Materia Medica


Gorgeously illustrated with thousands of Chinese patent medicine labels, Hong Kong Apothecary, with its melancholy beauty, could sit comfortably among the works of Ben Katchor and Chris Ware. For Sinophiles and graphic art fans alike, this book is simply a must-have. The accompanying historical text helpfully leads readers through the pharmaceutical capital of southern China: the home of cork-stoppered glass bottles of U-I-Oil, twine-tied sachets of One Eyed Man’s Herbal Tea, and battered red-and-yellow tins of sugar-confectionery Watson’s Worm Cakes that were given with the parental admonition “If you don’t take your medicine, insects will crawl out your backside and bite you!”

Simon Go, a photographer living in Hong Kong, knows his local apothecary dynasties and their dizzying arrays of remedies. There are old wax-coated pills and modern snake wines for adults, as well as navel plasters applied to keep cold air out of a newborn’s insides and powders applied to the nipples for ingestion via breast-feeding. As he strolls among bonesetters and members of the Hong Kong Medicine Dealers’ Guild, Go can point out an apothecary with scars “caused by the careless spilling of boiling-hot toad paste,” and then inform you that there have been no actual toads in the paste since 1972. Healthier Chinese have fewer boils now, he explains, and rarely need toad plasters: It’s just not worth hunting down the toads anymore.

Despite wonders like the leaflet for “Electrical Rheumatism Plasters,” being a native means that only the past ever seems foreign to Go—as when he remembers glass jars of his grandfather’s homemade rat wine. “I was truly appalled by the sight of all those entangled downy-white rat fetuses. . . . I still remember his contented expression as he relished his regular tonic after meals.”

Over time, these remedies and their packaging have fused with Western aesthetics and packaging technologies—complex engravings discourage drug counterfeiters, and cow-bone bottles are replaced by plastic. Throughout it all, Hong Kong Apothecary displays the artistry and almost accidental beauty born from one society’s struggle with the eternal predicaments of human frailty.

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