Story and photos by Sabrina Khan
His fingers run over rusty metal cabinets labeled with Chinese symbols, then he extracts what he needs and measures a few scraps of licorice on an old red scale. He adds a handful of bark-like herbs, scraps of various green and brown plants and some earthy roots whose obscure names, like astragulus and cassia, are known only to a wise few and almanacs. Wrapping the ingredients in a zip-lock container, he hands ingredients to the “10 flavor nutritious soup” to a customer.
Pailly Su, an herbalist, doesn’t consider himself a doctor, but his customers often prefer him to their certified physicians, he says. They act as his patients and that’s what he calls them. He sits them in a room in the back of the store where they can discuss their symptoms and checks their pulse to gauge their needs. He then writes a prescription of the herbs best suited for them, which are all available in his shop, the Shun An Tong Health Herbal Corp.
“I’ve been shopping here 30 years,” said Linda Chen, a customer. “I love it, the quality is unbelievable.”
Housed beside a jewelry counter in the same space, the herbal shop is easy to walk by unless one knows what to look for. Loyal customers enter the establishment and immediately head to the far left, to greet Su or his wife behind the counter, sweet and pungent aromas engulfing their senses. Mrs. Su chooses not to share her first name but always assists customers with smiles even if she has trouble communicating with them. Sometimes a niece, Susan Su, comes to help and to translate for English-speaking patrons.
Born into a family of herbalists in Taiwan in 1944, Su learned the language of the trade in his grandfather’s shop, a 75-year-old family business. “There are thousands of formulas and functions for each herb,” he says in Mandarin as his niece translates, and what he didn’t learn from able hands, he “learned from a lot of books.”
When Su immigrated to the United States in 1981, he brought an extensive knowledge of Eastern herbs and remedies. Noticing a rising Asian population in Flushing, Queens, he decided to open the herbal pharmacy three years later. Shun An Tong became the first herbal establishment in Flushing and has been tending to clients for the past 26 years.
Clients must first make appointments with Su, who “treats” only six to 10 people a day. The back room used for checkups could easily be confused with a storage space if not for a few adornments, including a framed piece of calligraphy on the far wall.
For patients, there are two red wooden chairs with cushions embroidered in an Asian pattern, strange pieces of furniture in an otherwise simple space. Patients may notice an out-of-place, straw cowboy hat hung across from them, a black bandana tied around it. A map of acupuncture points and a 2010 calendar from the Daily News are tacked on an adjacent wall. Su’s seat faces a computer monitor, atop a table stacked with neatly strewn books and papers; stapled charts and prescriptions dating back to a patient’s first visit, written vertically in Mandarin. He refers to these to recall a patient’s history.
As he traces a patient’s problems, Su’s eyes carry a knowing, ancient weight. Gold-rimmed glasses cast oval shapes around his aged eyes, while wrinkles of Eastern wisdom laced with Western ideas trace his features. Long, sharp sideburns curve over his cheeks and tufts of graying black hair peek out of a worn New York Yankees cap. Rather than the flowing robe of an herbalist in ancient drawings, Su wears a down jacket and gray slacks.
Su is reluctant to share much about himself, except when he lets his guard down and attempts to ramble in scrambled English and good-natured laughs. He appears modest, his character elusive, exuding mystery, or perhaps just quietude. Susan Su says he is old fashioned and private, from an era that believes too much talk is unbecoming.
Yet Su is proud that his business has been covered by “Channel One, Channel Seven, and My 9,” counting them off of his fingers. The shop was even used in a 1996 film. “I closed one day, they make a movie,” he adds. But his shop is promoted mostly “mouth by mouth,” he explains, or from newspaper ads.
Most of his customers were Asians when he started out. He knew that many preferred herbal remedies to Western medications, and these early patrons spread the word about Shun An Tong. Today, “30 percent are Americans,” he says proudly, and curious to understand his remedies, “Some Americans ask too much questions, and my English not too well,” he says with smile. “They want to know one by one, little by little, about the herbal.”
The notion inspired him to write a bilingual book of herbal recipes, Oriental Herbal Cook Book For Good Health (I), in 1993, aimed at second-generation Asian Americans who cannot read the Chinese recipes. He also did a Chinese-language radio program about herbal remedies from 1990 to 1998.
But the early days were harder. “It was difficult to open the business,” because there were still few Asians in the area and “very few suppliers” to order the single herbs, he says. Now, there are many, “Some Taiwan, some China, some Japan, some Hong Kong.” The shop carries more than single herbs though. Most raw herbs come from China, but a lot of products like packaged powders and pills come from the others.
Though the ancient customs of herbs have lasted many years, Su feels that things have changed in the business since he first opened. His rent was initially $1680, and now is “about $17,000,” he says with a deep, hearty laugh. And he has had to adapt to his variety of customers. He says he takes ethnicity into account, because the measurements of the herbal ingredients differ by racial body types, as well as on a patient’s needs and size. But he says the most popular herb among all his customers is ginseng because it’s “Good for energy and maintains immune system.”
Despite the rising popularity of herbal supplements, Su says he only makes enough to survive. Today, three similar establishments are on the same street, and others are nearby on Main Street. Few of their owners are even familiar with Su’s store name or his own. The competition, Su says, means “now I make nothing,” just enough to eat.
And the future of his shop is uncertain. He’d like to pass it on to one of his four children, one boy and three girls. If that doesn’t work out, he’ll sell it. But no timetable is in place.
At present, Su is happy and satisfied with the business. He begins each day over a cup of coffee and the newspaper, ready to see customers bearing problems and good news. Mrs. Su happily shares pictures of babies whose mothers faced infertility issues and came for help. A few months later, they came to thank him.
Susan Su points out various items for Ms. Chen, the customer: fruit of wolfberry, ginseng, herbal teas “I think the way you treat your customers is very important,” she says. Her uncle, she adds, “is very honest, to the client,” he does “his best to help anybody that needs help. That’s why he has been able to survive this long.”