MOCA Exhibits ‘Chinese Medicine in America’

Andrew Rebatta, assistant curator, with Herb Tam, curator and director of exhibitions, in the background at the “On the Shelves of Kam Wah Chung & Co.” exhibition, one of two exhibitions on Chinese medicine at the Museum of Chinese in America. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

[Editor’s note: Sing Tao Daily published three stories about the new exhibitions on “Chinese Medicine in America” at the Museum of Chinese in America. The stories have been combined and condensed into the following translation. Two of the stories can be found online – one gives a preview of the show and the other details a Chinese medicine shop in Oregon during the 19th century that has been recreated for the exhibition.]

What is Chinese medicine about? And what happened to it after traditional medical practices from the east brought by Chinese immigrants landed in the the U.S. more than a century ago? The public may be able to find answers at “Chinese Medicine in America: Converging Ideas, People and Practices”and “On the Shelves of Kam Wah Chung & Co.: General Store and Apothecary in John Day, Oregon,” two related exhibitions unveiled on April 26 at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).

As the first such effort in New York, the exhibitions, rich with artifacts and artwork, show the history and development of Chinese medicine in the U.S. as well as the philosophical concept behind it. At a time when Chinese medicine is receiving increasing recognition in the world and the debate in China among supporters of Chinese medicine and Western medicine rages amid the government’s strong push for Chinese traditional culture, the exhibitions may also point a way toward how two seemingly incompatible medicine schools may co-exist.  

The exhibitions are the result of two years of meticulous work of a team led by guest curator Donna Mah and MOCA’s own curators Herb Tam and Andrew Rebatta. One exhibition presents treasures from Chinese immigrant families, medicine stores and the museum’s own collection, such as traditional herbal medicines, mannequins marked with acupuncture points and meridians and rare ancient medicine books, accompanied by the works of nine contemporary artists showing how medicine, philosophy and history are linked, and how metaphysical concepts including yin yang, qi, and the five phases shaped not only by Chinese medicine but also arts, diet and many other aspects of Chinese life. The curators also commissioned original woodblock prints from emerging artists Vincent Chong and Robert Cipriano, to show notable figures in the history of Chinese medicine.     

The other exhibition focuses on the story of Kam Wah Chung, a general store and apothecary founded by Chinese immigrant doctor Ing Hay and his friend Lung On in John Day, Oregon, in the 19th century. An isolated small town with some 1,700 people surrounded by mountains, John Day may not be a well-known name to many people today. But in the late 19th century, it was the third biggest Chinatown in the U.S. with more than 2,000 Chinese residents.

Hay, also known as Doc Hay, bought a local store with On and turned it into Kam Wah Chung after he immigrated there from Canton, China, in 1887. The store offered not only various daily necessities but also served as a Chinese medical clinic and a community center for immigrants. Thus Hay brought his knowledge of herbology and pulsology to a remote part of Oregon during a time when Western medicine was still in its infancy. Even after many Chinese left the town by 1900 during the economic depression, the store stayed and expanded its clientele to non-Chinese newcomers until Hay died in 1952. The store was later preserved by the local government and turned into a museum.

Chinese medicine displayed as part of the “On the Shelves of Kam Wah Chung & Co.” exhibition. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

The exhibition partially reconstructs the shelves of the store, and presents artifacts from patented Chinese medicines developed by the doctor to historical photos and patient records.    

Tam, MOCA’s curator and director of exhibitions, said that for a long time Chinese medicine has been underrecognized in the U.S. It’s related to the bias and stereotypes Chinese immigrants suffer in this country. Now the situation has started to change, partly thanks to the recognition given to Chinese pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015 for her discovery of artemisinin, a substance in sweet wormwood that can treat malaria. “Chinese medicine has gone through the same bad rap as Chinese immigrants. Now Chinese medicine is more incorporated into Western medicine. [With the exhibitions] we want to take back these practices as Chinese,” Tam said.

This happens to be an interesting time in China as well. Since Lu Xun, the early 20th century Chinese writer and the most famous one in China’s modern history, started to portray Chinese medicine as no more than quackery in his novels, the debate between people who are faithful to Chinese medicine and those who believe it should give way to Western medicine has never ceased. The debate picked up more heat in the past two years with the Chinese government strongly promoting traditional cultures in China and in the world. Chinese Americans who are involved with the exhibitions don’t like to take sides.        

Mah, the guest curator and an American-born Chinese, said she didn’t believe in the traditional wisdom about health her grandparents used to lecture her about when she was a child. Mah said her grandmother would not only frequently cook herb soups for her, but also restrained her from having certain foods.

“My grandma didn’t allow me to have too many lychees. When I asked her why, she said because they have too much ‘jit hei’ [Note: Cantonese, meaning heat] in them. I asked her what is ‘jit hei’ and she just shrugged,” said Mah. So Mah thought it was only a trick to stop her from eating too many lychees because the fruit was expensive until she went to China as an adult, had as many lychees as she could at once and got a full mouth of blisters. “It turned out my grandmother knew what she was talking about. And the unexplanatory traditional wisdom has some truth in it,” Mah said.

This and her later experience of being cured of a long-lasting skin condition by Chinese medicine sent Mah, a Wall Street veteran, back to school when she approached 40 to learn the traditional remedies that she used to overlook. She is now a doctor and teacher in Chinese medicine.  

About the debate between Chinese and Western medicines, Mah said it’s important to build up a communicative framework. “If we always discuss this in the framework of east versus west, there will be no common ground,” said Mah. “We should realize we have a lot to learn from each other. There will be tension. But we cannot run away from the tension. We should realize the tension but keep listening and talking. That’s how the yin and yang work and that’s what I’d like to see.”

Zhang Hongtu, an artist who grew up in China and moved to the U.S. in the early ’80s, said the debate over Chinese and Western medicines is similar to the debate about art genres that used to be heard in China decades ago. They both reflect a problematic mindset of Chinese culture which tends to look at differences through the prisms of right and wrong. “Both in medicine and art, we’ve seen three schools including the traditional Chinese one, the western one and the fusion of east and west,” said Zhang. “Each of the three has their own reason to exist. They should all be allowed. If more people can see the world this way, the world will be a better place.”     

The exhibitions run through Sept. 9. For details go to mocanyc.org.

Get a glimpse of the exhibitions in this video from SinoVision English Channel:

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