Just shy of 90 years old is Cheng Woh Medical Hall, located along Lebuh Campbell in George Town. It was established in 1933 by Guangzhou native Lee Pak Fong, who left his hometown in Mainland China for Malaya in 1891.
Unlike most Chinese medicinal halls in Penang, where physicians provide consultation and diagnosis, Cheng Woh operates as a supplier of all sorts of Chinese traditional herbs and herbal remedies. According to Lee Xi Wen, Cheng Woh’s fourth generation proprietor, one of the key principles the shop has been abiding by – and which has kept the business running all these years – is their relentless effort to understand the different requirements of their customers. “It doesn’t always take the most premium herbs to cure certain medical conditions,” Xi Wen confides.
He also understands the way retail works these days. It’s all online. “We’ve digitised our business,” he says – and digitisation doesn’t mean just having a website – “and we’ve gained better outreach beyond our existing pool of customers through online shopping platforms such as Shopee and Lazada. It eases the purchasing and delivery process, and customers can order our products online without coming to the store.”
Old school equipment used to prepare the herbs.
Cheng Woh’s interior is starkly different from the traditional Chinese medicinal halls that one may have in mind: it’s brightly lit, air-conditioned, neat and, well, modern. Products are tidily packed and arranged, and labelled clearly in English and Chinese; and they have a steady stream of local and foreign walk-in customers, including tourists from countries such as Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.
“We change with the times,” says Xi Wen. “Many others have not, and perhaps this is because there is nobody to inherit or take over the business – I’ve observed that this seems to be one of the most common reasons why proprietors are reluctant to revamp their halls.”
Running a medicinal hall does have its own challenges and requirements. “We need to ensure that the right medicines and herbs are accurately prescribed to fulfil our customers’ various requests and cure their medical conditions.
“One challenge is the rising cost of agricultural products – the direct result of several factors, including the rapidly decreasing number of farmers and the rising cost of land. As the overall speed of urbanisation accelerates, agricultural activities are pushed into the rural areas, and it becomes harder to get young blood to venture into farming,” he says.
“Another thing is, we provide all sorts of herbs – from entry level to premium ones – and some of these only grow in colder climates, so we have to import them. The harvest yield of some of these herbs have shrunk, which translates into higher prices.”
And as traditional Chinese medicine’s popularity in the mainstream grows, the demand for such herbs will only increase. A double-edged sword, but Xi Wen is taking it in his stride. “As our business continues to grow, we are looking into expanding our online presence, which provides us with more flexibility in several aspects. The nature of our store, which purely dispenses medicines and herbs, also gives us more room to develop as we can recruit employees much easier than medical halls that diagnose illnesses,” he adds.
Cheng Woh's products are neatly packaged and arranged for the benefit of customers.
Xi Wen believes in combining the best aspects of Chinese and Western healthcare; for instance, diagnosing illnesses through technological means, then using traditional Chinese medicine as the cure. “In places like China and Hong Kong, most hospitals practice this combined procedure,” he says. “Apart from that, we’ve also changed the consumption method of Chinese medicine, such as incorporating it into our daily meals. We should understand that Chinese medicine is not only purely for medical purposes; it can also be in the form of soups, for example, which we can consume for our general physical well-being.”
And these can be found in nifty packets, clearly labelled for the purpose they serve: from “Skin Rejuvenation Soup” and “Lung Protection Soup” to “Hair Re-Growth Soup” – it’s informative, and all very creative!