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Millions of Indonesians use Chinese medication to tackle wide variety of symptoms

By LEONARDUS JEGHO in Jakarta | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-07-21 10:32
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Traditional Chinese medicine is packaged at the Ban Seng Medicine Store in West Jakarta, Indonesia, on Feb 5, 2020. [Photo Provided to CHINA DAILY]

Lily Heru and her husband always use traditional Chinese medicines when they are not feeling well.

The well-educated couple, who run a textile and garment store in West Jakarta, Indonesia, use the Lian Hua TCM herbal medication for headaches, sore throats, coughs and also to relieve fatigue after a stressful day.

They are among millions of Indonesians, regardless of their backgrounds, who believe in the efficacy of traditional Chinese drugs, herbal remedies and supplements-popularly called obat cina. These items are said to be effective in curing minor ailments and killing or halting the spread of a particular type of bacteria and viruses that cause serious illness.

As in other Southeast Asian countries, traditional Chinese medicines and herbal remedies have been popular in Indonesia for hundreds of years.

According to historians, Chinese physicians first settled in the archipelago in the 16th century after the arrival of Admiral Cheng Ho, a Muslim and a special emissary to the Chinese emperor. The admiral is believed by Indonesians to have played a role in the development of Islam in Southeast Asia.

The latest evidence of the strong presence of TCM in Indonesia was found at this year's 39-day Jakarta Fair trade expo, which closed on Sunday. Visitors to the popular annual exhibition could easily access TCM booths capable of receiving a dozen visitors at a time.

The display stands included those of the country's largest TCM importer, Saras Subur Abadi, and SOHO Indonesia Pharmasi, one of its largest traditional medicine producers.

These two companies and many others have displayed their drugs, herbal remedies and supplements at the Jakarta Fair in previous years, but not for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Saras Subur Abadi booth this year, sales representatives catered to consumers from the 15 cities across Indonesia where its products are sold.

In addition to traditional herbs and medicines, cars, household appliances, furniture, electrical items, handicrafts, banking and service products, and cosmetics are sold at the Jakarta Fair, where some 2,500 companies have stands.

A recent visit to the expo found a number of potential customers at TCM booths displaying items such as Lo Han Juo, Fufang Ejiao Jiang and Yunnan Baiyao, which are designed to tackle fever and sore throats, maintain the immune and gastrointestinal systems, and heal wounds.

A woman who bought Zheng Gu Shui at the Saras Subur Abadi stand said she would rub the ointment on her young son's bruised limbs. She said her family uses TCM as an alternative to traditional Indonesian medicines and the more expensive "modern" medicines that are also displayed at the expo.

In many parts of Indonesia, TCM products are sold at drug stores, along with other pharmaceutical items.

A drug shop owner in the northeastern city of Manado said the majority of customers in the area use TCM in cases of heart failure and also for less serious illnesses.

Pien Tze Huang was among the most popular and most expensive products offered by Saras Subur Abadi at the Jakarta Fair. Consumers said Pien Tze Huang can be taken on prescription from TCM practitioners or "modern" doctors, and that it helps cure infection after a cesarean birth and also assists liver function.

According to a widely held TCM theory, Pien Tze Huang disperses bodily heat, cleanses toxins, promotes blood circulation, and relieves swellings and pain.

Marthina Narvathirosa, public relations manager at Saras Subur Abadi, said Fufang Ejiao Jiang also sells well in Indonesia, as it helps accelerate the recovery of patients with dengue fever. Indonesians typically buy this product for family members who have this disease, and doctors say it significantly helps increase peripheral blood cells and mononuclear cells needed by such patients.

As TCM products have been effective in treating illnesses, healing patients and helping the human body function, the Indonesian government has long allowed the importation and consumption of TCM and related ingredients.

However, the authorities have strictly controlled imports of such products since 2009, about eight years after the establishment of Indonesia's food and drug monitoring agency.

In mid-2020, when COVID-19 cases and related deaths in Indonesia were beginning to grow significantly, fears over the rising number of fake medicines prompted the authorities to impose even stricter controls on TCM imports, notably Lianhua Qingwen capsules.

Numerous sources said this traditional Chinese medication helps COVID-19 patients by dispersing fever, removing toxins and improving lung ventilation.

Narvathirosa urged people to be smarter when buying TCM. She said they should ensure the products they purchase are registered with the authorities, that the information on the packaging is printed in Indonesian, and that such products are imported by a reliable company.

Widespread recognition of the efficacy of TCM and other traditional drugs and supplements prompted then-President Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono to promote traditional medicine studies at Indonesian universities, including prominent state-owned institutions such as Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, Universitas Gajah Mada in Central Java, Universitas Airlangga in East Java, and Universitas Hasanuddin in South Sulawesi.

Some private universities have also established traditional herbal studies with TCM as part of their curriculums.

Roshamur Cahyan Forestrania, a professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy at Universitas Indonesia, said the institution offers a Master's program in herbal medicines. "TCM is discussed in our ethnomedicine and ethnopharmacologist lectures, but it is not yet taught in specialized classes," she said.

The school invites guest lecturers with expertise in TCM to speak in its classes and at public seminars it organizes.

Forestrania, who obtained her doctorate in phytochemicals and pharmacognosy from Ohio State University in the United States, said rising numbers of new students are studying at Universitas Indonesia's herbal pharmacy school partly because its lecturers, including foreigners, are highly qualified and also because the school has excellent facilities.

However, she said the number of students has fallen because many of them want to put their knowledge into medical practice.

This is understandable, because TCM practices are becoming increasingly widespread in Indonesia, and are a lucrative business. There is even a sizable TCM store about 200 meters from the Presidential Palace compound in Jakarta near the downtown area.

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