“At Home in the Shop” by Souchou Yao.

For more than 2000 years, the bible of Chinese medicine has been the Huangdi Neijing, The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon. The text is an elaborate thesis on the human body, laying out the movements of the yin and yang, and the alignments of the five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, water, as the determinants of one’s state of health. It describes the use of acupuncture and moxibustion in achieving the yin-yang harmony in the human body. Huangdi Neijing was written during the Shang Dynasty (1600–1040 BC); the text is esoteric, its medical and philosophic reasonings impenetrable, but it had a huge impact on Chinese medical thinking. Like others of his time, my father used two works that were more accessible: Shanghan Lun, The Treatise on Cold Injuries, written in the late Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), and the Bencao Gengmu, The Compendium of Materia Medica, written by the court physician Li Shizhen in the mid-Ming Dynasty (1518–1593). These became popular to contemporary readers when the Commercial Press of Shanghai brought out various editions during the thirties, each updated and simplified, and added with modern commentaries.

My father’s copy of Shanghan Lun is the 1950 edition, which he kept in the shelf next to the account ledgers and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (in Chinese). The Commercial Press had slimmed down the original and rearranged the taxonomy of illnesses and cures for easier reading. This was the text he consulted most of the time. Beside Shanghan Lun, there were books and pamphlets on Chinese healing that came out of Hong Kong and China. These were cheap and written in colloquial Chinese, a boon to self-taught students of Chinese medicine. To aid rote learning, the ailments and prescriptions were set in rhyme, the sing-song made them easy to remember. Chinese medicine may be an ancient art, but the profession itself could be fairly democratic.6 During my father’s time in the seventies, Chinese healers in Malaysia were largely self-taught. Most, with their small consultation fees and low- volume herbal trade, did not make money—especially those in the villages who practised in the sundry shops they owned.


In Malaysia today, many of the Chinese healers are still self-taught. Some have attended Kuala Lumpur Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and for those with funding the Beijing Chinese Medicine University, China, is the popular choice.

Throughout my high school years, the medical texts looked down at me with their unyielding mystery. I was fascinated. They presented a challenge when I had acquired some proficiency in classic Chinese from school. Hard as I tried, it was difficult to get past the jumble of elucidations and exegeses. Take for example, the first line of Shanghan Lun. It reads:

Tai yang zhi wei bing, mai fu, tou xiang jiang er wu han.

The line appears under the section ‘diseases relating to the greater [excessive] yang’. It is a wonder of the Chinese written script that for all the transfigurations over the ages, the words—and to a lesser extent their meanings—can still be understood today with a bit of effort. Shanghan Lun was written more than 2000 years ago; in the text tai yang is the sun, same as the modern term for it. We know yang also denotes the masculine element in the ying-yang binary. Yu is still the term for pulse; tou for head; tong for pain. So the modern rendering can be:

  • In illnesses of the greater (extreme?) yang,
  • the pulse is floating,
  • the head and nape are stiff and painful,
  • and [the patient] is averse to cold.

The translation comes from the internet-based Chinese Text Project.7 It is concise, but a tad too literal. As with most classical Chinese text, there is room for more liberal interpretations. Following the spirit of the text, the sensation of pain and coldness are more metaphysical than physical. Han is cold (in the meteorological sense), but it can also describe one’s spiritual or emotional state (as in the lover’s complaint, in English, ‘You are a cold bastard’). A person who is averse to han does not necessarily feel the iciness in the air or for sitting under a fan after a cold shower.

7 August, 2018.

More creatively, we can say: the patient’s condition has risen from the poor Qi or due to the lack of the yang element; both Qi and yang are metaphysical concepts. For the cure, keeping warm matters. But more so the patient should follow a ‘hot’ diet of toasted ginger and wine and in another realm, receive sympathy and support from the loved ones. Melancholy and poor spirits are the causes and symptoms of ‘cold illnesses’. Stress and depression put you at risk of catching a cold, the so-called yuppie flu that plagues office workers in winter.

So my juvenile reading became a kind of Barthesian exercise. It is almost as if there was no final, authoritative reading; meanings were delayed until they reached another set of inferences. Whether I was right or wrong, traditional Chinese healing tends to allow a degree of freedom in the diagnosis and cure. Even my father agreed on this, if somewhat grudgingly. Everything moves quickly from the literal to the metaphorical. A han illness means avoiding coldness in all forms: no drinking of ice water, no fruits and salad, no cold bath. And it also means steering away from han-inducing situations: don’t get upset, leave all stressful decisions until later, and certainly a broken heart induces cold in the body and can make you sick. I am no expert in Chinese medicine. Each time I read a medical text, I have to struggle to make some headway into the elaborate metaphysis behind the exegesis and cure. On the other hand, it fascinated me as I watched my father: with each illness, he faced an array of choices in regard to the diagnosis and the prescription of cure, and his decision was nothing short of being creative. Everything depended on the patient’s conditions, the doctor’s diagnosis and the size of the patient’s wallet.

The consultation took place at a small desk at the corner of the shop. The desk was painted yellow—a lucky colour, and next to it a few chairs where patients sat and waited for their turn. There were no receptionist and well-thumbed magazines, but there were grim-faced men and women, listless children sucking on sweets that bought good behaviour and infants swaddled in layers of flannel—even in the tropics. It was morning and more than a handful of patients had come to see the doctor. For the shop, the patients and their silent waiting were like the stock exchange signboard, an indication of what kind of day it was going to be.

Dressed in a white cotton blouse and a pair black pants, my father arrived from upstairs. He sat before the small desk and murmured a few words to the patient across. Everyone knew the drill. The patient offered her wrist, and the doctor bent his arm and rested his fingers on it. Sensing the pulse is all about the feel, a sensitive touch of the blind that reveals what a person of sight misses. To get the right ‘feel’, a doctor’s fingers have to be firm yet delicate. My father ‘listened’ to the pulse, his eyes kept a faraway look. You’ve got a severe flu, the doctor said when he finished. She listened then broke out in a spasm of wheezing and coughing. When she recovered, the doctor lifted his voice: you are not to take showers for the next few days; you are to watch out for your stool, and no deep-fried dishes and local fruits. Then he picked up the ink brush and started to write out a prescription. Secured in her hand, the script travelled with the patient to the counter. The foreman picked it up and laid it flat on the counter and began to fill the script. On any busy morning, he staged a play of keen eyes and hands busily opening and closing the wooden chests sunken into the wall: stores of herbs, dried insects and shrivelled animal parts. Each journey from the chests brought back an amount which the foreman carefully weighed and laid on a sheet of paper. The woman eyed at the proceedings and waited.

Other times, when a patient’s ailment was more serious than a flu, the doctor-patient exchange would go beyond cold showers and the bowel movement and local fruits. Trouble in the family, a quarrel between husband and wife, parents having problems with their children can all cause a person to fall sick. Chinese medicine identifies a whole range of illnesses caused by malfunctioning of the liver: the organ that governs reasoning and emotions. Rage and mental imbalance disturb the liver functioning, delivering cold conditions that lead to headache, blurry vision and pain in the lower abdomen.

The patient Mrs Wang was a 52-year-old married woman with children. She came to see the doctor complaining of intense headache. Her heart was heavy, she said. She had no appetite, she couldn’t sleep. My father gently probed: when did the head pain start? Have you always suffered from it? She started to ramble—about her weak heart, about her family problems. The doctor took note: her husband had been going out every night and came home two or three in the morning; and there were strange phone calls for him which he would not return. The doctor had heard enough—a marital strife, a husband’s infidelity—and got her to stop.

The patient had expressed what was on her mind, and she had had her pulse felt, the colour of her tongue scrutinised, the fleshiness of her palm assessed. My father started to write the prescription; it included ginseng—she seemed wealthy enough to afford it, and liquorice root and dang gui and other herbs that help to restore the workings of the liver and kidneys in order to induce the flow of Qi. Mrs Wang seemed calmer. He sent her off with the instruction: take it to the counter, stew the medicine with three cups of water down to one cup. Keep warm and don’t worry too much.

Across the yellow table, the doctor and patient were partners acting out a ritual, a performance. And one could catch a good deal from the brief words and simple gestures. The strength of Chinese medicine is not coronary artery bypass or breast biopsy. It is best for treating illnesses with a social and emotional origin.8 A good candidate for Chinese medicine, for example, is back pain due to bad posture and a variety of stressful situations, from financial worries to extended use of the computer keyboard. Whether he liked it or not, some of the extra-medical causes were brought to my father in a consultation.


My disclaim of expertise is no mere ritual of modesty. The esoteric and complex system of Chinese healing would test any interested layperson. At the same time, to speak of ‘pharmacological properties’ is to fit Chinese medicine into the Western scientific framework. Not surprisingly, the major complaint of Chinese medicine is that its efficacy cannot often be reproduced, and fails in the standardised guideline in gauging the cure of a specific remedy. See: Kecheng; Jia, Nati; Jiang, Nan; Wang, Feng; Kou, Junping, ‘Beneficial effect of Danggui-Shaoyao-San, a traditional Chinese medicine, on drowsiness induced by chronic restraint stress’, Neuroscience Letters, June 15, 2015, Vol. 597, 26–31.

The Chinese healer is a doctor, a pharmacist, a therapist, a wellness consultant. Often he is also a petite capitalist and a medicine merchant.

With Mrs Wang, my father had been brisk and business-like. He knew her reputation for loquacity, and Chinese medicine was not like the talking cure of modern psychotherapy. The ‘talking cure’ was left to the mediation sessions he presided over in the Hakka Association office, where couples in marital strife, borrowers and lenders of money in dispute, came to seek remedies. When the healer was also the shop owner, other calculations began to creep in. At the High Street shop, strange bedfellows are made of petite capitalism and Chinese medicine.

It has been a ponderous narrative of Chinese medicine in the setting a small family business. Thinking of the family history I feel locked in, embattled. My grandfather’s beginning, the legacy he left to his eldest son, my father’s own ambitions and departures—they were like the modern city to a new visitor, smooth and discernible, yet grim and hinting of secrets. The elements of our forefathers’ past do not make a consistent whole. There were serendipities they could not foresee, and they often changed the direction halfway down their adult years—as my father did when he gave up his medical practice.

One reason for my father’s change of heart was financial. Chinese medicine rarely made much money. At the High Street shop the patients paid five ringgit each for consultation, and on a good day there would be from eight to twelve of them in the morning, with a dribble in the afternoon. The patients came because of my father’s reputation and because they believed herbs were better for them than pills and injections. For most, the biggest draw card of Chinese medicine was it was cheap. A prescription cost perhaps another ten ringgit; so a visit to the Chinese healer came to around fifteen ringgit, while at a clinic a doctor’s consultation fee alone would be at least twice that. The slim harvest was typical of a traditional healer’s earning. Yet, a medicine shop could not do without one. The healer was its brand mark, he put his stamp on its reputation and the goods it sold. What kind of medicine shop would it be without the sombre, elderly man who felt your pulse and got you to watch over the colour of your stool? In any case, my father quickly coaxed his friend Master Hwang out of retirement to serve at the shop. Master Hwang was in his mid-seventies; he had studied in Hong Kong and had practised for many years in Singapore. So he was to be shop’s new anchor, and to give my father time to attend to the business side of things.

The money is one thing, it is also the case that my father was unhappy with the state of his profession. It admitted too many, mostly self-taught. Anyone who had read a few simplified texts, and memorised the prescriptions, could set himself up as a Chinese doctor. The profession was getting crowded and full of amateurs, he complained. He was himself self-taught, of course. But he was different: he had read widely, and he was versed in the scholarship—he was no quack. And he was a man who listened to the BBC Chinese broadcast, and read for relaxation the wuxia novels of Louis Cha. Modern taste and learning had made him question some of his fellow practitioners.

Or maybe because he needed a change. Perhaps he was like one of those going through a mid-life crisis: any change will do as long as life is no longer the same dreary routine. There was a bit of that. Risk-taking and economic adventurism were not his way. But forces were pressing on him that made him reassess his options. In Malaysia, capitalism had come out of the history of migration of the colonial era. The coolie labourers, the shops that serve customers of all sorts, the wholesalers and trading agents of commodities—they made Malaya one of the richest colonies of the British Empire. And this history had created a particular cultural ethos among the immigrant communities, particularly the Chinese. Everything of this ethos is vulnerable, self-possessing and economically aggressive. My father and so many like him were inheritors of a cultural legacy, which they embellished with the values of personal efforts, inventiveness and imagination.

And what is imagination in this context except the effusive emanations of what drives the petite capitalist? With these emanations, imagination becomes passion, reason becomes unreason and failure turns into shame. The Chinese petite capitalists are not only creatures of dry pragmatism; they, too, have their follies and hankerings and delusions. Living with my father I could not help noticing the excitement when a good deal came his way, when buying and selling of a certain commodity took on an almost magical quality.

Since passing the baton to Master Hwang, my father had not been idle. His search for contacts and opportunities had the quality of shady deals, with urgent phone calls that summoned him to a meeting at a coffee shop or at a mah-jong club, and animated talks with friends took place in the family sitting room well past midnight. Tips were exchanged and quickly responded to. The result was a series of ‘trading fevers’ each dealing with a particular commodity.

First was the ‘streptomycin fever’.

The lorry drivers, sunburned and wearing their trademark neckerchiefs, came with their wives. They leaned against the counter, they talked about the lung sickness—tuberculosis—still ravaging their kinfolk in the hill villages in China. And they tried to bargain with my father. They feigned expertise and they examined with keen interests each aluminium strip of the drug. But my father knew it was a seller’s market. The rustic buyer knew little of the medicine, except that their kin had asked for it. He had read up on it, and the supplier MS Ally Pharmacy had briefed him. Over the counter, the advantage of bulk buying—with discount—was freely dispensed, and yes, we would pack and take them to the post office and mail them to China.

This lasted for about twelve months. Then came the ‘poppy husk fever’.

The poppy husks had little opium left in them. They were not in the same league as morphine and heroin; they were leftovers of opium harvest in China and the Malaysian authorities had allowed their import for use as Chinese medicine. With opiates heavily criminalised, it took certain ingenuity for consumers to find a legitimate source in the neighbourhood Chinese medicine shop. Our customers were Sikh watchmen who slept on charpoy string beds outside the bank or the pawn shop. In the solitary night hours, when the risk of robbery was low, friends got together and enjoyed a water pipe of tobacco and poppy husk. It offered solace, and perhaps reminded them of life in Punjab where farmers chewed small pills of opium to suppress appetite and overcome fatigue. The informant said: in the evening, the dahl is stewing in the clay pot, we would light up a hookah of tobacco and chandu. Sweet fire!

Coming home late at night, I sometimes stopped by and sat on a charpoy with my night-watchmen friends. Their drug-hazed contentment was contagious, and the opium discards had been put into use free from the police and social condemnation. It was certainly a better, less addictive alternative to the cheap, gut-rotting reconstituted brandy many night watchmen drank. It was my first introduction to a controversial subject on which everyone has an opinion, one way or the other.

Opium husk was a trade of quick turnovers. The customers came on bicycles or in a small van, each time buying two gunny sacks or more, and returned when they ran out. Then the trade died out—perhaps the night watchmen had found another source, perhaps the police had wised up; we never knew.

Each ‘trading fever’ gave hope to the shop’s financial situation. Thanks to my father’s efforts and social connections, an economic saviour was found in the commodities. Customers bought bulk, and we put a generous margin on a gross package or a gunny sack sold. All the time, there was for us a sense of waiting for the next big thing. One commodity had ceased to sell, another commodity would come to lure the customers. After the streptomycin and poppy husks, dreams rose and waned. Whether it was Tiger Balm from the Thai wholesaler who promised delivery right at the door, or sanitary napkins whose mysterious way they fell off the back of a truck we didn’t want to know—miracles followed but did not last. Fortunate for us, goods of profit were available in the shop among the repertoire of Chinese medicine—goods more enticing than the likes of streptomycin and poppy husk.

The most grandiose of the Chinese medicine shops called themselves ‘pearl-ginseng-deer antler establishment’. The tonic medicines propped up the shop’s name; you could not be a loser if your shop dealt in them. There were shops that sold exclusively these medicines only the rich—and the desperate—could afford. Most, like the High Street shop, peddled the ordinary day-to-day items as well as the pearl-ginseng-deer antler trinity. Pearl lightens the skin; it makes the skin glow with lustre. (Pearl powder is the main ingredient of the face-whitening cream popular in Asia.) The medicinal pearls are the remains of those used for setting in jewellery. The best way to take them is to have them crushed and ground‚ and then to ingest the powder. The customers who came and asked for them were women, mostly massage parlour hostesses who had the cash and the professional vanity to keep their good looks. I remember the rush to the counter when one of them turned up. She drew attention with her bright makeup and coy demeanour, and her request was eagerly met. The box was brought out, and a portion of the precious content was weighed then ground into fine powder and laid on a sheet of fine paper and wrapped. The sale was quick, but the customer seemed to have time to chat. Pressing her arm on the sales counter, she sought assurance that what she had bought was of high quality, and that she had not over paid; and she insisted on receiving the same discount as she did last time she came. It was a satisfactory transaction all around—for the salesclerk, for the customer who bought the age-old beauty aid, for the shop that cropped an immoderate profit.

The quality and prices of ginseng vary greatly. Cheap, affordable ginseng is a misnomer. Ginseng is versatile; it is effective against high blood pressure and it heals depression and weaknesses of the brain. But the high value it fetches is also something of its rarity. Perhaps you remember Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 film Dersu Uzala. The best quality ginseng roots are found and brought to the market by hardy huntsmen from the snowfields of Siberia and the Korean Peninsula. A certain romance is built into wild ginseng; the cheap garden-variety that fill the health food stores are farmed in the United States and China. No doubt a bit of underhandedness went on in medicine shops. My father’s approach was to explain the different qualities and pricing: a ‘you get what you pay for’ salesmanship. The High Street shop sold both wild and farmed ginseng. Top-quality Korean ginseng was stored in air-sealed metal tins with red velvet lining: two or three roots rested inside, looking like shrivelled undersized cadavers from an ancient tomb. Over the counter each wild ginseng root fetched a price truly not for the faint-hearted.

But the romance of Chinese tonic medicine really belongs to deer antler.

You can still see it in some Chinese medicine shops today in Malaysia. To preserve its efficacy, a set of deer antler is placed on a bed of cloves inside a glass case. Each horn is tied with red silk threads, which makes you think of bridal headdress in a tribal wedding. Placed prominently on the shop counter, deer antler invites admiration and impresses customers with its elegant form and beauty. Dr Subhuti Dharmananda of the Institute for Traditional Medicine, in Portland, the United States, describes deer antler’s ancient origin:

The story of deer antler can be traced back to the first Chinese Materia Medica, Shennong Bencao Jing (ca. 100 A.D.), where it is described briefly. There is also reference to earlier use of deer antler in an archaeological find (a set of silk scrolls named Wushier Bingfang, from a tomb dated 168 B.C.). However, use of antler appears to have been infrequent until the animals were raised on “deer farms” starting in the mid-16th Century in China (Ming Dynasty period). This is a time when several other cultivation and animal husbandry projects were established in support of medicine. Soon after, Wu Kun included a formula in his book Yi Fang Kao (Study of Prescriptions, 1584) that has inspired much work with the combination of deer antler and tortoise shell, two bone-like materials rich in gelatins.’ Wu Kun’s formula Gui Lu Erxian Jiao for making the firm gelatin, include the main ingredients deer antler and tortoise plastron, and some quantities of lycium fruit and ginseng.

And he lists the health benefits:

This formula is said to replenish yin and essence, tonify qi, and strengthen yang. It is used for deficiency of kidney yin and yang, deficiency of blood and essence in the penetrating and conception vessels, with symptoms of weakness of the lower back and legs, impotence, blurred vision, etc. The penetrating vessel, (chongmai), one of the extra meridians, is referred to as the ‘sea of blood.’ The conception vessel (renmai), while sometimes associated with reproduction, is related to generation more broadly, including generation of blood. Tortoise shell and deer antler are said to nourish the marrow.9

9 7 August, 2018.

The medicinal deer antler is actually the velvet, the cartilaginous part before it reaches calcification. Deer velvet antler is harvested from young males. It got its name from the fine, hairy surface of the horn from a beast still growing. The prong—the tine—of a velvet antler is round and sleek; from the glass case it seems to reach out as though trying to break though.

At the High Street shop, the pair of velvet antlers was attached still to the skull. It had been sitting in the case for a few months, now came the cutting and shaving of the antler velvet into flakes. We had got each interested customer to pay a deposit, and the level of commitment had been reached. A propitious day had been chosen which we wrote on a red paper stripe and pasted it on the glass casing. That day had arrived; it was Sunday morning and customers were milling around to witness the proceedings. The master grader, who had been having breakfast in the kitchen with my father, made his appearance. He cut an antler from the skull, then moved over to a long wooden bench with a cutter at the front. Everyone watched: he held firmly the antler and pressed it against the cutter, then began a steady to-and-fro motion. The first shavings were dropped onto a bamboo tray below: these were of little value, each flake white and coarse. He continued and as he reached an inch or so away from the skull, the colour of the shavings began to change. The white grey turned a red tinge: the presence of blood cells. With a pair of steel clippers, the master grader picked up a piece and holding it against the light gave a sigh of approval. Everyone joined in: ah!

The shaving was done, and the master grader laid out the micro-thin flakes in neat piles on sheets of thin rice paper. From a ledger, my father went through the list of people who had paid the deposits and the master grader made the allotments accordingly. For a while, each precious heap stared back at you: what money could buy in the way of tonic medicine, for your health and the health of your loved ones. The pair of velvet antlers had cost almost 4,000 ringgit; it looked like we were to recoup the cost and more—perhaps three times what we had paid for them. With the generous profit, our Chinese petite capitalist dream was made real.

In many ways, Chinese shopkeepers hold many of the petite bourgeoisie attributes that James Scott speaks of with avid approval. We have witnessed their frustrations; we have been sensible to the shame and social judgement of their class positions. They suffer financial shortfalls of all kinds, and they struggle with the structural limitations of their businesses. But the petite bourgeoisie are not all lying down; as Scott points out, they rebel, they struggle against institutions and bureaucracies that exploit and oppress them. Scott’s view is glossed with a certain romanticism—the making of small tradespersons into anarchists. But he is not altogether wrong. The petite capitalists of my father’s generation were financially vulnerable, unlike the big wholesalers and owners of large shops. But to my mind, their weaknesses appeared to have given them a reason, a motivation for economic improvement. And they did this with a great deal of tenancy and commitment. Growing up in the High Street shop, I found my parents’ diligence, their striving, their carefully guarded lives a mystery and an inspiration. I can speak of the stress and the emotional costs of living and working in a shop- house. This, however, had not been the language of my parents. Instead they talked of ethical conduct, the force of resilience, and blessings of gods and ancestors who are the final arbitrators of fate. Structural limitation was one thing; there were also personal endeavours. When my parents talked like this, it was as though profit making was an affair of the spirit—and imagination. My parents were not hard-boiled materialists: you buy and sell, and once in a while you come across a good that saves you from your financial woe, and offers perhaps a degree of excitement and fantastic hope.

We in Malaysia grew up with commodity fetishism. Rubber and tin were the mainstay of the colonial economy, both big foreign currency earners for which Britain fought a bloody counterinsurgency war during the last years of the empire.10 Rubber and tin made prosperous the planters, the mining corporations, the agents and exporters; and wages and standard of living of the common folk rose and ebbed with the fortunes of the commodities. Children learned about rubber and tin at school, and people read in the papers how their prices spiked during the Korean and the Vietnam Wars that brought prosperity to the country. Today machinery and oil have replaced rubber and tin as Malaysia’s top exports.11 A kind of magic persists, however—magic of any goods or services that promise to deliver individual wealth and make rich the whole society. (The current candidate is real estate development.) It is capitalist myth; it is also commodity fetishism or fetishism of money. My father was no subaltern rebel; he could not resist the bewitchment that started with rubber and tin. And you might say, in the colonial divide and rule, the Chinese had been the major inheritors of Britain’s commercial culture that came out of ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. And what is a nation of shopkeepers but a nation of petite bourgeoise values and stringencies?


See my The Malayan Emergency, Essays on a small and distant war, Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2016.

11 7 January, 2019.

I remember each time I returned home I would witness all the exciting goings-on in the neighbourhood. A convey of lorries waiting to unload outside the Chiu-Chow rice wholesaler, at the rubber trader next door to us the wife had taken over. She called the warehouse, she checked the quotes on futures, she bought and sold. To my father what went on at the rubber dealer was a wonder, executed with telephones and fax machines, involving huge turnovers he could only have dreamed about. In a sense, my father had felt he was in good company, that he too could make it rich, that he need not face the world with cringing unworthiness. He was sure he would not be left behind by the rice wholesalers and the rubber dealers. They had their near magical commodities, but he had his pearl, ginseng and antler velvet.

For the author of Capital, a commodity of capitalist production takes on a fetishistic quality for the concealment of its social character. Capitalist commodity appears in an illusion of objective form in the marketplace—in the nature of ‘existence of things qua commodity’. It is near magical, no labour power has made it, no power and ideology has helped to organise its production, it comes into existence by itself.12 But we can also see such fetishism as a positive force, which a petite capitalist finds irresistible and proceeds to exploit. This is a thinking of a different ideological hue. It comes to him as commercial opportunity, and as a means of redeeming his disadvantages and ‘littleness’. The pearl-ginseng-deer antler trinity was the stuff of dreams and imaginations; they fed my father’s mind and drove him. Meanwhile, he persisted and consolidated his resources. A cautious man, he knew the pearl-ginseng-deer antler market was small and the pugnacious profit taking would not last. He had given up the medical consultation, and he did not want to shift from the core business of herbs and packaged remedies. He knew he would need to move on to the next venture though he did not know what it would be. But it had to be steadier than dealing with patent medicine and the precious pearl, ginseng and deer antler, and hopefully bringing in similar returns.


Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 [1867] 1978: translated by S. Moore and E. Aveling, in R.C. Tucker (ed), The Marx-Engels Reader, New York: W.W. Norton, 319–329.

Excerpt from Souchou Yao’s The Shop on High Street: At Home with Petite Capitalism, published by Palgrave, 2020.

  • Marx, Karl. (1978). ‘Capital, vol. 1’. R. C. Tucker (ed), Marx and Engels Reader. NY: W.W. Norton, pp.319–29.
  • Scott, James C. (2012). Two Cheers for Anarchism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Simmel, Georg. (2005). The Philosophy of Money. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Smart, Alan, and Josephine Smart. (eds.) (2012). Petty Capitalists and Globalization. Albany: SUNY Press.
  • Subhuti Dharmananda, (2018). ‘Deer antler to Nourish Blood, Bone, and Joints’, August 7, 2019.
  • Williams, Raymond. (1985). Keywords. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Workman, Daniel, ‘Malaysia’s Top 10 Exports’, August 30, 2019.
  • Yao Souchou, (2016). The Malayan Emergency: Essays on a Small, Distant War. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.
  • Zhou, Kecheng, Nati Jia, Nan Jiang, Feng Wang, and Junping Kou. (2015). ‘Beneficial Effect of Danggui-Shaoyao-San, a Traditional Chinese Medicine, on Drowsiness Induced by Chronic Restraint Stress’, Neuroscience Letters, 597: 26–31.