If a French pharmacy is a real-life version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a Chinese one is more like Pan’s Labyrinth: a little scary and almost impossible to navigate without help. Not that this should discourage you—help is easy to find. In my case, I enlisted my Taiwanese friend and her father to compile a list of common Chinese drugstore products, complete with pinyin and characters, so finding, say, Watermelon Frost (more below) was as easy as pointing to my smart phone while standing in front of a clerk at Dong Fang Ginseng Corp. on 75 East Broadway, #116. (If you're reading this, man behind the counter, thanks for your patience!)
But back to the Chinese pharmacy in general: They’re small. They’re communal. Frequent customers stay and schmooz with the staff. Someone always sips tea. A lot of products are inexpensive—they even have English labels! Just remember: not all claimed effects have been studied with conclusive evidence. Also, depending where the product is manufactured, quality control standards may be different. But, even if you walk out empty handed, the trip to Chinatown is always worthwhile—especially when Golden Unicorn is across the street.
Tiger Balm (Hǔ biāo wànjīnyóu, 虎標萬金油): A tingling cream for joint and muscle pain. Though some people also inhale its aroma or apply to alleviate mosquito bites.
Green Mint Oil (Lǜ yóu jīng, 绿油精): Meant to tackle migraines and headaches, can also be massaged into the forehead or temples for aromatic relief.
White Flower Oil (Báihuā yóu, 白花油): Inhale to clear sinus infections, generally refresh, or to wake up. It can also be massaged into the forehead or temples. Apply topically to alleviate mosquito bites.
Watermelon Frost (Xīguā shuāng, 西瓜霜): Calms inflammation. Apply on a pimple (seriously, they dry up immediately!) or cold sore to decrease swelling.
Pearl Cream (Zhēnzhū gāo, 珍珠膏): A facial cream made of fine pearl powder that is supposed to make skin smooth and white.
Chin Chun Su : A lightening cream that comes in an adorable pink oval package and can be used on dark spots or blemishes, as a moisturizer, or foundation (shoutout to ITG commenter Shy for the suggestion!).
HERBS & ROOTS
Wolfberry (Gǒuqǐ, 枸杞): Little red fruits to put into a soup or tea. It’s said to improve eyesight.
Red Dried Dates (Hóngzǎo, 紅棗): Claims to increase blood circulation and iron levels by helping the production of more red blood cells.
'Head Black,” (Héshǒuwū, 何首乌): The root herb (that looks like a little person) does what its literally translated name suggests: keeps your black hair black and turns your gray hair black. (Read more about it here.)
Ginseng (Rénshēn 人參): In traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng is used for qi energy. (More information here.)
NATURAL (this is where it gets weird)
Edible Swallow's Nest (Yànwō, 燕窝): Very rare and collected in caves during breeding season. The nests are cooked in soup (known as Bird’s Nest Soup) until they are gelatin-like in consistency. What's special about these nests in particular is that they're constructed using the swallow's spit, which is high in protein and believed to strengthen joints, skin, and the immune system. It is also said to whiten skin.
Toad oil also known as “Xue Ha' Toad or Frog Fat (Hámá yóu, 蛤蟆油): From frog bellies in the cold Northeast of China like Heilongjiang. The high levels of hormones in the oil are used to help with libido and make women “jelly and watery' like the product itself (in Chinese tradition, this is the epitome of beauty). It's often added as an ingredient in soup.
Cordyceps sinensis , literally translated as “Winter Worm Summer Grass” (Dōngchóngxiàcǎo 冬虫夏草): This product is considered the most precious in Chinese medicinal herbs, so it has a price tag to match (at the pharmacy, some were over $1000). It is said to improve overall body and mind health. (More information here)
Donkey Gelatin (Ējiāo, 阿胶): Exactly what it sounds like, it's made by soaking donkey skin until it turns gelatinous. Again, used to make women beautiful and can be applied directly to the skin or eaten.
Photos by Alexis Cheung.