. David’s tiny, windowless office.
Dr. David (aka Dr David Mun, because he was previously trained as an MD), is long retired from the practice of traditional Chinese medicine, but continues to see patients for a few hours each morning. His services are in high demand, as is evident by the large crowd of people – young and old – congregating in the waiting area.
If your experience is anything like mine, you will walk into Dr. David’s office and, though it’s your first visit, you’ll be asked to sit down; no pomp and ceremony. Dr. David will not get up nor t shake your hand; he won’t ask your name or make eye contact. Rather, he will be seated behind his desk, eager to get started, black ink pen already hovering above a large and thick pad of prescription papers.
If you prefer to stand (as I did), he will appear to enter a trance, staring right into your mid-section (your Nepali shirt being no hindrance), when in fact, he is scanning your entire body. In seconds, he is asking questions that reflect his power of intuition; about my accident, medical interventions, doctors’ recommendations, the acute stages of my recovery. He shakes his head at intervals, expresses concern that I have been carrying more than my body can bear; and that I must still rest.
Moments later, he is already scribbling cursive characters down a few rows on the first page, moves on to the next page and continues writing, then back to the first, on to the third, etc. He flips back and forth between pages as his hand glides up and down each sheet with the ease, fluidity and dexterity borne from decades of experience.
When Dr. David seems to have finished setting out his prescriptions, he asks for my name and jots it down at the top of each page. My consultation appears to be over, and I’ve not been in his office more than five minutes. Papers in hand, I leave his office to face an even larger gathering in the waiting area, and return to the front of the pharmacy.
As soon as I hand over Dr. David’s prescription pages to the herbalist behind the counter, the ingredients are read aloud he and his assistants lunge into action like cogs in a well-oiled machine: The bodies and hands fly this way and that behind, pulling off the shelves blue containers of twigs, bark, and other unidentifiable dried objects; grabbing a handful of herbs and placing them on the hand-held weights; dumping them into six plastic bags already opened and arranged in a line along the countertop.
Once the bags are filled up with all the pre-ordained herbs, and bagged as a group into a much larger plastic bag, the herbalist double-checks the prescription pages, ties up and numbers each bag with a marker, and calculates the amount owed – on an ancient abacus.
The herbalist then launches into a rapid-fire explanation of how to prepare and administer the concoctions: Using the ingredients in one package at a time, mix the herbs with 17 rice-bowls’ worth of water, boil the mixture down to two cups’ worth, after which you divide that up into three equal parts which you drink three times over the course of a day; repeat the same procedure every five days thereafter, for a total of six times (or one month).
If you, like me, need some help getting your head around the idea of imbibing a cocktail comprised of matter which looks and smells like it ought to be headed for the compost bin, you might take up the herbalist’s offer; to boil up the herbs from your first bag and divide the liquid crop into three bags.
When you return three hours later to retrieve your plastic bags of brownish fluid and agree to drink the first portion on the spot, in full view of staff and a hushed crowd, you will wonder what possessed you to see Dr. David in the first place; you will promptly forget the stories you’ve heard earlier about his success rate with various maladies and injuries; and you will most definitely wish that you could add into the noxious mix a bit of sugar, soya sauce or, at the very least, food coloring.
What others might not tell you, but I will gladly share is the key to this whole endeavor: pinch your nose, count to ten, pretend it’s brown-tainted vodka if you must, but whatever you do: You must down that ghastly-looking, foul-tasting, outrageously-smelling, muddy potion all in one go.