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In Memories of “Tongjitang”

I was born in a family of generations of Chinese medicine practitioners, and my childhood memories are often connected with the Chinese Medicine Clinic downstairs called “Tongjitang”.  It is a Shikumen house with three upper and three lower levels on floors at No. 7 Xizhongheli, Fuzhou Road (Sima Road). The left side of the alley is the “Yijiachun” restaurant (before liberation it was Puanfan Restaurant), and the right side is the Kaiming Bookstore. The main entrance of No. 7 has two tall wooden doors, facing east of the Zhonghe Lane. When I was very young, I remember there was a large floor-to-ceiling wall in the patio, which was made after the Feng Shui Master’s suggestion. The ceiling wall was high, almost close to the lower edge of the second-floor window.

The first floor is for business use. The south wing on the first floor is the check-in and Chinese pharmacy; the guest hall in the middle is the waiting area. The guest hall faces east with floor-to-ceiling windows that open to the patio, which must be opened in the summer. In front of the north wing on the first floor is the infirmary room. I used to observe the whole process of my father’s treatment in the back wing. At that time, there was a brother Hua who followed the doctor and copied the prescription. The north wing room is a Chinese pharmacy that handles prescriptions written mainly by my father and uncle. Against the north wall, there are four vertical medicine cabinets in a row. Each has many drawers, and each drawer contains two kinds of Chinese medicine. There are two masters who are responsible for dispensing the medicine. The medicine-packing paper is spread out on the long-strip medicine cabinet in front; each medicine is weighed one by one, then poured on the paper, and finally wrapped into a neat medicine bag and handed over to the patient. At that time, each visit was usually prescribed for three days, up to five days, and the amount of medicine was light, so it was really convenient for patients to carry it. In summer, some people would bring fresh Huoxiang, fresh Perrin, fresh reed root, and fresh grass root almost every day or the next day. In addition to the smell of Chinese medicine, the medicine shop also has a refreshing fragrance, which is pleasant. The patients who walked out from “Tongjitang” carrying a few packets of Chinese medicine and tying them up with fresh reed root or Huoxiang are a rare scenic sight.

Mr. Hua is the booking attendant. He sits on a high stool as soon as he enters the South Wing. When he books patients, he puts a stack of bronze medals in front of him. The bronze medals have serial numbers. Patients would come and pay for their appointment. He would take a slip to write the patients’ gender, then ask them to wait in the middle guest room. On the front wall hangs a landscape painting by Shi Tao and a rectangular mahogany tribute table in front.  To the left and right walls hang two banners by Wu Changshuo; I don’t remember what the paintings were. The living room is a full set of mahogany grand master chairs and there is also a very strong mahogany garden table in the middle of the coffee table. Usually, the staff at the clinic will eat the meals delivered daily at this table. The Huangpu District was the first to bear the brunt of the “26th” bombing in 1950, which often raised air raid warnings. I was told by the adults to go downstairs and get under the mahogany table as soon as I hear the warning.  I still remember those scenes. From the South Wing on the second floor where I lived, I can see the anti-aircraft machine guns erected on the top floor of the Wuzhou Clinic shooting continuously towards the sky, it is quite a spectacle.

Lao Lu is the clinic assistant, and I had the best time with him. He was my first teacher of Chinese chess. At the beginning, he went easy on me with three pieces: rook, horse, and cannon. I still couldn’t beat him. As my chess skills gradually improved, he would make fewer moves, and eventually refused to let me move. But I still couldn’t beat him in the game. Later, I seemed to win a few games. Looking back, it is likely that he deliberately lost to me, because I am still the young master of the family anyway. I like to be with him, and watch him do various things, such as cutting Chinese herbal medicines, concocting Chinese medicines, and cooking ointments. In order to ensure that Chinese medicines do not deteriorate, when the weather is good, he has to climb to the terrace and spread several kinds of Chinese medicine on a plaque, and put on the roof to dry, then put it away in the afternoon.

There is also a Master Chen. His job is to deliver the decoction to the patient’s home later in the morning. The Chinese medicine is decocted twice. They are placed in two small thermoses of different colors, red and green. The rubber band is tied with a label and inserted into a special cloth bag tied to the bicycle beam. Each patient has a bottle on the left and a bottle on the right. When the medicine is delivered the next day, he will take the thermoses back. The most difficult job was the apprentice who entered the shop later. He had to get up early in the morning, set up a row of stoves, and decoct medicine on a narrow staircase.

In the afternoon, Master Chen would take my father to house-call appointments on a pedicab.  My great-grandfather Ding Ganren used to sit in a sedan chair, but whether he changed to a car later, it is no longer possible to verify. My grandfather Ding Zhongying owns a car, and the coachman is called Maotou (not a “hairy” Maotou boy, but his nickname. I visited him in Wansui in Menghe more than ten years ago. He was already in very bad health at that time.  He passed away soon after). Before that, my grandfather also visited a clinic in Zhongheli, Si Ma Road. It is said that his morning appointments are offered at a higher price in the morning (one dollar and two cents in Western currency, and one yuan and two cents in RMB after liberation), while my father charged a lower rate in the afternoon (six cents per appointment). Later, my grandfather moved his clinic to the Jingcheng Villa on Nanjing West Road. My father then started to charge one yuan and two cents for the morning appointments, while uncle Ding Jinan charged six cents for the afternoon appointment and six yuan per house-call.  In a big feudal family, members like my father and uncle who are already famous practitioners with established families still relied on my grandfather to issue monthly allowance.  An outsider would never expect this lifestyle. As for how much allowance does each family receive, and when does the allowance end? I was too young at the time and had no idea about money, so I don’t know.

After the liberation, “Tongjitang” also endured its ups and downs. First, the Three-anti and Five-anti Campaigns wanted to mobilize the workers to expose my father’s illegal behavior.  One of his employees raised a number of issues to show his engagement, which were basically unsubstantiated. Finally, “Tongjitang” was classified as a basic law-abiding household. As the subsequent capitalist and socialist economy movement came, it brought a lingering fear on my father.  As he finally recognized the situation, my father began to actively support the government by carrying out a financial liquidation and capital verification, and finally passed the review of the Huangpu District Medicinal Materials Company. According to the “Tongjitang” capital record, my father was designated as a small business owner. In contrast, the income derived from “Tongjitang” was much less than the income from seeing patients, so my father’s job classification was a freelancer; the family’s classification did not affect my life’s development very much.

I remember that one day when I came back from school, the south wing and Master Lu’s warehouse were completely evacuated. After the cleaning the next day, the room was very spacious and empty. Only the old telephone was still hanging on the wall behind Mr. Hua. I will always remember its number: 90290.

After 60 years, a brand new “Tongjitang” appeared in San Mateo, California, on the other side of the ocean. This is a new clinic designed, decorated and furnished by my son. Although patients are not able to visit the clinic during the pandemic, in any case, it is the inheritance of the Ding family’s medical legacy and the reincarnation of “Tongjitang”. I wish the new “Tongjitang” business will flourish.

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