The Secrets of Chinatown Herbal Shops

Just what is in all those bottles in Chinatown herbal medicine shops? We took a tour to find out

Susan Sunderland
Friday - September 05, 2008
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Susan Ortiz and Steve McLaughlin listen to how shellfish (lobster/crabs) are a good source of calcium

Just what is in all those bottles in Chinatown herbal medicine shops? We took a tour to find out

Ever pass a Chinese herbal medicine shop and wonder what all those bizarre ingredients are? Well, wonder no more. Leon Letoto of Hawaii Healing Garden Festival recently took us on a Chinatown tour to help demystify them.

And there is perhaps no better teacher of Chinese medicine and cultural arts than Letoto, a knowledgeable and personable expert in his field.

Letoto has practiced oriental medicine for 34 years. He is a licensed acupuncturist and has a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies from the University of Hawaii and master’s from Tai Hsuan Foundation College.

Letoto is a mixed plate of ethnicities: Hawaiian, Chinese, Marshallese and Japanese. He has always been fascinated with Asian culture. Raised in Waipahu, his parents and grandparents brought him to the markets in Chinatown as a youth and taught him to select the best and freshest ingredients for family meals.

He recently led a Chinatown herb shops tour as part of the annual Hawaii Healing Garden Festival that celebrates multi-cultural healing arts on four islands from June through November. A highlight of the Oahu festival was his Chinatown walking tour and Chinese medicinal cooking class. The articulate tour guide is one of the festival’s most popular presenters, providing fascinating facts and insights into Chinese healing arts and dietary therapies.

Ask him where to buy the best live abalone, a great place to find exotic teas and where the sweetest watercress can be found, and he’ll direct you there in a flash.

“It’s cultural to be a smart shopper,” he explains. “The Chinese expect you to do your homework and come to the market already knowing where the best ingredients are and how much they cost. If you pay too much for something, that’s your fault.”

A variety of friendly Chinese herbs greet customers in this Chinatown shop

His anecdotal descriptions of Chinese mercantilism are as much fun as his informal narrative tour of Chinatown’s established herbal shops.

I’ve always avoided these mysterious merchants, thinking they were fronts for an opium den - or worse, a pool hall. I expect to see McGarrett and Danno in a showdown with diabolic Wo Fat in those dark, narrow alleys of Chinatown.

But a little enlightenment counters fear.

There are about 15 herb shops in Chinatown, dotted along Maunakea and Smith streets. There seems to be one for every two noodle shops. There’s no yellow pages listing for Chinese herbalists; you simply have to walk the streets and encounter them by signs - modest, hand-painted ones, not neon displays like those brazen Western pharmacies.

We start at the Chinese Cultural Center on Beretania Street, where Letoto points out Tak Wah Tong Chinese herb shop across from the Moon Gate stage. This is the only shopkeeper, he indicates, who has an ancestor who prescribed herbs to the Emperor of China in the Ching Dynasty, more than 100 years ago.

Scrolls and proclamations hung on the wall indicate a generational hierarchy of high standing in martial arts and medicinal practice.

The Tak Lau family migrated from Canton in 1980 to seek their fortune selling ancient remedies. They offer more than 700 herbal cures for everything from asthma to impotence, even the common cold.

Like most herb shops, the minute one steps into the room, there is a strong earthy aroma. It’s as if one has entered a forest of dehydrated trees, bark, weeds, and petrified animals and insects.

That’s not far from the truth. Letoto tells us that for many centuries China had no refrigeration and ingredients were dried for preservation.

Along the walls of herb shops are neatly arranged shelves of jars or miniature drawers in which wondrous remedies for what ails


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