HONG KONG – Tamiflu is the hot drug now as people prepare in case a deadly super-flu outbreak should sweep around the world. But herbalist Wong Chi-sun is putting his trust in what looks like a plastic zip-lock bag full of some really bad weed.
He sells a blend of some classic Chinese fever-fighting remedies: squiggly yellowish buds of honeysuckle flowers, brown seed shells from the weeping forsythia, crumpled black Dyers Woad leaves and dried chips of Isatis root.
It's not a bunch of mumbo jumbo and quackery, the Chinese medicine practitioner says at his storefront clinic filled with the earthy, musky smells of herbs and other things like dried sea horse and deer antlers.
"Western medicine is about treating symptoms," says Wong, who wears his hair slicked back and walks around in flip-flops. "Chinese medicine is about treating the person."
Leung Ping-chung, a Chinese medicine researcher, agrees, saying Western medicines target only specific parts of the body.
"If there is bacterium, kill it. If there is a virus, get rid of it. If there is a cancer, remove it," says Leung, director of the clinical trial center for Chinese Medicine Research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Wong's treatment for the flu is meant to cleanse the body and reduce fever. The herbal mix smells like a blend of tobacco, mulch and dried apricots.
After the herbs are boiled and strained, the deep brown tea reeks like wet, rotting earth. It has the strong, bitter taste of burned popcorn mixed with water left over from boiling chewing tobacco.
Dr. Alvin Yee Shing Chan, a physician who follows Western practices, says there is little scientific proof that Chinese medicine works.
"Western medicine is based on scientific evidence," says Chan, a council member of the Hong Kong Medical Association.
He says that through scientific trials and studies, doctors know that Tamiflu works against human flu viruses.
In Asia, it appears to be helpful in treating victims of bird flu, and many scientists are hopeful it can help thwart any mutated flu strain that might set off a global epidemic among humans. But there is no scientific proof Tamiflu would work against such a super-virus, Chan says.
Leung, the Chinese medicine researcher, says herbal remedies, which treat the whole body, can be useful when modern medicine lacks absolute knowledge of how a disease works.
Chinese patients are open to both approaches.
Li Wae Zhun, a 57-year-old convenience store clerk, says if she had symptoms of a severe cold, she would go to the Western hospital first, and then to the Chinese medicine doctor.
"Western doctors are quick and effective, but Chinese medicine is better for the body," she says.
Hong Kong's government isn't taking sides. It is stockpiling Tamiflu and running hospital drills in case of an outbreak. But officials have also urged Chinese medicine practitioners to be ready to help prevent the spread of any pandemic.
The Health Department also is handing out pamphlets that tell Hong Kongers to drink teas with herbs such as ginger, mulberry leaves, mint and dried chrysanthemum, which could help build up immunity.
Wong, the herbalist, is also willing to give Tamiflu a little plug.
"It probably is somewhat useful," he says.