Published: 09:37, July 21, 2022 | Updated: 18:02, July 21, 2022
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TCM, acupuncture gain popularity in Indonesia
By ​Leonardus Jegho in Jakarta

Range of treatments in high demand in Southeast Asian archipelago

Young Indonesian doctors attend an acupuncture training course run by TCM doctor Juliana Tjandra, vice-president of the World Federation of Acupuncture-Moxibustion. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In Merauke, an Indonesian town with a population of 130,000, the only store selling traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, also takes online orders for a range of other Chinese medicinal products.

Store owner Siswanto, who like many Indonesians has only one name, said he was surprised that athletes and officials attending an event in the town in October were still using TCM products bought from his store some time ago.

In total, some 7,000 officials and athletes from a number of sports attended the annual National Sports Week, the country's biggest sporting event, which was staged in Merauke and two other places that border Papua New Guinea. Merauke is located in Indonesia's easternmost region of West Papua.

With the number of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia falling, those attending the event were using TCM products from the shop to maintain their health and stamina and treat their injuries.

"They could also have bought these items in their hometowns on Java and in other places outside of Papua," Siswanto said.

His store, Toko Obat Saudara, started trading in Merauke 30 years before Indonesia gained independence from Dutch rule in 1945. The business was initially owned by a Chinese-Indonesian.

Juliana Tjandra treats a patient at her clinic. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Siswanto said Merauke residents, including those in high positions, turned to the store as an alternative source of medicines. For example, some patients with gallbladder problems preferred TCM medicines from the shop to those prescribed by hospital doctors.

Siswanto said TCM stores can also be found in Jakarta, the capital, and other large cities on Java, one of the main Indonesian islands. These outlets include Saras Subur Abadi, which is based in Jakarta and is one of the country's largest TCM importers.

TCM outlets are located in many parts of Jakarta, but are mainly found in Chinatown, the oldest part of the downtown area. These businesses include Tay Seng Ho and Ban Seng, which are respectively 100 years and 90 years old and whose medicines and tonics are produced with ingredients imported from China.

Ban Seng owner Yuan Chang said that the founder of the business, his great grandfather, came from China, and in 1933 he opened a TCM store primarily for Chinese immigrants during the Dutch colonial era. Like other such stores, Ban Seng has a loyal customer base among ethnic Chinese and other groups.

Ban Seng imports more than a dozen TCM ingredients from China, and mixes them according to customers' requirements.

Due to the pandemic, Ban Seng has only one sinshe, or TCM doctor, to check the pulse on a patient's radial artery to determine his or her condition and the medication that is needed. Pulse-checking is the method typically used by TCM doctors, who also consider prescriptions a patient is given by "modern" doctors.

Traditional Chinese medicine is packaged at the Ban Seng Medicine Store in West Jakarta, Indonesia, on Feb 5, 2020. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Problems tackled

Acupuncture therapies are also popular in Indonesia, although they are not practiced in Merauke and other remote areas of the country.

Patients, including non-ethnic Chinese, use acupuncture, like TCM, for health problems such as headaches, pain, migraines, depression after childbirth, diabetes and obesity. They also ask acupuncturists to help improve their complexion.

Well-known clinics such as those operated by state-owned Universitas Indonesia and Cipto Mangunkusumo Hospital in Jakarta offer acupuncture therapies to reduce cancer patients' pain.

Universitas Indonesia, many of whose graduates have risen to leading positions, is among state and privately owned higher educational institutions that offer acupuncture studies. The institutions are located on Java, the nation's most-developed island, and in other regions.

Acupuncture training courses are also provided for practicing medical doctors and even for the less-educated. One of the foundations providing such courses, Yayasan Pendidikan Akupunktur Tseng Kai, offers acupuncture training for doctors and amateur enthusiasts.

Graduates who obtain acupuncture certificates must obtain a government permit to open a practice.

Foundation leader Juliana Tjandra said her acupuncture clinic, although separate from Yayasan Pendidikan Akupunktur Tseng Kai, remains popular among those in high positions.

The foundation was launched by her father, the late Tseng Kai, an acupuncture graduate from Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province.

Traditional Chinese medicine is displayed at the Jakarta Fair on July 9. (FLORENTINA WULA / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Her grandfather and Tjandra, who was 21 at the time, played an active part in founding and operating the acupuncture therapy unit at Cipto Mangunkusumo Hospital, which she is extremely proud of. The unit, which started by training 20 doctors to become acupuncture specialists, gained government recognition in 1963.

Tjandra, who pursued an advanced degree in acupuncture at Xiamen University in Fujian province, helped her grandfather and another acupuncture doctor especially brought in from China to treat then-Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid and his wife.

Meanwhile, in West Jakarta, Hendra Chen takes pride in his vocational diploma in acupuncture, which he obtained from an institute of technology, science and health in Malang, East Java. After attending advanced courses in acupuncture in Beijing and Guangzhou in 2008, he opened an acupuncture clinic.

Chen said he is optimistic that acupuncture will become even more popular among Indonesia's population of 275 million, adding that it is now increasingly integrated with modern Western medicines. The 42-year-old operates five clinics in Jakarta.

"Nowadays, many people are smarter. They limit their use of medicines, but they like acupuncture, as it does not have any medicinal content," Chen said.

He distributes acupuncture needles to practitioners in the provinces, where he exchanges knowledge and experience with them and local doctors.

Chen is highly appreciative of the Indonesian government for providing ample room for TCM and acupuncture to develop.

"Sixteen years ago, acupuncture was mainly known by ethnic Chinese, but over the past 10 years, interest in it has developed among rising numbers of indigenous Indonesians," Chen said.

For many Indonesians, acupuncture is an alternative that is effective and less costly than other forms of medication, he added.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.