Niche Market | Traditional Chinese Medicine

Preparing Chinese medicine prescriptions at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy on Grand Street in Manhattan.

New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market will take a peek inside a different specialty store and showcase the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. Slideshow below.

Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy
211 Grand Street
New York, NY 10013

There’s a reason 85 percent of the customers at the Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy on Grand Street in Chinatown are non-Chinese. While the shop has been in the area since 1973, it is by no means your typical traditional Chinese medicine emporium. 

Thomas Leung, 42, is a fourth generation herbal pharmacist, who runs his family’s traditional Chinese medicine business, taking what his great-grandfather started in the small village Ting Yun in Guangdong Province, and combining it with modern business techniques, some of which he picked up while working at a Walgreens after college.

He strides through the shop pointing out some of the more common items. He points to a glass jar brimming with huang qi (astragalus) sticks that look like a rustic tongue depressor. “When you want to strengthen your Qi, that is the premiere herb for that,” he said.

Pointing at a jar of small yellow, pistachio-looking lian zi (lotus seeds) he notes, they are good to stop bedwetting, “an easy fix.”

Leung, who moved to New York at age 7 from Hong Kong has spent his life in medicine shops, “as a free source of labor,” and has a remedy for any ailment.

Herbal prescriptions being prepared. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

He unrolls a flap of du zhong, (rubber tree bark), pulling the taut brown bark and exposing the silk threads. “Good for lower back pain, not because you’re hit by a car, but old age,” he said. (Photo below)

All the herbs are to be used as soup broth, or cooked like tea. Du zhong, Leung notes, is best prepared with pork bone soup.

Generally, though, Chinese medicine is not like a Western drug store, where you find a pill for your specific ailment. “Two patients can come in with a headache, but my formulas can look different than yours based on our constitutions, or presentations, age, everything,” Leung said.

As a child, he dreamed of being a sports broadcaster, but his father squashed that plan. “Drop that dream real fast,” Leung remembers him saying. Instead he became a licensed pharmacist and got a degree from the University of Buffalo.

Working as a supervisor at Walgreens, he liked the way they documented every transaction and conversation with physicians. “These things we take for granted in a western pharmacy, I took that and incorporated into our Chinese herbal pharmacy.”

The Kamwo shop reflects Leung’s diverse experiences. There are floor to ceiling drawers, like a giant card catalog stuffed with bags of fresh herbs, and ancient looking Chinese scales dangling from the ceiling.

Wearing a green smock and rubber gloves, the store’s only non-English speaking staff fills herbal prescriptions, laying out orders on crisp white paper and folding concoctions for ailments like headaches, muscle pain, constipation and even breast milk production. Each paper envelope contains one-day’s worth of herbs. In the basement, there is a clinically clean room for weighing the herbs that have been cooked, dried and crushed into a powder, for customers that don’t like dealing with the earthy, dried herbs.

“It’s not therapeutically superior to raw herbs. I tell people Folgers is never as strong as Starbucks, but then again it’s better to have Folgers than no coffee. Not everyone is willing to brew herbs so this is a modern alternative to that,” Leung said.

It’s one of the modern conventions he’s brought to the shop, which does a brisk business in person and online.

Standing near a rack of herbal face cream, which Leung’s father created, Carolina Devarona, 23, visiting from Miami, made a special trip to Kamwo for some treatment. She’s a nurse and suffers from bad asthma in the winter. “I don’t know how to mix the teas and so I’ll just get the pill form,” she said. She doesn’t like the steroids in western medicine. Unfortunately, she said, she’s not permitted to recommend it to her patients.

Waiting for her prescription to be filled Wendy Wang, 30, thinks she might have chronic bronchitis. Her doctor tells her it’s allergies, but the pills he prescribed haven’t relieved her chest pain. So she’s at Kamwo to pick up a concoction that includes di long (dried earthworms) and the placenta of an animal. She saw it on a TV show and is giving it a shot. “Chinese medicine is something you can try with not too much side effects. This is an ongoing course. If it’s doing good, I will keep trying,” Wang said.

Ayla Yavan, 35, is a local acupuncturist and a new mother. She often sends her patients to Kamwo, but today she’s picking up a formula she designed herself, which she hopes will increase her breast milk production. It includes fenugreek and several other herbs, but she admits the origin of the ingredients is of some concern. “Sourcing is an issue, it’s not FDA regulated. So it’s difficult to know and a lot of times we’re not seeing the herbs were prescribing our patients, or they’re in a cooked form or granular form, but that that’s why I like this place, they cater to a Western population.”

Dutifully filling out prescriptions that are emailed in or written by local doctors is Chen Jian. The Chinese-born Chen, 60, has worked in traditional medicine most of his life and says the herb business is more tightly controlled in China than in America. But, he adds, “There is a strict process to select the herbs for export.  Normally, the best quality is sent overseas.”

Interview with Thomas Leung, owner of Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy

What do you take if you notice everyone in your office is getting sick and you want to prevent a cold?

There are certain herbs you can take to strengthen your Qi. You don’t have enough Qi, your immune system is going to be weak. In Chinese medicine your immune system is described as our defensive Qi. And there are certain herbs to help strengthen our defensive Qi. Something like astragalus root (huang qi), something commonly used in Chinese medicine and Chinese food. You can put it in soup to boost your immune system. Codonopsis, (dang shen), they don’t have much of taste so you can put it in soups and you get the goodness of it. It strengthens the spleen Qi, which helps build blood and give you overall strength.

But it’s not about just taking a particular herb. Tt’s about your lifestyle, too. Getting enough sleep helps with your Qi, also eating right, correctly. After that, if you still need boost, there are certain herbs. But if you’re partying all night, I’m not sure taking astragalus root is going to help you.

When you get really sick shouldn’t people just stick with Western medicine?

There’s some truth to that, but certainly I wouldn’t say that’s true all the time. Emergency medicine, Western medicine is king. In China, if you get hit by a car no one is rushing you to the herbalist. You’re going to the ER. Chinese medicine is a relatively novel concept in the United States, where you almost have to choose to “believe” in Chinese medicine or do you “believe” in Western medicine. In China they view it as medicine and they chose what’s best depending on the situation. Like if you have a serious acute infection you’re going to go to your western physician but for more preventive medicine they will use Chinese medicine and thirdly, often times, both of them can be used together. The people who study Western medicine they know about Chinese medicine and vice versa and they work together. But here in the U.S. because Chinese medicine is still new and novel and doesn’t have the equal footing of Western medicine it seems like it’s either/or, but that’s certainly not the case in Asia.

What’s the most expensive item in your shop?

An herb called cordyceps (dong chong xia cao), which is a fungus that took over the body of a worm. It’s from Tibet and goes for $6,000 a pound or $800 an ounce. And people are actually naïve enough to think it’s $800 an ounce-good like that would translate in efficacy, but actually it’s not. I tell people when I was nine years old the same herb cost $6.50 cents an ounce. Very few people buy this. We only keep three or four ounces on hand. We have to carry some because certain formulas call for it, we usually call the practitioner and say, ‘hey you sure you really want to use this?’ Often times they back down. One of the most common uses is for asthma. But there are other herbs with comparable effectiveness that are 1/8,000 of the price. It does have this aura of superiority because of its price. If the Bill Gates of China was taking you out to dinner, I’m sure there are cordyceps in the soup.

What kind of customers do you have?

Most of our customers are not Chinese. Only 15 percent of our customers are Chinese. We’re situated in the outer perimeters of Chinatown, but a lot of our business is mail order. We ship all over the United States and we have a lot of non-Chinese customers. Many certified herbalists in New York State are also acupuncturists and most are not Chinese. When they set up shop in small towns they see non-Chinese patients.

What’s the best selling item?

It’s like walking into a pharmacy and asking what’s your best selling item. Most of the formulations are customized, so there isn’t a best selling item.

A complete prescription at Kamwo of various herbs and dried flowers.

( Stephen Nessen )

Chrysanthum flowers at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy. 

( Stephen Nessen )

Traditional Chinese scales at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy.

( Stephen Nessen )

Dried Chinese yams at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy.

( Stephen Nessen )

Preparing prescriptions at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy.

( Stephen Nessen )

Cupping cups also for sale at Kamwo, along with various other traditional medicine tools, including acupuncture supplies.

( Stephen Nessen )

Astragalus root (huang qi) at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy.

( Stephen Nessen )

Traditional knife for cutting herbs at Kamwo. Workers say it is probably about 20 years old.

( Stephen Nessen )

Preparing prescriptions at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy.

( Stephen Nessen )

The lab where granular herbs are measured and prepared in the basement at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy.

( Stephen Nessen )

Machines used for extracting medicine from herbs at Kamwo.

( Stephen Nessen )

Morinda herbs at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy.

( Stephen Nessen )

Rubber bark, used for lower back pain, and best prepared with pork bone soup.

( Stephen Nessen )

Preparing prescriptions at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy.

( Stephen Nessen )