Chinese medicine makers repackage ancient wisdom for millennials

Richard Eu’s family has been boiling up seahorse, deer’s tail and caterpillar fungus for 138 years, since his great-grandfather started selling traditional Chinese medicine to tin miners trying to wean themselves off opium in what is now Malaysia.

But with younger consumers much more demanding than their forebears, his company — Eu Yan Sang — is stepping up efforts to modernise traditional medicines, from better manufacturing processes to snazzier packaging and easier-to-consume capsules, rather than the cook-at-home concoctions of old.

“Traditionally our customers, over the last 20-odd years, would have been young mothers and older folks but in recent years we see an interest from the millennial market,” said Mr Eu in an interview at the company’s flagship outlet in Hong Kong, which looks more like a Walgreens or Boots than the Harry Potter-like traditional outlets that predominate elsewhere in the region.

“[Traditional medicine] is time-consuming, and nowadays the young people don’t have time to do all this so it’s much easier to pop a capsule.”

Traditional medicine, which uses herbs and animal products to remove blockages in the body’s flow of energy, or Qi, is big business in China, Hong Kong and other places with sizeable Chinese populations such as Singapore and Malaysia.

The market for packaged products in mainland China grew from $6.4bn in 2011 to $11.5bn last year, while the Hong Kong market expanded from $402m to $503m over the same period, according to Euromonitor, a market research company.

Companies such as Eu Yan Sang and rivals such as Hong Kong-listed Beijing Tong Ren Tang and China Traditional Chinese Medicine Holdings, a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical group Sinopharm, are intensifying their efforts to appeal to young consumers.

In the past, customers wanting a calming tonic to help their babies sleep had to boil up a none-too-appetising mix of insects and herbs for an hour. Now, Eu Yan Sang, which…

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