My Jakarta: Koh Abun, Traditional Chinese Medicine Vendor
Mark Vincent Sindhunata
In Chinese movies set before or during colonial times, traditional medicinal concoctions made from natural herbs are often depicted as potent cures that can heal the good guys after another species of plant is used to make a deadly poison by the bad guys.
Koh Abun, a 66-year-old herbalist, runs such a shop located in Jakarta’s famous Chinatown, Glodok. He has prepared and mixed herbs for the last 32 years. He talked to The Jakarta Globe about his life as a medicine man.
What kind of medicine do you sell?
I sell herbs extracted from parts of plants or trees that originally come from China itself, with more than 400 types of medicine being frequently used to cure diseases, starting from coughs, fevers, stomach aches and even deadly ailments such as cancer.
Every disease and illness has its own combination of herbs. To cure asthma, for example, you need to combine 10 types of plants. You boil them together and drink the extract.
Are Chinese herbal medicines more expensive than over-the-counter drugs?
I have to say yes. But if you compare it with other more complicated prescription drugs, it may not be. It depends on the doctor. But, even when people already know Chinese medicines are expensive, they still buy them because Chinese herbs are known to not having any side effects, unlike conventional medicine.
What is the most expensive of them all?
The most expensive is a kind of unique grass from the Tibetan plateau. It costs Rp 11 million [$1160] for 37.5 grams. It is known to cure many diseases, including cancer. Medical research from all over the world has also acknowledged its medicinal value. Since it is very popular, it becomes very expensive.
What kind of medical training or education do you need before you can run a Chinese traditional medicine shop?
You must undergo one kind. If you are a ‘shin se’ [traditional Chinese doctor]. But for me, who just sells and mixes the medicine, experience is all that matters. I sharpened my skill when I worked for my brother-in-law for 16 years and with another Chinese herb store also for 16 years. From that massive experience, I can proudly say that I’m one of the most skilled herb mixers here in Glodok.
In order to become a good Chinese medicine seller and mixer, you have to know all of the herbs, how to mix them, how to consume them and be able to inform the buyer or patient of how to take them.
I heard that Tua Pek Kong [a Chinese temple in Sumatra] sometimes gives visitors coupons for Chinese medicine. Is this fine, considering it didn’t come from licensed doctors?
We can’t do anything about that. Admittedly, receipts from the temple are usually unrelated to the patients’ illnesses. For example, they sometimes give a ‘prescription’ for stomach ache, when in fact you have a fever. Even so, I still gave them the concoction they asked me to make. Besides, it’s also a matter of belief after all, that’s why I suggest you double-check with the herb mixer about what the concoction is really for, and decide on your own whether you still want to get it or not.
Have things changed since you started this business 32 years ago?
Of course. The main differences are the supplier and the way you make the combination. Thirty-two years ago we just had one big supplier to supply our store. The price was also very high because that single supplier dominated the market. But we now have four big suppliers. It makes the market much more friendly, due to its very competitive pricing.
The other difference is the quality of the plants. When I started this business, plants from the supplier were in rough shape. You had to cut the leaves or flower from the stem. Now, the supplier already cleans all the parts you want and puts it in the packet. It means we can better serve the costumer.
Is it true that many traditional doctors are unable to make their own medicine?
That’s so true. I can say more than 80 percent of the shin se can’t make their own medicine. Most of them are just able diagnose your illnesses and make the prescription. It is because they just take formal education to become a shin se and nothing else. Making your own medicine is hard, considering you have to pick the right combination and observe the quality of the plants all by yourself.
Are your customers predominantly Chinese Indonesians?
No. The truth is, non-Chinese buyers are actually our favorite customers. They come here a lot and have more faith in our medicine than Chinese people do. I never would’ve believed it if I hadn’t experienced it myself. I am Chinese and all my family is Chinese, but if one of them gets sick and needs medicine, they refuse to drink Chinese medicine, even when I am the one making it.
Koh Abun was talking to Mark Vincent Sindhunata.