Traditional Chinese Medicine continues cultural clash with the West in Vancouver
A Traditional Chinese medicine shop in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Last week, customs officials seized 213 bear paws that were hidden hidden inside the tires of a van. The culprits were two Russian men looking to cash in on their medicinal value in China. Their horrific display of wares had an estimated street value of about 570,000 Canadian dollars.
While particularly disquieting, the scene is not an entirely unfamiliar one here in the West.
And earlier this year, at the 5 Tastes Chinese Bistro in the Vancouver’s UBC Village, firefighters found a black bear paw inside one of the restaurant’s refrigerators after responding to a call.
In various parts of Asia, bear paws are fashioned into a soup that can cost as much as $1000 a bowl, a sum that is won for the dish’s exoticism and purported health benefits. The practice has an even more grisly underbelly: in some places, it has been reported that live bears were lowered onto hot coals until their paws were sufficiently cooked.
But it’s not just bears. Other animal parts are as equally prized by smugglers.
In October, officials confiscated 1007 live turtles from a man looking to board a flight to board a flight to Shanghai. This came just weeks after another man was arrested at the Detroit-Windsor border with 51 live turtles hidden in his pants.
These incidents are flare ups in an ongoing battle. Traditional Chinese medicine, which can rely on ingredients that are endangered, is currently engaged in cultural clash with Western values, which are much more attuned to animal rights and conservation. The lengths wealthy Chinese will go to procure some of the more prized items is pushing some animal populations to the brink. Although tigers were once abundant in China, their numbers are now estimated at a mere 3000 worldwide.
In 1998, the Vancouver Human Society exposed the selling of slices of meat from the body of a still live turtle at a Chinatown butcher.
Tiger bones, banned in China since 1993, are still available on the black market, where they are prized as a treatment for rheumatism and arthritis.
And rhino horns, used for centuries to treat fever and infections, and more recently by tony Vietnamese to cure hangovers, has now brought the species to the brink of extinction. In Africa, the last known malenorthern white rhino in the world is now under armed guard.
In Vancouver, where Chinese immigration has changed the city perhaps more than any other in the world, the issue is more prevalent and contentious than anywhere else. Along Main Street and Keefer Street and East Georgia in Vancouver’s hardscrabble Chinatown, there a dozens of TCM merchants. At Guo Hua Enterprises you can buy dried shark fins, dried seahorses and winter melons. At Beijing Trading Company you can buy chilled starfish and peppered plums. And at Inner Essence Traditional Chinese Medicine you can buy five sessions of acupuncture for $350.
If you live here, you will be exposed to the occasional grim reminder of just how deep a divide there can be between cultures. In 1998, the Vancouver Human Society exposed the selling of slices of meat from the body of a still live turtle at a Chinatown butcher.
Several years ago I happened upon one TCM establishment after a meal of steamed pork potstickers and squid. I went in complaining of congestion that was ultimately cleared by removing eggs from my diet several weeks later. After waiting for a few minutes I was shown a back room where the “doctor” in a white lab coat looked at my tongue and asked me about my dietary habits. He told me I suffered from too much warming, and prescribed a type of barley. Of the thousands of items in the shop, I was surprised at how specific his prescription was, given the limited time and information he had that day.
A woman named Grace Tseng was caught on a hidden camera by a crew from CTV news claiming she could cure a woman with fibromyalgia and basal cell carcinoma of her cancer with herbal pills.
Years earlier, a TCM practitioner in Victoria’s Chinatown prescribed me licorice root to calm an ulceric stomach, a suggestion I still feel cured me of all symptoms. As a result of these experiences, I find I am of two minds on the subject, as I suspect many British Columbians are.
This kind of indecision and uncertainty about TCM has become institutional. In her 2013 throne speech, B.C. Premier Christie Clark proposed that the government get behind traditional Chinese medicine.
“An innovative health-care system must respond to the changing needs of its citizens and embrace practices beyond traditional western medicine,” said Clark. “In the months ahead, your government will begin work to create the environment for a school of traditional Chinese medicine at a British Columbian post-secondary institution.”
But when Kwantlen Polytechnic University, a degree-granting undergraduate polytechnic university with campuses in the Vancouver suburbs of Surrey, Richmond, Cloverdale, and Langley, announced that it would be the first to open a TCM school, it exposed the underlying rifts between it and Western medicine.
Dr. Lloyd Oppel, chair of the council on health promotion for Doctors of B.C., said Clark didn’t listen to the scientific community before promoting TCM, something he said he could have unintended consequences.
“If the courses being offered are not based on good evidence or if there’s good evidence that treatments being offered are ineffective or harmful, then, you know, offering things that aren’t real or safe in a university context may give people the wrong impression that they’re getting genuine health treatment,” Oppel told The Georgia Straight. “And so, if—and I’m saying if—if universities offer courses like that, then there’s a risk the public may be harmed.”
The rules are confusing. One man, Stephen Harvey, says he spent almost $70,000 over seven years to get an acupuncture diploma and licence from and establishment called The Shang Hai College, only to find the degree was not legit, and he could not practice in the province.
While that slip-up might be generously described as an error of omission, others in Vancouver are profiting from TCM in ways that are outright fraudulent.
In 2010, a woman named Grace Tseng was caught on a hidden camera by a crew from CTV news claiming she could cure a woman with fibromyalgia and basal cell carcinoma of her cancer with herbal pills.
“If you believe, anything can happen,” Tseng told the would-be patient.
Another issue many are looking at today is not just if traditional Chinese medicine is effective, but if it is safe.
In many of the medicines, Bunce and Haile found something even more troubling. They contained undeclared undeclared Ephedra and Asarum species. Ephedra is a poisonous herb that is banned by the FDA. Asarum is toxic and has been linked to certain cancers.
In 2012, researchers Michael Bunce and James Haile investigated the labeling of 15 traditional Chinese medicines to see if they contained what they claimed to.
“The results of the genetic audit don’t make pretty reading: we found this collection of traditional Chinese medicines routinely contain undeclared plants and animals, some of which are illegal,” said the pair.
In a product labeled “100% Saiga Antelope Horn Powder” the researchers did indeed find the DNA of Saiga antelope. The only problem is that the Saiga antelope is on the endangered species list. Oh, and the pair also found sheep, goat and 13 different plants that were not identified on the product label.
In many of the medicines, Bunce and Haile found something even more troubling. They contained undeclared Ephedra and Asarum species. Ephedra is a poisonous herb that is banned by the FDA. Asarum is toxic and has been linked to certain cancers.
Traditional Chinese medicine dates back to the Shang dynasty, which ruled from 1600 to 1046 BC. The term refers to a wide range of practices that include exercise, herbal medicine, massage and acupuncture. TCM practitioners believe that the body must balance the passive and aggressive forces within it, called yin and yang. Disease and sickness is perceived as an imbalance in the interactions of yin and yang.
TCM was promoted by Chairman Mao who unified all its various strains into national health care policy in the 1950’s, but privately he was less than enthusiastic about it.
“Even though I believe we should promote Chinese medicine,” he once told Li Zhisui, one of his personal physicians, “I personally do not believe in it. I don’t take Chinese medicine.”
Doubts about TCM were nothing new, even in Mao’s time. In 1923, famed Chinese author Lu Xun wrote critically of a visit he took to the doctor with his father.
“I still remember the doctor’s discussion and prescription,” he wrote, “and if I compare them with my knowledge now, I slowly realize that Chinese doctors are no more than a type of swindler, either intentional or unintentional, and I sympathize with deceived sick people and their families.”
Today, some are approaching TCM with what they feel is a more modern perspective. Poppi Sabhaney, a licensed acupuncturist and past president of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Association of British Columbia, says TCM and Western medicine can work in harmony.
“They both have their place,” says Sabhaney. “If you have a compounded fracture sticking out of your leg, I don’t want to see you. But I will help you after you recover because I have things that will help you recover quicker, where western medicine says: ‘Sit and rest and wait.’ ”