A Short Guide to Traditional Chinese Medicine


Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, is a non-invasive, holistic way of balancing the body and helping any number of ills. Best of all, it’s also incredibly affordable in Asia. TCM includes massage, acupuncture, medicine made from plants and animals, and more. In Hong Kong, there are massage places and acupuncturists on every block, and prices can range from around US$10 for a four-hour massage across the border in Shenzen to a US$70 45-minute body massage in super-touristy areas in Hong Kong.

Every place will have a list of different massages to choose from, and even in popular tourist neighborhoods, it may be hard to find someone to fully explain what each one means. Many acupuncturists speak basic English, although it’s pretty easy to get by with a few choice words and lots of pointing. Here’s a short list of the basics.

The basic Chinese-style massage uses reflexology and hits the pressure points. In fact, a colleague recently told me that the word for massage literally translates to “hit bone”, and that is pretty accurate. Foot massages are generally the cheapest on the menu, and usually last 45 minutes. The average price is between HK$160-200 (~US$20-25). Masseuses will wash your feet beforehand and generally use gloves, so don’t feel insulted. They will also give you shorts to change into if needed. Finish up with a short 15-minute neck and shoulder massage for about HK$80 (US$10).

The body massage requires getting down to your underwear, and while you’ll be in a separate room, you’ll only have towels covering certain parts, so she will definitely get a glimpse at some point. The standard body massage runs for about an hour and around HK$180 (~US$24). The massage is usually concentrated on the back, butt and backs of legs, with a little bit on the arms and neck. They will stretch you out a little, but nothing along the lines of a Thai massage. There are lots of knuckles and elbows involved, so be prepared to let them know if it’s too hard. There is a chance you’ll end up with some bruises!

A lymphatic massage is perfect if you’re a bit backed up from such a change in your diet. You’ll be lying on your back while the masseuse concentrates on bringing all your toxins to your stomach by moving from the shoulders down and the legs up. This massage is not the most comfortable, as she’ll put a lot of pressure on your stomach. I’d also only recommend this one if you’re close to a bathroom over the next few days. It’s usually a full hour long and is a bit more expensive than a regular body massage.

Other beauty treatments
Several other treatments are available at most massage places. Scraping involves a very blunt, safe knife that gently scrapes on cream to whatever part of your body feels tight — I usually get it on my hips. The scraping action smooths out the plastic wrap-like lining that covers the muscles (Not a very scientific explanation, but that’s how I had it explained to me!). It usually takes less than 15 minutes and is in the HK$100 range (US$13)

Another type of scraping comes with a Shanghai-style pedicure, when they scrape off all the dead skin on your feet. The time for this depends on just how much dead skin you have, but it won’t affect the price, which is around HK$200 (US$26)

Cupping is pretty popular, even though the end result is anything but pretty. Glass cups are heated and then suctioned onto the skin to make toxins rise to the surface. If your masseuse mentions that your back gets really red and irritated during a massage, this is the toxins rising to the surface, and cupping is a logical next step to expel them. They may also light some incense to help with this process. I find it uncomfortable but not painful.

If you are really in need of help, Zao fire is a more intense practice that involves setting a burning towel on top of a wet towel on your back. This first time I had this, they didn’t tell me what was happening, and I completely freaked out. It’s definitely not comfortable. Ask about it beforehand and make sure that there is one person there who specializes in it. I never did it again, but I did feel lighter and less knotted up afterward. Cupping is a bit more expensive than the Shanghai-style pedi, and the fire is usually at the top of the price list, although it doesn’t (thankfully) last very long.

I can’t recommend acupuncture highly enough. If it’s too expensive in your home country, try it out while in Hong Kong! All acupuncturists must register with the government council, so it’s all pretty above board. I go about once a month and pay HK$350 (US$45) per session, which includes a bunch of green tea tablets. My acupuncturist usually adds electric pulses to the needles for a more in depth session as well. The needles really don’t hurt that much, except when they’re inserted in really thin skin like the ankles.

Honestly, it doesn’t really hurt, and even those afraid of needles can bliss out for the 25 minutes or so while aligning their chakras. Acupuncture can work for any number of ailments, from acne to nerve damage to joint pain, and many acupuncturists like to immediately guess the problem as soon as you walk in the door. Acupuncturists may also commence with cupping if they feel the need. Overall, it’s incredibly price-friendly and an excellent non-Western experience.

Good luck! Have you ever tried TCM? What did you think of it?


About Author

Maureen always knew she wanted to travel. In college, she studied and traveled through the Caribbean and Central America, and the first time she fell in love was with Mexico City. After graduating, she spent several years teaching EFL in Europe, the Americas and Southeast Asia and traveling in every spare moment. She's currently living in Hong Kong, and getting lost while traveling is her main hobby.

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