“Celebrating 50 years of Chinese herbalism with a dose of Aussie humour
Former president of CADCAI Ken Wong celebrates his golden jubilee as a Chinese herbalist in Cairns this year. WONG King Shiu (黄競軺), commonly known today as Kenny or Ken, arrived in Cairns from Hong Kong in 1961 when he was a nine-year-old. Back then, who would have thought that he would not only follow his father’s footsteps to Far North Queensland but also his career, which has now spanned fifty years?
Speaking with Diana Giese for the National Library post-war Chinese Australian oral history project in 1997, Ken recalled helping his father after school doing chores: from packing herbs to serving as a go-between, interpreting for his father’s patients. In fact, from the day he landed in Australia, young Kenny was consciously or not already preparing for his future in this country. When Kenny realised that his high school grades would not allow him to pursue his engineering dream, he returned to his birthplace to train in Chinese traditional medicine. In Hong Kong, Ken occasionally visited the remote areas to gather herbs; these places of the still rural New Territories reminded him of the undeveloped Far North Queensland that he saw when he arrived in the 1960s. But his training mostly took place in Kowloon in urban Hong Kong where he shadowed a doctor of traditional medicine.
Ken had planned to return to Cairns and work alongside his father, but fate did not allow it. When Ken returned to Cairns, his father’s days were numbered. At the time, it was believed that once “Uncle Sam”, as his late father was locally known, discontinued, there would be nobody to take over his practice.
Ken started in 1973 in the same Draper Street location where his father had practiced. In a recent interview with me as part of an oral history project on Australians with Chinese heritage by the National Library of Australia, Uncle Ken recalled what the hard old days were like when he started out. “At first it was difficult to build clientele as new patients either didn’t know who I was, or they simply didn’t trust Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Herbalism used to be, and in many ways remains, an alternative practice. When Western doctors couldn’t find a satisfactory fix TCM was the patient’s last resort.” Ken recalls his earliest patients were mainly immigrants from European countries with a long tradition of herbal use.
Over the course of his career, Ken’s bilingual and bicultural advantage has allowed him to cement his reputation as a reliable Chinese herbalist in Cairns. Some sceptical clients of TCM initially walked into his clinic terrified. Their hands trembled and their hearts pounded. “Under such circumstances, it was impossible to take their pulse accurately” Ken shared, “but once I cracked a joke, my patient felt immediately at ease. His sense of humour is undoubtedly also a legacy inherited from his father. At the same time, Ken’s deep knowledge of Chinese culture enabled him to find culturally informed solutions for everyday health problems. As a result, returning clientele and word-of-mouth recommendations have allowed Ken to keep his clinic (now in Manoora) open for the past half-century.
On behalf of CADCAI, I would like to express our sincerest appreciation to Ken Wong for his continued contribution to our community in Cairns. We are extremely proud to call him one of our very own. Ken is essentially an assimilated immigrant who practices traditional Chinese herbalism with a healthy dose of Aussie humour. We wish Ken prosperity, happiness, and good health for the next fifty years!
To celebrate Ken’s milestone achievement, I have prepared a poem for Uncle Ken (and our Chinese readers) to be read in Cantonese to rhyme.
This article was written by Christopher Cheng, 13 September 2023
(Photo : Ken Wong at his herbalist in Manoora, February 2023), taken by Christopher Cheng