Thomas Chong’s Chinese medical practice in early rural Gippsland, Victoria
The story of Thomas Chong offers a valuable insight into the early history of Chinese medicine practice in Victoria from 1850 to 1950. We have reproduced the following excerpts to help you gain a deeper understanding of the history and development of Chinese medicine in Australia.
The original source and copyright of the following text belongs to:
Rolls, 1992; Loh, Morag, 1995, ‘A country practice: Thomas Chong — herbalist of Bairnsdale, Victoria; his place, his practice, his peers’, in Macgregor, P. (ed.), Histories of the Chinese in Australasia and the South Pacific, Museum of Chinese Australian History, Melbourne, pp. 15-25.
A country practice: Thomas Chong, herbalist of Bairnsdale; his place, his practice, his peers
Medical practitioners were among Chinese immigrants to the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. There is little evidence of early contact between them and their British counterparts; the two medical traditions co-existed peacefully. While the Chinese treated their compatriots, qualified Western practitioners, largely in response to the chaotic and often unethical medical practices prevalent on goldfield communities, began organising their profession. By the late 1860s it was ordered along modern lines; with state regulation, professional registration, a comparatively high standard of training and a well understood code of ethics. By this time, with the decline of Chinese goldfield populations, Chinese practitioners were treating non-Chinese patients as well. Medical literature reflected no concern however; indeed in 1867 the Medical Journal published a polite, respectful piece on Chinese medicine.
In the mid 1870s co-existence turned to confrontation. Amid frequent diphtheria epidemics, against which registered doctors felt helpless, there were reports that some Chinese could not only cure the disease, but also claimed greater ability in general. In 1874 and 1875 Lo Kwoi Sang of Ballarat challenged registered doctors by announcing that he knew the cause of diphtheria, had treated it successfully and was prepared to prove his skill “in the presence of all the medical men in the colony”. At the same time, Yee Quock Ping, also of Ballarat, applied to the Medical Board for registration. Chinese community representatives informed the Board that they wanted parity for their practitioners and apparently saw Yee’s application as a test case.
These events caused a lively discussion among registered doctors, some of it hostile and racist, some of it fair and showing a spirit of enquiry. Powders used by three Chinese practitioners to treat diptheria were analysed and were considered to be not efficacious and even harmful. Expert modern opinion looking at the evidence supports this view and also indicates that it was unlikely that Lo or any other Chinese practitioner could treat diphtheria successfully if, indeed they could diagnose it. The Consul General in China was asked by the Medical Board to enquire into TCM training and reported that medical colleges did not exist, that training was neither standardised nor exacting, and that the curriculum lacked the basis for a scientific education. Yee Quock Ping was subsequently refused registration. The Chinese challenge to, and bid for equality with, the European tradition had not succeeded.
Registered practitioners now gave notice that they would no longer tolerate Chinese use of the title doctor in waiting rooms, advertisements and testimonials in violation of the Medical Practitioners Act. In 1875, in what was probably as set up, Lo was charged with contravening the Act. He was acquitted but Chinese practitioners heeded the warning. From this time on, TCM practitioners became known as herbalists, a term used by British herbal healers in the colony. Like pharmaceutical chemists, they could advise on and sell medicinal herbs but diagnosis was the legal responsibility of registered doctors. Lo Kwoi Sang, however, was defiant to the end. His tombstone in Ballarat has the title doctor inscribed in Chinese and English.
Co-existence between the two medical traditions resumed but it was uneasy. Over the next 40 years the medical market place was varied, with British, Chinese and Indian healers, homeopaths and hordes of quacks. In the end, the registered practitioners’ major concerns were with their own ‘black sheep’, legally qualified men who were perceived to use their practices as a front for the untrained or charlatans, and chemists who undertook diagnosis. So although doctors grumbled about herbalists’ activities and supported prosecutions against them, by the 1920s, TCM practitioners had become familiar figures in country towns and Melbourne’s inner suburbs.
Their advertisements appeared in newspapers; the business cards and leaflets of some offered treatment for “internal and external disease”; those of others volunteered cures for all diseases, including cancer. Their clientele was mainly non-Chinese.
The story of Thomas Chong begins here with his return to Australia in 1908.
You may continue reading this story by downloading A story behind a gift by Ann Brothers (PDF 72KB) from the University of Melbourne Medical Society’s Chiron 2008 magazine.
The 1939-45 war was a turning point for both Western medicine and TCM. After it came the ‘wonder drugs’ – sulpha tablets, antibiotics – and advances in surgery. For herbalists, the war in the Pacific cut off the supply of herbs, and practices struggled to survive. By the 1950s many of the older men had died or retired – Bew, Pang, Chong – while decreased migration from China and Australia’s restrictive immigration laws combined to prevent their replacement. Some practices carried on but the once familiar figure of the herbalist disappeared from many country towns. Today when alternative medicine is popular, chic even, when a substantial minority of registered doctors are of Chinese descent and TCM practitioners are sometimes non-Chinese, it is important to try to understand how herbalists and other healers operated in less tolerant times.
In country Victoria, men like Thomas Chong met a need; their stable practices and comfortable livings indicate this. Their work is worthy of investigation for what it can tell us of Chinese experience here and of Victorian society, its attitudes to health, to skill and to difference.