My family were revered healers

Koo Hock Chuan retelling the heydays of his family's traditional medicine business, which used to operate from the Yin Oi Tong building in Lebuh Penang.
PHOTO: My family were revered healers

"It all started with my great-great-grandfather, Koo Suk Chuan, who came to George Town in the early 1780s, with the early wave of Meixian immigrants from China.

"Koo was then the man to go to if you felt ill. With his own concoction of Chinese herbs, he would peddle medicine, carrying them in two baskets at each end of a pole the way nasi kandar was originally sold, in every nook-and- corner of the city.

"His hard work paid off within seven years, and he managed to set up a small shop named Yin Oi Tong, which means The Hall of Benevolence."

Playing raconteur to this success story is Koo Hock Chuan, a fourth-generation Koo, at his home in Genting Highlands, Pahang.

Hock Chuan was recounting the glory days of Yin Oi Tong in the 1930s, when the business was managed by his father, Kuet Kuen.

The hall, aptly located next to the Goddess of Mercy temple in Pitt Street (now Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling), was a household name among Chinese immigrants, who were then wary of Western medicine.

"In the years to come, Koo's efficacious Chinese medicine became highly sought-after outside the Straits Settlements, and in Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.

"Being the only Chinese medicine wholesaler in Southeast Asia, the family-run Yin Oi Tong thrived and relocated to three triple-storey shoplots in Lebuh Penang.

"Back then, the family business had grown to what you can compare to a full-fledged private specialist centre. We had also opened another hall, called Yin Choon Tong, located right opposite our Yin Oi Tong," said the 81-year-old retired architect.

At Yin Choon Tong, which comprised two units of triple-storey shoplots, locals would consult a resident sinseh (traditional Chinese doctor) to help them identify their ailments and be prescribed with medication.

Hock Chuan said both outlets were a hive of activity each day. His father and an army of employees had their hands full tending to walk-in customers as well as orders by mail from all over the country.

"I remember the pulley system at the three airwells. My father and uncle would shout orders to the top and the employees stationed there would prepare the medicine in a jiffy and send them down."

The pulley system was used to lower bundles of herbs to the ground floor from the upper floors, where herbs were stored in racks and jars. Home for Hock Chuan and his extended family of 19, including his uncles and their families, was on the top floor of Yin Choon Tong.

The good life and business for the Koos, however, came to an end during the Japanese invasion in 1941.

The traditional medicine empire that his ancestors built was reduced to rubble, recalled Hock Chuan as he remembered the chaos on the island that fateful day.

"Butterworth was first bombed and there was widespread panic. I was only 8 years old then. All of us got into the family station wagon and rushed to the deep forests of Air Itam, close to Flagstaff Hill (Bukit Bendera).

"And all this took place a day after my second youngest sibling was born, so you can imagine my mother's anguish."

The arduous drive was accompanied by the frightened cries of Hock Chuan's siblings and their driver's prayers.

"I remember how our driver was chanting prayers aloud as he dodged bullets from a Japanese fighter plane shooting at our car."

Reaching the safety of the forest in Air Itam, they sought refuge under an attap shed.

Three days later, his father ventured to George Town with an uncle and the driver.

"He was devastated by what he saw. The shophouses were ransacked and a bomb had landed on a shop opposite Yin Oi Tong, narrowly missing it."

Frightened but relieved, Hock Chuan's father tried to salvage whatever valuables and stashed them in the family car. On the way back to the jungle, a Japanese patrol tried to stop them.

"At this point, the still traumatised driver panicked at the sight of the Japanese guards. He veered the car off the road and crashed into a tree. The soldiers took away the valuables but let them go," he said, adding that the jungle and shed was their home for the next few months.

After the massive looting and bombing had stopped, Hock Chuan's father and uncle decided to pick up the pieces at Yin Oi Tong.

Business picked up but after a year without sufficient supply of herbs, his father, with a dozen men in tow, travelled to China to replenish their stock.

"They hid gold bars by tying them around their waists and traversed the jungle tracks and rivers to reach China."

The elder Koo used the family savings to build a 100-room ancestral home in Meixian, in northeastern Guangdong province. Upon his return to Penang, the family business continued despite the dwindling supply of herbs.

After the Japanese left in 1945, Hock Chuan's father was forced to close Yin Choon Tong. The Koo family fortune took a turn for the worse when the civil war broke out in China, forcing most of Hock Chuan's relatives to seek refuge in Penang.

Hock Chuan said with the dwindling interest in traditional Chinese herbs because of the influx of Western medicine, his father was forced to divest the family fortune in rubber planting and tin mining.

"After high school, I pursued my education in Australia despite my father urging me to take up the reins of our family business.

"For three days, my father tried to convince me but later, reluctantly gave in."

Down Under, Hock Chuan took up odd jobs but was forced to send home his savings after the family's foray into the tin and rubber businesses bore no fruit.

"With the money I sent home, my father bought more herbs but by then, people were less interested in traditional Chinese medicine.

"My father's health was also failing, so he handed over Yin Oi Tong to his brother."

Hock Chuan's uncle ran the business for about 20 years but later sold it to a salesman who used to work for him.

"The family business has ceased and its glory days are gone. Every time I pass the building, I can't help but feel sad at our heritage lost through tribulations.

"The laughter of my siblings and the clacking of the abacus still rings clearly in my ears. I will forever cherish the moments when we healed people for generations," he said with a tinge of sadness.

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