BANGKOK: Chang An herbal shop is now the last Traditional Chinese Medicine outlet in Sampeng, the oldest Chinese neighbourhood in Bangkok.
There are a few dozen antique wooden shelves, filled with various plant and animal parts which complement the earthly, medicinal aroma in the shop.
The shop is a family-run business registered in 1961 but has been running since the 1920s.
Its present owner, 42-year-old Mukda Hongpaisarn, is the granddaughter of the shop's founder. She said she has seen the rise and fall of more than a dozen Chinese medicine shops in the area.
“The first-ever Chinese medicine shop in Thailand closed down about 10 years ago because there was no one in the family who wanted to take over the business," Mukda said.
She also attributed the decline of Traditional Chinese Medicine shops to the change in the ethnic demographic of Sampeng, which over the years has been losing its Chinese character.
SAMPENG: FIRST CHINESE SETTLEMENT IN BANGKOK
The Chinese community first appeared in the area in the late 1700s after Chinese merchants settled in the area. The streets of Sampeng used to be synonymous with vices including opium dens, brothels and gambling houses in the 19th century and early 20th century. Over the past few decades, Chinese shops and teahouses replaced these establishments.
“Sampeng used to be the only Chinese community in Bangkok, so there were many Chinese medicine shops, but they are all gone now," said Mukda. "I think it has something to do with the change in generation. This area used to be all Chinese then Thai people started coming in; now the Burmese are dominating."
Younger generations of Thai Chinese also look down on Traditional Chinese Medicine.
“Chinese medicine is for old people,” said Teerachai, a 22-year-old who also lives a few blocks away from the shop. His friend, Kongkiet, who is a half-Thai, half-Chinese, said: "Chinese medicine is less superior than modern Western medicine.”
Teerachai added: “It is a big fuss to prepare Chinese medicine and I can’t be bothered with that especially when I am not well.”
The owner of the last Chinese traditional medicine store in Sampeng attributes these attitudes to a lack of true understanding and appreciation of cultural heritage by the new generation of Thai Chinese.
“You must understand the language and know which herb is good for what ailment," said Mukda. "All the books and records are written in Chinese. Also, you must have a vast knowledge and experience to identify which sort of medicine is suited for each person because people react differently."
HERITAGE AND MODERN RELEVANCE
An expert on Chinese culture said the decline in interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine in Thailand stems from the failure by the Thai Chinese community to adapt and make their heritage relevant to the younger generations.
Many people, he pointed out, are still under the impression that traditional Chinese medicines are bitter concoctions, cooked-up in a clay pot.
"The Chinese community here has done very little to alter this image, failing to market these old remedies better to younger audiences," said Somchai Kwangthongpanich, who is an expert on Chinese culture in Thailand, as well as a resident in Sampeng.
“Chinese culture in Thailand has been frozen," he added. "We're still eating the same food, listening to the same old Chinese music and have the same old beliefs about Chinese medicine too. The rest of the world has already moved on."
For the older generation of Thai Chinese like Somchai, Traditional Chinese Medicine still has its appeal despite the advancements in modern medicine.
“If you have to choose between taking modern medicine but the side effect will put you in bed for three days, while it takes more time for you to heal if you opt for Chinese medicine, which one will you go for?” he said.
“Why put your body under more stress? You should let your body slowly recover."