Last year I got a pinched nerve in my shoulder. Where do you go in Hong Kong if you have a pin chee nerve? Your local pin man, of course! (Acupuncture: apparently also good for addiction, stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, insomnia, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma. Probably also if you can’t remember where you parked your car, bought a non-refundable T-shirt in the wrong size, or dropped $20 down the gap when alighting the train. I dunno, shit. Seems like it’s positively indicated for everything.) My GP recommended me to this particular acupuncturist because he’s the professor of the Chinese Medicine Institute of Hong Kong. He’s master of the pins. Sure, he’s pretty expensive, but if anyone knows the right place to stick a filiform needle three inches into a random meridian, it’s him – hopefully. And really what price non-paralysis?
On my first visit, clutching an envelope containing a (Chinese) referral from my GP, I realise this is going to be the ultimate test to date for my Cantonese. After cruising through initial pleasantries with the receptionist, I come up against a pretty large stumbling block in the form of my past medical history, to wit “ankylosing spondylitis”. This is the sort of tricky term that even charades can’t help much with. Hobbling around the room with my hand pressed against my lower back, moaning “Aiyaaah, my fucken back!” with Oscar-worthy pathos, I don’t quite manage to strike the light of recognition in the receptionist’s eyes. There is a fleeting glimpse of the light of derision, but that’s no help. We ultimately skip that part on the proforma and move on to the bit with the line drawings of a body. I emphatically circle the shoulder region while repeating pin chee many times, and at last we have a connection.
I’m not going to lie, I’m a bundle of nerves. I guess that’s a good thing in an acupuncture clinic. But there is no turning back. I pride myself on being a well-assimilated gweilo. In Australia, I’d had acupuncture before, albeit the softcock laser version, but there was no way I could allow myself to back out of this tiny grimy shopfront in Shanghai Street, Mong Kok, without getting a few jabs of the real deal. Pride is a curious thing, and I contemplate it as the receptionist draws up an illegible treatment plan. How much pain would I put myself through to prove my willingness to integrate? A bit, I think. Probably at least 15, 20 needles. As I look at the many-drawered Chinese medicine cabinet behind the desk, I add a caveat: 15-20 needles, but I’d only consider it a successful consultation if I get out of there without ingesting a powdered tiger penis. Because really. I am white as shit when it comes to ingesting the genitalia of our animal brethren, in any form whatsoever.
After being vetted by the receptionist, we proceed together down a narrow corridor with small rooms branching off. All of these rooms, including the reception, are chocked with medical books, magazines, little stools, old pairs of shorts, wooden models of bodies, and an alarming selection of steel contraptions, good for realigning spines and/or extracting state secrets.
Left on my own in the first room, I choose to sit brazenly adjacent to an iron maiden. I will not be broken, at least not without a good four seconds of torture. The professor’s wife enters, followed by two nurses. She’s in her 60s, with fat soft hands and a reassuring manner. It’s her job to make an initial assessment of where to place the needles. This is a two-part process, both equally uncomfortable: the first, I have to take my clothes off and put on a pair of elastic-waisted parachute shorts; the second, she pinches and pokes many tender areas. “Pin chee shoulder, is it?” “Ho ah.” “Hurt here, is it?” (poking directly at the pin chee-ed part). “Ho ahhhhh!” “Also here?” (poking inexplicably at my ankle). “Ho ah!”
Draped in one of those tie-closing hospital shirts, I am taken to the next room and interrogated as to sundry personal and medical conditions, also seemingly irrelevant ones like what I’d had for lunch. But who am I question the wisdom of the ages? And speaking of, here it comes. The si fu approaches. I quaver, not from his aura of mystical knowledge but because he looks, frankly, like the guy who drives my minibus. Can millennia of oriental enlightenment really be clothed in trackpants and a T-shirt reading ‘Powerful Shot Tennis Players Group Heading For Awards’? What mountebank chicanery is this? I mean I can’t judge, I am wearing a pair of orange Slazenger shorts and a purple floral shirt tied up with a string; then again, I’m not proposing to stick needles in somebody else’s very nerve endings in between runs to the Hang Hau public transport interchange. There is a fine distinction there, you have to agree.
The room is very small. Hospital curtains separate the two beds, but I can see my room-mate’s stabbed calf poking out across the way. Indeed I could have put out a hand and removed a few needles with only the slightest extension of the non-pin chee-ed arm.
Lying face down on the gurney, with pillows wedged all about by the chattering nurses, I close my eyes and try to still my heart. It’s hard to have a procedure for the first time when no-one has been able to explain to you in your own language what’s about to happen, and all indications are that your practitioner works for the Kowloon Motor Bus Company. I can see my medical notes pinned to the curtain next to my head, way too low for the si fu to read them. I guess they’re just a back-up in the event of his wushu failing.
Tiny tiny reproduction of notes.
If I can’t read my own medical history, why should you, damn it!
And then the needles were sliding in, and it isn’t so bad! Like, he’s possibly done this once or twice before! He flicks them in very quickly, a bunch on the side of my face, in my neck, down my side, and a couple in my knee and ankle, letting the plastic casings drop to the ground as he went. That’s it? He leaves. A nurse comes in and turns on a stopwatch for 20 minutes ah. “Ho mm ho yi fun gao?” (“Can I sleep?”) Giggles. “Ho yi!” (Yep.)
Naturally as soon as she leaves the room, I don’t sleep but reached for my phone, intending to take lots of photos for this post. Oh. Any part with a needle in it is dead. Can’t move at all. Well that’s alarming. That’s put the mockers on any “fun gao”. I don’t know how long is left on the stopwatch but that’s how long I have to think about my potential future life with professionally crippling left-side paralysis.
After 20 minutes, the stopwatch ticks to a beeping end and the nurse is back to pull the needles out. This hurts more than insertion. I gingerly raise an arm as she blots the dots of blood away. It functions perfectly. Instantly I am a believer. I am un-pin chee-ed! Not only that, I can lift and drop my arm to pre-acupuncture levels of adduction! Someone pass me a vial of powdered ballsack, I am a convert!
As I sit in wonderment on my gurney, I catch a glimpse of the si fu trundling slowly down the corridor. I try to say something but it’s futile. I’ll not speak to him again, apart from when he’s inserting the needles. That’s all he does. He has his cast of helpers to do the rest, and now I’m about to meet another one – the tiny ancient massage lady. She appears to be about 103, and looks like she weighs less than my thigh. I can estimate this pretty accurately because said thigh is still poking out from the tennis shorts as she stands in front of me and tells me, with twinkling eyes, that I’m really fat. That’s the Chinese way of course so I laugh along with her.
I lay face down again and she sits on my back, pressing her bony fists into my scapulae. This wouldn’t be comfortable in any circumstance, but particularly not here, on this bed that isn’t a massage table. There’s no head-hole cut out. I can’t breathe. There’s a bit of paper towel under my face for hygiene, and I begin to ingest it through my nostrils as she thumps me spectacularly in the middle of the spine, up and down with her fists, in and out with the Kimberly-Clark. I gasp, for oxygen and relief, when she pokes me to indicate I should roll over, but any alleviation is short-lived as she begins her final assault: an excruciating armpit massage. Where does her strength come from? We both cry, me with pain, her with joie de vivre, because it’s funny to do cross-generational, bilingual therapeutic wrestling, what? ESPECIALLY ON A SO FAT PERSON!
When she’s done, in comes a remarkably tall lady to complete the final step of slapping a reeking herb paste all over me. As she covers it with a bandage and sticks it down with straight-up metres of elastoplast, she yells prohibitions at me: “No mango! No beer! No Japanese food! No salad! No computer!” “Ho ah, ho ah, ho ah”, I nod. “You come back in two days!”
But I did, and after a few more visits, I progressed from regular acupuncture to moxibustion. I can’t actually tell because I can’t lift my head, but what seems to happen is the si fu sticks about 30 needles in my neck, shoulder and hip, then someone else comes along and sets them all on fire with a cigarette lighter. I lay there clenching a floral pillow between my knees, inhaling the curious scent of scorched skin and mugwort, and listening to the tiny alarming sizzle of nape hairs burning.
It is magic though. I won’t be told otherwise. It has cured my pin chee nerve every time. I’m recommending it to anyone suffering basically any ailment. Go and get poked.
The first time I removed the herb poultice after the requisite six hours, I discovered it looks and smells exactly like the inside of a newborn baby’s nappy.
The price of the cure.
It’s a high one, I grant you.