Growing up in Hong Kong, many of us used to associate traditional Chinese medicine with elderly male doctors practicing in dusty old corners – and of course the stinky potions our mothers would boil up when we weren’t feeling well. To survive the bitter taste, we had to gulp down the mixtures quickly, nose tightly pinched.

Nowadays, this outdated image has changed drastically. While the potent potions still exist, they are no longer prescribed or used solely by elderly men in dusty old corners. In fact, they are being embraced by a younger generation in spotless private clinics. Traditional Chinese Medicine, commonly referred to as TCM (zung1 ji1 中醫) is the new trendy kid on the alternative medicine block.

In 2005, a household survey showed that 14 percent of the Hong Kong population had had a private consultation in TCM, compared to more than 50 percent in Western medicine. By 2015, the figure for TCM had risen to 18 percent, with rates for Western medicine remaining stable. This steady increase in TCM consultations over the past ten years shows how this ancient practice is gaining new strength as a serious alternative option.

35-year-old Michelle Law is one of the doctors bringing this ancient practice to a modern Hong Kong. We visit her at the Vitality Centre in Central, where her work focuses on TCM for fertility and gynaecological issues, as well as dermatological cases of acne. Law began her studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which offers a six-year undergraduate programme in TCM. While TCM knowledge used to be acquired wholly through apprenticeships, the Basic Law required the Hong Kong government to enact policies regulating TCM after the handover in 1997. During the colonial period, there were no laws governing TCM and technically anyone could claim to practice the tradition, which dates back over 2,500 years.

For more than a century, TCM was encouraged by the Tung Wah Group, the city’s oldest and largest charity organisation, but its popularity took a hit with the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s. For decades, support for TCM declined and its fate was left to the open market. That led to concerns about dodgy practices, which eventually led to the establishment of the Chinese Medicine Council of Hong Kong in 1999, which regulates TCM.

Even before that, interest in the practice was being revived. Three Hong Kong universities began offering undergraduate TCM courses in 1995: the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University and Baptist University. In order to practice legally, TCM doctors must pass a licensing exam needs to be passed. Older practitioners who were already in business were given a transition period in which their academic qualifications and practicing experience was examined.

Law had always known that she wanted to work on something tied to the human body. When former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa announced the goal of turning Hong Kong into a TCM hub, she saw an opportunity. “I wanted to study the human body, how to alter it or change it,” she says.

TCM is rooted in Taoist beliefs that the body is a smaller version of the surrounding universe and that harmony needs to be balanced between the opposing forces of yin and yang, cold and hot or excesses and deficiencies. Qi (hei3 氣), literally “breath” or “air,” is the life force and vital energy that flows through the body maintaining its health and functions. Its founding principles can be read in books such as The Emperor’s Inner Cannon (Wong4 Dai3 Naap6 Ging1 黃帝內經), from the year 111, and Treatise on Cold Injury (Soeng1 Hon4 Leon4 傷寒論), which was compiled around 220, both during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

While TCM was fading in popularity in postwar Hong Kong, mainland China was making an effort to standardise it and integrate it with contemporary notions of anatomy and disease. One major difference between the mainland and Hong Kong is that mainland TCM practitioners are allowed to conduct surgeries and prescribe Western medicine, something that Hong Kong practitioners are not allowed to do.

But things are changing. Since 2006, practitioners have been allowed to issue sick notes for patients. And while TCM is still very much based in private clinics, there are subsidised TCM outpatient units in public hospitals. “It is very much a personal choice to go for TCM, as it is usually more expensive than Western medicine within the public system,” says Law.

Law focuses on acupuncture and herbal medicine in her sessions with clients. Most come for gynaecological issues and muscle-skeletal pain. TCM is holistic, so before even touching a patient, Law asks questions about their whole life in order to design an appropriate treatment. Different medicines have to match the current condition of a patient’s body, while acupuncture aims to restore the balance of a body whose energies are out of sync. It is about treating the cause, not the symptoms.

“When a person is alive, their energy is on,” says Law. “You cannot see it or feel it, but it is there. It is charged.” The meridian lines spanning the body from head to toe are the lines along which the qi runs, similar to electromagnetic fields. After the needles are in, patients usually rest for about 25 minutes before they are removed. For medicinal tonics, the important element to look for is a GMP label, standing for Good Manufacturing Practice.

Though manufacturing standards have improved, taste hasn’t –Law assures us that most of the potions still taste pretty awful. “A deficiency-curing medicine may be a bit sweeter, but if it is a pain killer, it’ll still be pretty strong,” she says with a laugh. Herbal medicine does not require any legal prescription. Many Chinese mothers still know which combination of herbs to get for basic ailments, knowledge that has been passed down through the generations.

Most of the Vitality Centre’s patients are not traditional Chinese families, though. 70 percent of Law’s patients are expats, reflecting the increasing popularity of TCM among non-Chinese people. “People were less knowledgeable about TCM before, but with increasing media exposure and dissatisfaction with Western medicine, demand for it has risen,” says Law.

More research funding is also being distributed to TCM. Law researches at the Chinese University’s Western medicine faculty and works as a consultant with pharmaceutical companies who are interested in over-the-counter products rooted in TCM, especially for fertility and post-partum care.

The Western medical establishment has long looked down on TCM for lacking empirical rigour and scientific foundation. But new studies have shown that for certain areas, especially related to maternity and pregnancy care, there is value in merging Chinese and Western traditions. For instance, acupuncture can boost the success of in-vitro fertilisation. The World Health Organisation has also officially recognised the benefits of acupuncture for the induction of labour, morning sickness and post-partum depression.

Law herself often recommends her patients to combine acupuncture sessions with osteopathy. “The fist and the leg are the two weapons of the body when you are wrestling,” she says. “You need both to have a high chance of winning. If you do not feel well, why not take advantage of both Eastern and Western medicine to ensure a better chance of recovery?”

It seems that more and more people are taking that advice. Not only are more people turning to TCM as a solution, the number of practitioners is also on the rise. When Law studied, there were only about 15 students in her class. Today there are more than 30 students in each cohort, with at least 80 percent then moving onto clinical work.

“It is a life-long career,” she says. “The more I practice, the more passionate I become.”

To learn more about TCM approaches to pregnancy and postpartum care, join Law’s colleague and mentor Cecilia The at the Hong Kong Maternity Conference on Saturday, October 15, 2016 at the JW Marriott Hotel, 88 Queensway, Hong Kong. 

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.