Feds have their eye on Chinatown’s traditional medicine practitionersBy HONG LEE
May 22, 2004. China Press
Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation conducted a large scale search of the Chinese medicine stores in Chinatown and found at least 16 stores illegally selling products that contain tiger and rhinoceros parts.
These stores are in violation of The 1998 Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act. Because tigers and rhinoceros are on the list of endangered species, the act forbids importing and selling traditional medicine made from these two animals.
David N. Kelley, from the U.S. Attorney, Southern District of New York, said in a press release that the investigation is a warning, indicating that the federal government is determined to enforce the Conservation Act to prevent illegal commerce of endangered animal parts.
Kevin R. Adams, who is in charge of the enforcement unit of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, responded to the concerns of State Senator Martin J. Golden (R-NY) by reiterating the fact that they had confiscated illegal products from these stores. Adams said that they also found medicine containing tiger and rhinoceros parts on the market in many other cites through their investigation.
Old Tune, new Players
Some practitioners recall the incidents of the “June Storm” of 1996, which was set off when the Daily News published an exposé story by Molly Gordy in which she claimed to have found that in Chinatown it was very prevalent to practice medicine without a license. The State Education Department cracked down on Chinese medicinal business and law enforcement personnel came to Chinatown to conduct an investigation on the sale of bogus medicine and illegal medical practices; they made several arrests.
According to Karl S. Leung, chairman of the Association of Chinese Herbalists, another search happened early in 1978, when the State Education Department sent an undercover agent to Chinatown pretending he was looking for a doctor and to collect evidence. The state arrested eight Chinese medicine practitioners and charged them with “practicing without a license.” According to Leung, “this incident had a chilling effect on Chinatown’s medicine practitioners.
“The Association of Chinese Herbalists was formed after this incident, in order to fight for fair treatment from the government,” Leung said. He said that in an agreement reached between government and the industry, Chinese medicine practitioners can operate as long as they do not bill themselves as “doctors,” which includes not advertising as a “doctor” in the newspapers or using “doctor” on their business cards or door plates.
The New York Chinese community still harbors sour feelings over Intro 450 passed by the State Legislation in 2003. Two people testified at the public hearing that some have died after taking Chinese medicine produced in America that contained Ephedrine. The Council’s bill forbade the selling of products with this substance to people under 18 years of age and stipulated that any store selling these products has to post a warning. Stores are also required to inform costumers to consult nutritionists or herbalists before buying these products.
The Association of Chinese Herbalists hired a lawyer to argue their case. The Association said that Ephedrine used in Chinese medicine is very different than that found in western medicine. There is also a clear difference in the dosage and the way it is prescribed.
In an agreement reached by the association and the City Council, the bill acknowledged the distinction between Ephedrine and herbal medicine that uses it as an ingredient. The bill also acknowledged that Chinese medicine is different from western medicine that contains Ephedrine. The Association agreed to remind consumers about its content and to consult herbalists, but not to post warnings.
Getting a fair share
Bou Yiu Leung, who has worked at one of the oldest Chinese medicine companies in Chinatown, the Kamwo Herb & Tea, LLC for many years, said that Chinese medicine is a field too new to most Americans. “Only a couple of years ago,” said Leung, “U.S. Customs did not understand why we imported Gold Silver Flowers, they though of it as some sort of wild grass. When customs officials saw we also import medicinal worms, they literally jumped out of their chairs and looked at us as if we were barbarians.”
Leung said that he has endured countless investigations and searches from the FDA over the years. He said every time officers see something unfamiliar, their instinctive reaction is to confiscate the merchandise. But many of these “unsafe products,” Leung said, “are excellent medicines that the Chinese have been taking for thousands of years.”
Leung said that the FDA investigations and searches are so frequent that they are causing problems for the people running the medicine shops.
Li Penting, who works at Li-An Medicine on East Broadway, said that the government does not recognize the many facets of Chinese medicine and treats it all as the same. He said this only encourages discrimination and hurts the Chinese community more.
The most recent search for tiger and rhinoceros bones only made people angrier. One business owner on East Broadway said that officers came without warning or any advanced notice. He said he is aware that the two products are banned and never carries them in his store. But officers came in and searched the store inside out for two hours. “The customers thought we had done something terrible,” said the owner who would not give his name.
An employee who works in one of the stores felt that the officers expressed clear animosity towards them.
Another store owner complained that his merchandise was confiscated without giving him receipts.
The Association held a press conference after the search, in which Leung lambasted the government for penalizing sellers and practitioners of Chinese medicine and not educating the public about Chinese medicine. He also charged that the government insulted the community. He asked the government to increase communication with the Chinese medicine industry.
Leung said that it is true that Chinese have been using tiger and rhinoceros bones for thousands of years. But most practitioners know by now that these items are illegal and have stopped using them. The problem is that Chinese medicine comes from many places where environmental laws are not as stringent. And because people still believe in their effect, many manufacturers misleadingly put the ingredients on the label to attract buyers, even when tiger and rhinoceros bones are not used.
Leung also said that it is possible that some stores put these products on the shelf without checking the labels. These merchants have no intention of disobeying the law. Leung said that it is unacceptable that whenever law enforcement personnel come to Chinatown, it conducts searches as if every store is guilty of hiding something. Leung said that the sensational stories written in the mainstream media without putting the situation into context hurts the community even more.
Li Penting, who was bestowed an “old medicine makers” honor [a recognition for excellence and familial longevity in the field] by the Chinese government before he moved to New York, knows the problem quite well. Li said that even China has banned the use of tiger and rhinoceros parts. Nowadays, manufacturers use substitutes, for instance goat bones have replaced tiger bones and buffalo horns are used in place of rhinoceros horns. The problem, Li said, is that manufacturers have not updated their ingredient information, which is sometimes used as a marketing strategy. But other times it is due to the fact that each country has its own standards and regulations and manufacturers have found it hard to follow.
Foong-Kiew Wong, former chairwoman of the Association, hopes that the government will understand that Chinese medicine provides a valuable social service, especially to the new immigrant community. According to Wong, many elderly people use Chinese medicine instead of going to a western doctor. Since it is cheaper to see a herbalist, this saves a lot of money for the government in medical expenses. She also pointed to acupuncture, widely used in America, as one of the contributions of Chinese medicine.
Yu Chen Wong, who practices Chinese medicine at the Pearl River Department Store in Chinatown, said that many of his costumers are not Chinese. Wong said that there are generally two types of non-Chinese costumers. One is poor new immigrants; the other is highly educated people with comfortable incomes. Wong said that they prefer Chinese medicine because it has very minor side effects.
(Translated from Chinese by David Hsieh.) Translation (c) 2004, IPA.
This article appeared in Edition 119 of Voices That Must Be Heard, Independent Press Association.
Copyright 2004 China Press.
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