Modernised TCM gains wider audience
Behonce Beh 
Ma says the demand for TCM is growing alongside traditional Malay medicine

TRADITIONAL Chinese medicine (TCM), which is an old-school trade with a long history, is very much alive in modern society.

In Malaysia, TCM services encompass zhong yi (Chinese medicine), health (qigong), chiropractic care, acupuncture, and others.

They fall under the jurisdiction of the Health Ministry’s traditional and complementary medicines division, and practitioners are advised to register with it.

Far from becoming obsolete in the digital era, TCM practitioners are hoping to reach a wider audience, especially non-Chinese speakers.

Chinese Drug Dealers Association Federal Territory and Selangor (CDDA) vice-president Alex Ma Kum Keong says patients want results and are willing to try TCM.


Parallel existence

“Every country has its own traditional medicine which co-exists with modern medicine.

“The demand for TCM grows alongside Malay traditional medicine whose herbs such as misai kucing and tongkat ali are well received by local and international users,” he tells FocusM.

Ma argues that TCM’s expansion lies in the modernisation of the trade and keeping relevant with trends.

CDDA introduced its own mobile app that serves as a member directory and a small database of Chinese herbs and medicines.

Most of the listings are in Mandarin, with a full English version in the works.

“Among the popular searches within our application is for massage, tui na (Chinese manipulative therapy) and acupuncture.

“Beyond just being a listing app, we want it to be interactive so users can book appointments and make purchases as well,” says Ma.

Meanwhile, CDDA culture and education officer Ng Kean Hwa says there is a higher concentration of TCM practitioners in urban locations with a large Chinese community, such as Petaling Jaya and Klang, compared to smaller towns or villages.

“TCM practitioners, especially those close to big cities, see a mixed crowd of customers in terms of racial profile and even foreigners who are showing an interest in Chinese medicine.”

TCM practitioners are finding it hard to attract young talent to the trade 

Younger talent

One of the biggest threats to the trade, says Ma, is attracting young talents to the business.

“Succession planning is a big problem for many of our members as more of them are retiring with no suitable candidate to take over.

“Even if we can find the right person, it will take time to train him in the trade,” Ma says.

The average age of CDDA members, says Ma, range between 40 and 50 years old. Hiring retirees was once an option, but it has seen high turnover owing to long operating hours.

Business wise, Ma says sales of Chinese medicine and herbs only contribute 5-10% of a TCM practitioner’s earnings, with the rest coming from consultations.

High sales and a steady flow of patients are crucial to sustaining the business. Common ailments faced by those seeking help from TCM practitioners include the flu, cough and cold.

Preparations such as herbal tea to reduce heatiness are among the best selling items from a Chinese medicine hall.

Ma says herbal preparations for consumption have evolved in terms of packaging to suit modern society.

“You no longer need to boil herbs for hours to consume it as medicine.

“They now come in powder, pill, or tablet form, thanks to working with a good manufacturing practice (GMP) partner.”

TCM practitioners, who previously ran their Chinese medicine halls alongside sundry shops to encourage sales, are now weaning off their non-core competencies.

“Over the years, mini-markets made it harder for those with a two-in-one store concept to compete. Many TCM practitioners are now doing away with the sundry side of the business.

“We notice that those who focus on Chinese medicine see their businesses improving. This is because of their distinct services which patients can relate to,” says Ng.

Inventory, says Ng, is important. But it is capital intensive at the same time.

“We stock over 400 to 500 types of herbs and ingredients at any one time. A smaller practice would only stock up only 200 to 300 herbs instead.”

Also, as the weak ringgit impacts margins, practitioners are more careful in planning their inventories.

“There have been concerns in the past of Chinese medicine and herbs from China being tainted with chemicals.

“As an association, we are working closely with our importers to weed out dubious sources.

“By working with local GMP partners, we can ensure the quality of our preparations,” stresses Ng.

Replacing animal parts with plant-based remedies

THE use of animal-based remedies in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is declining, according to the Chinese Drug Dealers Association (CDDA).

Its Federal Territory and Selangor culture and education officer Ng Kean Hwa says CDDA members have long opted for plant-based substitutes to animal-based remedies, in view of global animal protection and trafficking regulations.

“It is not easy to source for rare animal parts which can be expensive owing to limited supply,” he says.

In June, TCM practitioners made the news when they pledged support to replace the use of endangered wildlife parts with sustainable substitutes.

Ng says one of the issues faced was the extraction of bear bile which is traditionally used to reduce inflammation and internal injuries.

Ng says TCM practitioners are using alternatives to animal-based remedies and adopting plant-based preparations instead

“Our members have stopped selling bear bile for many years. Those suffering from serious internal injuries or inflammation would know better to seek immediate treatment at hospitals as opposed to coming to us,” he says.

However, the bear bile issue still remains as customers request the item from medical halls. Ng says a plant-based version is already widely available but is often mistaken for another product.

Prescribing rhinoceros horn to alleviate heatiness has also stopped, owing to wildlife protection laws.

“Nowadays, bottled “rhinoceros-horn” water is made using plant-based ingredients. The name remains as customers are used to the brand moniker.

“It is impossible to sell a bottle of cooling water made from “rhinoceros-horn” for such a low price when each horn easily costs over RM1.2 mil,” Ng says.

Switching to plant-based remedies help the TCM trade to reach a wider audience as it can now target the vegetarian and halal markets too.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 255.