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Local Intelligence: Draline Tong Herbs

In Oakland's Chinatown, an herbalist provides medicines, salves, and consulations

Draline Tong Herbs 02Since 1979, those with ailments ranging from high blood pressure to infertility visit Draline Tong Herbs in Oakland’s Chinatown for Chinese medicines, salves or just to chat with the owner, Henry Lau, a herbalist. Lau spends his days concocting combinations of up to 20 different seeds, roots and dried plants to boil into pungent teas.


Lau immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in 1969; his mother-in-law, a renowned Hong Kong acupuncturist, arrived in 1974. Lau’s father and grandfather were herbalists, his daughter is in medical school, his niece is an acupuncturist, and the family imports herbs for wholesale. Draline Tong means “Peaceful and Just Center.”


Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill legalizing acupuncture in California in 1975. There are now about 11,000 licensed acupuncturists in the state who may prescribe herbs, and eight herbal pharmacies in Oakland’s Chinatown alone. Herbalists do not require licensing. Lau said his store began attracting non-Chinese customers in 1995.

Draline Tong Herbs


On a recent Monday, business was brisk. One customer bought six bottles of cold-prevention herbs as gifts. Three elderly Chinese women bought prescriptions that Lau totaled on an abacus.


Lau made diagnoses in a back office, where he observed tongues and complexions while listening to chief complaints. From a desk he pulled a stack of Chinese books with formulas and medical commentary dating back thousands of years. “The god for the doctor,” he said, holding the worn books with reverence. “Always I am learning.”


A consultation along with a week of herbs costs $30. Lau, a member of a large health management organization, sees a Western doctor for an annual checkup, but he said he had yet to be told anything he did not already know.


The earthy-smelling shop stocks around 1,000 different herbs. Inexpensive dried fruits — the size of golf balls and sweeter than sugar — are used to treat coughs and constipation. Deer antlers and ginsengs promote vigor.


Lau, 62, works from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Sunday, when he works from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. When will he retire? “The minute before I die,” he said.

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This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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