There is a little botanical garden tucked between Queen Street and Bonham Strand West, in Sheung Wan’s busy dried seafood district, which is thronged by wholesale sellers of not just seafood but also dried herbs, bird nests, lingzhi mushrooms, ginseng roots and velvet antlers. If you take the time to read the information panels in the garden, you will enjoy a guide to the herbs and plants being sold all around you.
But it’s easy to miss. Walking past it from the Bonham Strand entrance, it looks like any of the small rest gardens and sitting-out areas that dot the denser parts of Hong Kong. The logo of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department is accompanied by the usual list of things that one must not do, like ball playing and skating. The garden is mainly conceived as a place where to sit and enjoy the open air. Except that on the Western side of the entrance one sees a granite statue of Shennong (san4 nung4 神農) also known as the Divine Farmer, who is credited with being the inventor of Chinese medicine and the father of agriculture. According to legend, this mythological emperor lived in the 28th century BC, and he travelled around the world to taste all herbs in order to ascertain their efficacy. When he died he left behind a catalogue with the details of 365 medicinal plants that is said to be the first compendium of Chinese medical science.
Next to the statue are a series of large panels where this section of the garden is described as being the Garden of the Hundred Herbs (baak3 cou2 jyun4 百草園). You can see photographs of a variety of medicinal herbs with their name, the description of their curative properties and which part of the plant is used as medicine. Another photograph also shows what the plant looks like in the form in which it is sold by the nearby herbal medicine shops.
Some are long strips of white root, others sectioned parts of maroon fruits or orange peel, others again are a tangle of thin filaments tied up in bundles ready to be boiled to make the thick black soups of Chinese medicine. Here we can see, for example, how the common pepper, called piper nigrum in Latin and wu4 ziu1 in Cantonese (胡椒), is useful to “dispel cold from the stomach, subdue upward Qi flow and eliminate phlegm” (qi being the vital energy that circulates through the body). Pumpkin seeds, on the other hand, are to be consumed “to kill worms, to induce lactation, to cause diuresis and cause subsidence of swelling.” The root of the Astragalus membranaceus (wong4 lau1 黃荖), which can be seen in many shops, dried and cut diagonally into white and dense pieces, with a darker outer skin, is described as being good to “reinforce Qi and strengthen the superficial resistance, and promote the discharge of pus and the growth of new tissue”.
It is clear that some of these descriptions, by themselves, are not enough to enlighten us as to the principles of Chinese medicine. What is the superficial resistance? Shall we aim to strengthen or weaken it? Luckily, after having learned to recognize some of the most commonly used plants in the area, we could decide to get a consultation from a Chinese medicine practitioner, who are often available at some of the larger herbal shops in this commercial district. Between the panels and the sitting area are a number of planters with little labels where some medicinal plants are growing, giving yet another chance to learn to recognize the plants and their names.
The little garden is placed just in the middle of what has been, for more than a hundred years, the commercial areas of the Nam Pak Hong (naam4 bak1 hang4 南北行, literally “south and north firms”) – shops that would import products from mainland China, then ship it all over southeast Asia. Conveniently located near the Western District cargo port, these traders were—and still are—one of the strong international commercial connections that make up such an important part of Hong Kong’s history and economy.
Through the years, the import-export element of the trade has remained strong, but as China has opened up, and more Chinese tourists have been coming to Hong Kong, the little triangle formed by Bonham Strand West and Wing Lok Street (both streets are also known as Ginseng and Bird’s Nest Street) has become a favourite destination. Not only because all the medicinal products from China can be conveniently found in this one location, together with bird nests imported from Malaysia and the Philippines, but also because many mainland Chinese have greater trust in Hong Kong’s quality controls on medicinal plants, and prefer to buy here.
Throughout the week the streets around this area are an endless coming and going of trolleys piled high with boxes full of herbs, nests and seafood – some of which are then emptied directly onto plastic sheets or large straw containers to be dried in the sun. It is one of the most endearing parts of Hong Kong Island, constantly busy and deeply attached to its commercial roots. And a pause at the medicinal garden will help understand just what has grown from those roots.