Reptiles, Fungi, Needles

2,000-year-old Chinese medical traditions in modern Chinatown

Text by Brad Dell  ||  Images by Maxfield Terrell Smith


I once had to eat a radioactive egg, slathered in strawberry jam to make it go down easier (it didn’t), for a medical test to see how fast I could digest things. I thought that was one of the weirdest medical practices I would ever encounter. However, after visiting a few traditional medicine shops around Chinatown, I found I hadn’t even skimmed the surface. Feeling weak at band practice? Boil a gecko in your tea for extra endurance. Shoulder pains? Nothing electro-acupuncture won’t fix.

Weirdness, like many things, is relative. For more than two thousand years, people all over China have relied on these traditional medicinal methods for their wellbeing long before antibiotics or other modern medicines were introduced to the world.

Traditional Chinese medicine has found its way to Hawai‘i, and shop owners say it’s only getting more popular. I visited three of the most popular traditional Chinese medicine shops around town and left smelling of ginseng and incense.

Fook Sau Tong

112 N. King. St.

Roaches, sea dragons, and cicadas may not be your cup of tea, but Dr. Suen Hang Yee may convince you otherwise, if you’re sick enough. Dr. Yee runs Fook Sau Tong, a shop overflowing with jars of reptiles, bugs, fungi and herbs. These ingredients are usually boiled in water, then strained into soups and teas for consumption by those wishing to fix ailments and enhance bodily functions. Walking through the shop is not for the faint of heart, unless you’re looking to overcome such weakness. Dr. Yee, recognizable by his iconic suspenders and tie, has been running his shop of wonders for 42 years. The shop also offers acupuncture and cupping, a practice in which cups are placed over the skin to create suction and increase blood flow. Dr. Yee is looking to retire soon, but will be working until he can find an apprentice willing to learn the ways of reptile tea.

Chinese Acupuncture and Herbs

1159 Maunakea St.

Udon, ramen, pho, fungus soup—all of these can be found in Chinatown. Leanna Chee sells the final of these four. Boxes of exotic teas and soups line the shelves of her shop, some for colds, others for arthritis pain. Many soups and teas are prepackaged, while others are customized by Chee based on her customers’ ailments, which are described to her before she prescribes the concoctions to drink for the next couple of days. Piled in the center of the shop are hundreds of bags filled with roots and other items you would expect to find in a forest. Chee’s family opened Chinese Acupuncture and Herbs in 1970, which makes this the oldest shop on the list. Entire families have become regulars of Chee’s, visiting her more than their doctors. While Chee offers acupuncture, she says that her store is most popular for herbs. Don’t come here expecting to find Dr. Yee’s type of ingredients, though: “No animal parts,” she says. 

Hou Ren Tong, Inc.

183 N. King St.

Gary and Nancy Lin learned traditional Chinese medicine together in China before moving to O‘ahu to run Hou Ren Tong, Inc. with Gary’s parents in 1984. Gary and Nancy run the store themselves now and have earned a reputation for being kind, even when they’re sticking needles into you. Despite being the youngest shop on the list, Hou Ren Tong, Inc. is also the busiest —locals and tourists alike fill the waiting room to receive acupuncture, cupping, or herbs. Gary says that their shop is best known for cupping and acupuncture, especially electro-acupunture, which involves passing an electric current between needles stuck into the body to provide continued stimulation. “I don’t know what the other shops are doing,” Gary says. “We do our way.”