As you make your way north up Dihua Street (迪化街), you might notice the buildings getting a little smaller, a little older looking, and a little less bustling than their counterparts at the southern end of the street. From their gritty appearance and crowded interiors, you might think that these smaller shops found at Guisui Street (歸綏街) and beyond are on their last legs. However, as Chinese medicine shop owner Xiu-li Jiang (江秀麗) explains, it's this failure to "keep up with the Joneses" that has kept her shop Jin Xing Tang (進興堂藥行) in business all these years.
Jiang and her husband Jin-ting Wu (吳進廷) have been selling medicinal ingredients, spices, and other dried goods for 21 years. In 1993, Mr. Wu was working in the Chinese medicine division of Heping Hospital (和平醫院) and Ms. Jiang was employed as a seamstress when a shop became vacant at the corner of Dihua Street and Guisui Street. Taking the advice of a friend, the couple came to see the space and decided to go into business for themselves. Ms. Jiang learned from her husband and eventually became certified by the National Research Institute of Chinese Medicine (國立中國醫藥研究所).
The way Jiang explains it, the secret to Jin Xing Tang's success is that the family never got caught up in the trend of renovation and renewal that swept Dihua Street over the past decade. In fact, the shop has changed little since its founding, as evidenced by the furniture which has been in use all these 21 years. Ms. Jiang says that customers who see brightly lit shops with shiny counters and shelves neatly stacked with goods will immediately assume the goods are overpriced, whereas Jin Xing Tang's loyal customers know they are not being overcharged just to cover overhead expenses.
On any given day, a visitor to Jin Xing Tang will likely find Ms. Jiang standing at the grinding machine she keeps on the sidewalk in front of the shop. She says that her standard spices -- freshly ground cinnamon, black pepper, or anise -- are big sellers, but her passion and expertise is in medicinal cooking, or 藥膳.
One of Jiang's specialties is 四神湯, or "Four Gods Soup." Made with Job's tears (薏仁), lotus seeds (蓮子), Chinese yam (淮山), and fox nut (芡實), the soup can be eaten as is or cooked together with a pork chop. Its diuretic properties make it popular as a natural weight loss remedy, and Jiang says that many young women return weekly to stock up on her soup blend. This may seem unusual to those who assume that Chinese medicine is largely emphasized by older generations, but in fact, many of Jin Xing Tang's regulars are young entrepreneurs opening up their own medicinal cuisine restaurants.
Perhaps one of the most popular items at Jin Xing Tang may not be recognizable in its basic form, but this traditional cough remedy can be seen in homes and offices throughout Taiwan.
The cough remedy, 八仙果 (which can be translated as "Eight Immortals Fruit"), gets its name from the collection of eight traditional ingredients that are typically used to make it. Before it is diced into cubes like these, its round shape appears a bit grapefruit-like -- which makes, sense, since grapefruit is the standard vessel for all that medicinal goodness. The pale cubes come from grapefruit that has not been peeled, while the darker cubes come from fruit that was peeled before preparation.
Not quite sure what this is? You're not alone. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou caused a bit of a stir in March 2014 when he praised New Zealand for its 鹿茸 without being entirely clear on what it is, or the fact that Taiwan has plenty of its own. What Ma didn't know is that deer antler (called "velvet antler" in English when it is cut off at its base before it calcifies into a bone-like state), is sliced and boiled, the broth then sipped like a tea. The antler has numerous uses in Chinese medicine, but the most often mentioned are its effect on cleansing the blood and on male virility.
(We probably don't need to get into the details of this particular remedy, as its name and at least one potential purpose will be evident to anyone who thinks about it for a few seconds. If you're stumped, head here.)
Luckily, not everything at Jin Xing Tang requires explanation. The red roselle flowers (洛神花) shown here can be brewed into a wonderful hot or iced tea, and are also used in jams, popsicles, and cocktails.
Besides traditional remedies and spices, any visitor to Jin Xing Tang is in for a healthy dose of gossip. During any lull in business, however, the owners will likely be found in one of two places: next door chatting with one of the neighbors, or in front of the shop's TV, catching up on dramas and variety shows.
Also on the scene most days is the owners' son, who grew up absorbing information about Chinese medicine and is now an expert in his own right. He's one among the younger generation you'll see throughout Dadaocheng, though he says that many shops have closed when the older generations passed away or retired and their children did not want to learn the trade. He explains that while the second generation generally will not let the family business die out, it's typically the third generation that closes up shop. Asked if he plans to continue his parents' business in the future, he says "Of course... but I'm only the second generation.”
For those who speak Chinese, you'll find that while Mr. Wu could never be described as chatty, both he and his wife are always glad to indulge the curiosity of visitors who want to learn more about their trade. They can explain not only what an item is, but also where it was grown, its medicinal uses, and how to prepare it.
When dealing with visitors who are unable to speak Chinese (or who have a hard time understanding her thick Taiwanese accent), Ms. Jiang does her best to communicate, or else she will grab an English-speaking neighbor to translate. For those who know little about Chinese medicine, she tries to make recommendations that are simple, such as 粉光片, slices of ginseng that are brewed in 100cc of hot water to make an energizing drink.
Jin Xing Tang may not be the fanciest Chinese medicine shop in Dadaocheng, but its proprietors certainly have charm and are well-loved by their neighbors and customers. If you're in the area, be sure to stop in and say hi to 阿姨. She'll probably be out front, grinding cinnamon.
Jin Xing Tang Chinese Medicine Shop is located at Dihua Street, Section 1, #153.