Singapore HeritageFest: Traditional medicine gets a voice

Mr Lee Chin Siong's (left) clinic is one of the participants of this year's Singapore HeritageFest.
Mr Lee Chin Siong's (left) clinic is one of the participants of this year's Singapore HeritageFest.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Mr Lee Chin Siong, vice-president of Heng Foh Tong Medical Hall, has been rebranding his family's business in the last three years based on a simple belief: For traditional Chinese medicine to stay relevant, it has to be integrated into people's lifestyles and not just be seen as medicine.

The 52-year-old created a 28-day herb package for women who have just given birth. He is also looking to roll out an herbal tea that is sweeter, has a longer shelf life and contains bird's nest, in order to attract young people drawn to desserts like bubble tea.

His clinic in Bukit Batok is one of the participants of this year's Singapore HeritageFest, which is showcasing the history of hospitals as well as featuring traditional Eastern medicine.

Among its programmes is a virtual tour of its premises, containing so many precious furniture and jars rare in Singapore that Mr Lee called it a "mini-museum".

His four children will also talk about how herbs have been used in the food for their dinners by their grandparents since they were little.

Mr Lee said: "More than half of the young people have not stepped into a traditional Chinese medicine establishment, partly because of the language barrier and because there is more belief in Western medicine.

"But our herbs are more gentle, and can be integrated into people's daily diet. Everyone has had herbal soup."

The engineering-trained Mr Lee left his corporate job three years ago to take over the family business, which has been profitable only through his parents' frugal lifestyle.

Like other traditional healing practices, it was at real risk of fading into irrelevance.

He then decided to use his market research expertise to target specific demographic groups like new mothers and those recovering from surgery to sell his herbs, capturing a "significant" market share.

"The new mother package is quite popular. Each day is different and nutritious and the soup is easy to make, taking just three steps," Mr Lee said. "For those recovering from surgery, we also partnered a fish company so that our herbs can be packaged together and be delivered to their doorstep."

He added that he has six years to "break out of the mould" before the clinic's lease expires.

Malayala Ayurveda Vaidyasala, Singapore's longest-established Ayurveda clinic, is also invited to the festival. The Indian healing practice, which involves massages, medicated oils and herbs, is non-invasive, and sought out by young people with sports injuries and more elderly patients with arthritis.

Mr Manesh Appoo, 53, whose family is the clinic's proprietor, compares it to traditional Chinese medicine's "tuina".

He acknowledges that there has not been much scientific research done for the practice.

"Unlike modern medicine, you don't have scientific evidence to prove that this actually works," he says. "We get our customers mostly through word of mouth but this is a commitment to keep our family practice alive."