We made a visit to Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy this past weekend and documented the experience below. Kamwo first opened in 1973 as a family-owned and operated Chinese herbal pharmacy. After outgrowing the original space, the business relocated to its current location on Grand Street on the border of Chinatown and Little Italy. Kamwo has watched the Chinese Medicine profession expand significantly in the West and grew to meet the needs of the evolving Traditional Chinese Medicine community.
Deep in the heart of New York's Chinatown, amid the hustle and bustle of the produce markets, sits the Kamwo Trading Company, a Chinatown presence for the last 25 years. Its goods, including cricket wings and licorice root, are the makings of herbal brews. There are more than 1,500 ingredients, and some are not for the faint of heart.
"It's hard to explain to your patients, 'You really need that lizard in your tea,'" said Thomas Leung of Kamwo Herb & Tea. Leung, the fourth generation of his family to distribute Chinese herbs, said he sees it as his mission to bring the Chinese herb business -- one he's worked in since he was 9 -- to mainstream America.
"My goal is to have Chinese medicine accessible to everyone, not just to Chinese people," Leung said. Leung said he has no problem with Western medicine. In fact, he said you can't beat it for treating symptoms. He should know because he worked as a Western pharmacist for three years. "If you're having an asthmatic attack, the spasms, it's a good idea to use your inhaler and not go make your tea," he said.
But to get at the underlying root of some problems, Leung said Chinese medicine should be given a try. Some Western doctors agree. "Chinese medicine is good at dealing with some of life's lesser issues like chronic back pain," said Dr. Henry Lodge of Columbia University Hospital.
Hocus pocus for your health? Since putting aside full-time work as a pharmacist to return to his roots, Leung has found many roadblocks. "A lot of people have misconceptions," he said. "They think it's hocus pocus. "And then you have people who know very little about alternative medicine but have a lot of very strong opinions about the field. And you have to go against that." Then there's the "ickiness quotient." It's a business, after all, that deals in cicada shells and gecko lizard bodies.
Chinese customers tend to boil the herbs loose, but for squeamish Western customers who don't want to know what's in their tea, Leung said he'll bag the bugs, sometimes in one huge tea bag. Leung's efforts have paid off. Since working in the business full-time, Leung said his Western clientele has picked up. Don't eat the lizards.
His non-Chinese business has increased 20 percent in just three years, and Leung has hired other English-speaking herbalists to talk to non-Chinese customers when he's away. "When a non-Chinese customer comes in, we give them extra instructions," he said. "We print out pamphlets on how to prepare herbal medicine."
The pamphlets give simple instructions: Don't drink the soaks -- they are made just for bathing in -- and don't eat the herbs. "You strain the herbs -- never eat the herbs," Leung says. "A lot of people think you eat the herbs. You don't eat the herbs, you just drink the tea." With faxes pouring in from acupuncturists and druggists across the country for 200 prescriptions a day, the company is branching out. It has a new acupuncture studio as well as a tea room in the back of the store. Leung has been tireless in promoting the medicinal value of Chinese herbs. He said the time is right, and experts in the field agree.
"There's a number of different market and social factors that have created this herbal interest," said Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council. "First of all, there's the philosophy that natural is better." However, Leung said no one should limit themselves to either Eastern or Western medicine. There's nothing like a bout of asthma treated with an inhaler, followed up by a good strong cup of sea horse, to clear the lungs.
View the original article on CNN.com here.