Eu Yan Sang believes the only way for the traditional Chinese medicine industry and the 135-year-old family business to survive is to go upmarket –
In Eu Yan Sang’s ninth-floor dispensary at Times Square in Causeway Bay, there is not a whiff of the heavy aroma of dried herbs and animal parts that permeate traditional Chinese medicine shops.
That is because the medicines are packed in sealed plastic pouches containing ingredients typically portioned out for single use or processed into powder or pills.
Products range from the familiar, such as clover honey, to the esoteric such as sea conch and ox gallstones.
If one is unsure of how to make preparations such as deer’s-tail tonic, which is thought to fortify bones and invigorate the kidneys, simple directions in English and Chinese are printed on the back of each package.
This is all in a bid to make Chinese medicine upmarket and modern, which Eu Yan Sang thinks is the only way the industry could survive into the future.
Alice Wong”You won’t hear us talking about yinand yang and qi [life force],” says Alice Wong Suet-ying, the managing director of the 135-year-old family business. “We use modern language and strive to make our products accessible to everyone.”
Taking a sip of rose-infused tea, she says: “For example, rosebuds are unlikely to turn off the sceptical consumer. But rose is actually a natural laxative that supports healthy liver function. When your liver is better able to filter out toxins, your whole body feels better.”
Wong recalls that in 1989, when the group’s chief executive, Richard Eu Yee Ming, left a career in investment banking to try to salvage his family’s Chinese medicine business, his peers were shocked that he joined a “dying industry”.
But at the urging of his father, Eu organised a management buyout of the business from relatives in Singapore and Malaysia and restructured it to form Eu Yan Sang International. He has been the company’s chief executive since 2001.
Wong joined the group as an accountant in 1993 and took on the role of managing director in 2002. Since then, she has helped steer the company towards scientific research and modern presentation.
Eu Yan Sang’s products are sourced from around the world and processed in state-of-the-art factories in Hong Kong and Malaysia.
Its 300 stores across the Asia-Pacific are located in shopping centres, high-end supermarkets and subway stations – a strategic decision made in an effort to position Chinese medicine at the centre of a fast-paced urban lifestyle.
Under Wong’s watch, Eu Yan Sang has invested millions of dollars in commissioning studies at leading universities and independent laboratories to test the effectiveness of its flagship products and develop new treatments.
Research carried out by the Chinese University of Hong Kong over a three-year period proved that the group’s “Menoease” pills could relieve discomforts of menopause, for instance.
The group is now working with another local university to explore treatments for Parkinson’s disease.
“The only way Chinese medicine can survive is to verify traditional knowledge with clinical testing and make advanced scientific innovations,” Wong says.
She notes with approval that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced in his first policy address in January that the government would form a committee to examine the development of the city’s Chinese medicine industry, and she hopes the government will devote more resources to the industry.
Last month, the group launched an advertising campaign that uses short films to illustrate its benevolent beginnings. Founder Eu Kong was an entrepreneur who provided traditional Chinese herbal remedies to treat ailing Chinese miners in Malaysia in 1873, which led to the opening of the first “Yan Sang” shop in 1879.
Wong says the group now seeks to secure its future by positioning itself as the foremost Chinese medicinal company serving the ageing population in Asia and around the world.
But the brand’s modern veneer does not appeal to everyone.
Choi Po-chu, a 77-year-old former seamstress, who has frequented the same back-street medicine shops in Wan Chai for decades, says: “Eu Yan Sang is a good brand and tourists and younger people like to shop there. But the prices are too high and I don’t need to shop there.”
Another older woman, who preferred not to be named, says she feared rising rents and large firms like Eu Yan Sang would mean the extinction of traditional small shops where “every owner knows the names and unique needs of every customer”.
“Good luck finding that in a shopping mall,” she says.
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