Strange medicine

1 Sep 2006 by business traveller

Not long ago, Guangzhou's Qingping market was famous mainly for its unmentionable stenches, mingled with the cries of chickens, rabbits, owls, rats, civet cats and other animals that were regularly dispatched on the spot for customers at the meat market. The sprawling maze of shops, stalls and wet markets that made up the bazaar was a place that animal lovers or those with weak stomachs were strongly advised to steer clear of.

After the outbreak of SARS in 2003 – which was said by some to have pole-vaulted the interspecies viral chasm by way of the civet cat – the Guangzhou government decided a change was in order. A modern metropolis, after all, is no place for a market with so much illness-generating potential – not to mention the bad publicity. So a plan was drawn up for the Qingping market's transformation from an anything-goes local market to one specialising in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Three years later, the transformation is nearly complete. What was once the heart of the old market has been replaced with a new nine-storey TCM plaza. It's a clean mall with wide aisles and escalators, and a hundred or so stalls of varying sizes. On my visit the spaces were still empty, waiting to be filled with merchants dealing in everything from acupuncture needles to zebra testicles.

"We're still selling slots," said Li Wei, a sales representative for Hopefluent, the real estate company developing the attraction. "This is going to be a very good place not just for locals, but also for tourists, and much more suitable than the old Qingping, which really made a lot of people uncomfortable."

The mall may not have been fully up and running on my visit, but in the surrounding alleyways and in an old three-storey building to the west, it was business as usual for the purveyors of ingredients used in the local arts of healing. Near the building, two young women sat displaying their wares in baskets. From a distance, they seemed to be selling oddly shaped yang rou chuan, the lamb kabobs that are ubiquitous in Beijing. Closer inspection revealed a basket filled with dried lizards, splayed and sewn two to a stick. At CNY15 (£1) per stick, the price seems cheap. But what are they good for?

"They strengthen the immune system," said one of the women, "so you won't get coughs and colds. Preparation is simple: just soak in water – or wine. "The taste is kind of bad, so most people soak them in bai jiu (Chinese white liquor)."

Along Qingping Street, one shop owner said she isn't worried about competition from the new mall. "It'll attract more customers, and they'll shop all around the neighbourhood. It's certainly better than the old market." Madam Yang said she's been running her small enterprise for over a decade, and noted my curiosity at one product, something resembling long, flat potato chips and shaped like a cow's tongue. "That's tian ma pian," she explained. "It's a tuber that grows in Guizhou. It's very popular with students cramming for exams because it can help improve memory and concentration."

I bought a bundle, and Mrs Yang instructed me in its preparation. "Take two slices and soak them for a few hours in water, then drink the water." (For the record, I've been drinking it for 24 hours, and feel only slightly more erudite than usual).

The garrulous lady introduced me to some of her other merchandise, much of which came from the sea. Dried puffer fish is sold by the kilogram and can be made into a broth. "It's very good for digestion," she said. Apparently, dried seahorses, which are scooped from the waters around Hainan Island, can be ground and made into a good tonic to strengthen the kidneys. She smiled when I asked if she has many western customers. "Not really. I think most of them don't believe in Chinese medicine."

Aside from sceptical customers, the other, more serious, problem with TCM is that some of the animals used in the ingredients are threatened species; many species of seahorse are recognised as vulnerable or endangered.

Not every Qingping market merchant shares Mrs Yang's affability with curious browsers who have no serious buying intentions. A few shops have signs reading "no photo" in English, and shopkeepers are clearly uninterested in being chatted up by a pen-and-notepad wielding westerner.

"Go away," one told me "I'm trying to run a business." As far as I can tell, though, his shop sells only ginseng and dried sea animals, with none of the more exotic ingredients on display, such as bear gall bladder bile, an item in high demand – not as aphrodisiac, as many believe, but as a panacea for liver ailments and general pain. This has been another controversial substance due to concern over welfare conditions of bears kept in farms across China, Korea and Vietnam, where they are harvested for their bile.

Some of the merchants have few qualms about trying to impress inquisitive foreigners in their midst. "Here, try this," said one young shopkeeper, handing me a tiny piece of what looked like the thin, white stalk of a mushroom. He watched closely as I chew the stalk. It had the consistency of a stale marshmallow, sans the flavour.

"It's dried extract of tiger's penis. It'll make you able to have sex all night long." He offered to sell me enough for a week-long orgy for a few hundred yuan. I graciously declined the offer.

Further down the block on the corner, in front of the stairway overpass that leads to Shamian Island, sat another group, all dressed in traditional Tibetan clothing. Their wares were of a decidedly politically incorrect nature: tiger bone, tiger claw pendants and whole tiger paws, all spread on blankets while the merchants employed the hard sell approach.

"Real tiger paw from Tibet," one yelled at me, thrusting a dried paw into my face. After scanning the area for anyone looking like a party member, I mentioned to the merchant that the Dalai Lama had requested that all Tibetans stop dealing in endangered species.

"The Dalai Lama said that?" he responded, grinning broadly. "So did the Chinese government. So they actually agree about something."
Though aggressive, the middle-aged Tibetan-clothed merchant, called Jiashi, was friendly, and expounded further on the efficacy of his product. "You can shave off little bits of the nail and drink it with hot water. It's good for high blood pressure and cures sinus ailments. It can also strengthen your xiao didi (little brother, or penis)."

Of the paw's authenticity I can't vouch. Jiashi asked CNY300 (£20) for it, which seems awfully cheap for such a rare commodity. But I have serious doubts about the veracity of the man's claimed lineage. His Mandarin was perfect and his accent pure northern China. Of the dozen or so claw, bone and assorted jewellery merchants affecting Tibetan garb, only one or two had even remotely Tibetan facial features. But despite my doubts about his claim to Tibetan lineage, Jiashi was a pleasant enough sort. At one point, a group of camera-toting foreigners started taking pictures of his goods and he yelled "no picture" in English, but without much enthusiasm. I sensed that this was a common occurrence. "Why don't they listen – is my English wrong?" he asked.

"I think they were French," I replied. Jiashi confided to me that westerners rarely buy his goods. "Mostly they just take pictures. I want to charge them 10 yuan (65p) per shot."

I wished him good luck and moved on to the largest remaining part of the old Qingping complex, a three-storey structure on the west side of the new mall. This complex, too, has been cleared of livestock, and now deals only in Chinese medicines. The market was crowded on this Sunday afternoon, and the most prevalent item being sold in here was ginseng. I bought some, expecting it to be Chinese, only to find out that it comes from Wisconsin (the state is apparently diversifying its investments away from a strictly cheese-based portfolio).

There's a plethora of animal items for sale in the older market: dried starfish, deer antler, scorpions, and whole snakes (both dried and floating in bottles of liquor). One item on display in many shops is dried deer tail. The black strips – about finger-length with a hard consistency – are sold in abundance. "This comes from Malaysia," a young shopkeeper told me. "It is soaked in hot water to make tea, and is said to cure back ailments. One piece lasts a really long time."

So while the Qingping market may have undergone fairly severe renovations, nobody would say it's been entirely gentrified. The civet cats may have gone, and the tiger claws driven onto the sidewalk. But it seems unlikely that post-renovation Qingping will make any friends among conservation organisations. And as far as believers in the medicinal value of dried starfish, crushed scorpion and lizard on a stick should be concerned, it's probably a good thing.

Where to stay

China Hotel, A Marriott Hotel (tel +86 20 8666 6888, marriott.com), The Garden Hotel (tel +86 20 8333 8989, thegardenhotel.com.cn), Holiday Inn Shifu (tel +86 20 8138 0088, ichotelsgroup.com), White Swan Hotel (tel +86 20 8188 6968, whiteswanhotel.com). Novotel Baiyun Airport Guangzhou opening November (novotel.com).

Getting there

London-Guangzhou No direct flights. Connections available with Lufthansa, Finnair and Air France. Return fares with Finnair (finnair.com): economy from £658, business class £3,023. Return fares with Lufthansa (lufthansa.com): economy from £774, business £1,904. Return fares with Air France: economy from £725, business £1,726.

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