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Fong Wan, Chinese Herbalist

Fong Wan became well known in San Francisco through newspaper advertisements for his herbal medical treatment. He ran the ads in San Francisco newspapers from the early 1930s into the 1950s. The ads were always the same size, same layout, and featured essentially the same photograph through the decades.

These weren’t ordinary advertisements, because he would often detail in them the latest attacks by the U.S. Government on his herbal practice. The advertisement on this page details his acquittal in a 1932 court case after he was charged with postal fraud.

He was so well known by 1949 that “Chronicle” writer Dick Hemp profiled Fong Wan in this two-part series.

Fong Wan, a Bay Area multimillionaire, is also variously known as Fong Poy, Mon Poy Fong, Fong Wan Kwong, and “King of the Herbalists in North America.”

He roughly translates the Chinese names: “I am light of the world. Without me you are in dark.”

“Big name, huh?” Fong asked yesterday, then pointed to a framed horoscope on the wall of his office at 860 Stockton street. It depicted a pine tree and a horse pulling a wagon load of salt and according to Fong these ancient Chinese symbols, like his name, strikingly illustrate the pattern of his life.

“Pine tree like me,” chortled Fong a rotund, 200-pounder who stands 5 feet, 6 inches—and who spikes his conversation with high-pitched chuckles.

“Pine tree has strong spine and only one heart goes upward. Like tree, I tower on top of mountain and endure all, hardships world produce. Like rain and storm and snow on tree, I push away hardships and gain power and intelligence from enemies. Like tree gain nourishment from seasons.

“My mind never change like a pine tree always green. Ha, ha. Wonderful, huh?”

Fong indicated the horse and announced: “I fearless like horse who run 1000 miles in one day—carrying cart of salt to keep people from disease. I live just like my horoscope, what I do everyday of my life, going to supply people with herbs. Everything hard but I use my good brain to make money. Ha, ha.”

The 66-year-old Chinese has been dispensing his herbs—more than 1000 varieties in 3000 different compounds he claims to know by memory—for nearly 40 years, despite almost constant harassment from the United States Post Office, the Federal Trade Commission and the State Board of Medical Examiners.

In this time Fong says he has prescribed for some 50,000 sufferers and more or less bested various authorities in 20-odd spirited court battles. His legal ammunition has been supplied in the main by a seemingly endless parade on the witness stand of satisfied “customers.”

“I won all time because my patients stand by me,” exulted Fong. “By one patient I can prove I beat the whole world.”

However, after a 1940 Federal Trade Commission hearing in San Francisco—an action which clipped his grandiose “cure-all” advertising methods—Fong began to spend more time on real estate investments and his San Francisco and Oakland restaurant business.

This latter enterprise consists of the Club Shanghai and Chinese Cellar here and the Club Oakland and Nanking Cafe across the Bay. Fong, who has many relatives—including 11 children and five grandchildren—said he went into the night club business “to put my dependents to work.” He has a number of them in various capacities in these establishments.

As a further example of his horoscope in action: Fong presently has on file in Superior Court a $50,000 suit against Charlie Low, another astute Chinese night club entrepreneur, for allegedly “stealing” an acrobat away from Fong’s Club Shanghai.

“A hardship like snow on pine tree,” commented Fong. “I lose face but lawyers more worried than Fong Wan.”

He confidently expects to win this suit and again “tower on mountain.”

One Fong coup against Low is already legendary in Chinatown and was struck when the herbalist bought a six-story building at 334 Sutter street—across from Low’s Forbidden City night club— and erected a huge neon sign directing passersby to Fong’s club around the corner on Grant avenue.

Fong denies there was malice in this action, however, and credits it to his acute business sense. “I know valuable building,” he declared. “Never think of Charlie Low at all, I bought building for $90,000 and next day am offered $110,000, to get it back. Ha, ha.”

The man of acumen was born May 11, 1883, in Ham Ning village (Kwangtung province)—a town to which he has sent $2000 every year since 1925 for the education of its young.

Fong was “No. 2 son” of nine children and after a desultory schooling in Ham Ning went to work for his father at the age of 15, making bamboo shell lanterns. His father’s name was Fong Hang Thew, which means, “You take care of your body and do no foolish things”—another precept which Fong claims to have followed through his life.

He says: “My body pure white like paper. Keep 100 per cent sanitary.”

The elder Fong eventually sent his teen-age son on a tourist’s holiday to Japan where the future herbalist observed growing militarism and predicted in letters home an eventual Sino-Japanese conflict. His father then paid young Fong’s passage from Japan to California in order to visit relatives and his home here became permanent.

Fong, at 17, arrived in San Francisco with $10 and a long queue. He soon got rid of the last item but was never to be greatly concerned about the first.

His uncle was a prominent Chinese herbalist and Fong lived with him on Stockton street and studied the art of herb mixing while learning English at the Chinese mission school, Washington grammar school and later at Berkeley High School. While attending this last institution in 1910 he fell off a bicycle, broke his teeth, injured his jaw and has never been able to speak fluently since.

But his speech is persuasive. Shortly after his accident he bought a paper telescope for 75 cents, set it up on Sacramento street and made $3.75 a night by selling views at the moon. His pitch: “Just as good as $1000 telescope. If you don’t believe me pay me a nickel and see for yourself.”

While the people peered he sold them razor blades.

By 1912 Fong had absorbed hundreds of ancient volumes of Chinese herbology, (“Uncle beat me if I didn’t study”) and he opened an herb parlor in Santa Rosa. In 1916 he became an herb doctor, with offices in Oakland, later opened a branch on Stockton street here, and hasn’t been slowed up since.

In his San Francisco office the other day, a young white woman walked in, consulted briefly with Fong who thereupon went into a store room piled high with straw sacks of raw herbs and lined with boxes of more herbs, identified by Chinese characters.

These herbs, all from a firm in Hong Kong, represented part of a recent $39,000 shipment of 102 bales weighing 200 pounds each.

While pulling out various boxes of herbs from the shelves—apparently at random—and mixing them into a compound for the woman, Fong said his customer was in her second pregnancy, he had prescribed for her during her first and like so many others she was coming back because of “faith” in him.

Fong shuffled roots and leaves in tin pans and announced he was making a compound for herb tea, which is brewed by adding four cups of water to the mixture and then boiling the whole thing down to one cup. It is strained and drunk at bedtime.

“This tea give young lady blood and air power,” said the herbalist, “strengthen to deliver baby so child come out healthy, strong like tree.” (He explained “air power” as “good breath circulation.”)

“I talk over with people, then give herbs. More power than God can do.”

Fong assembled eight herbs to make the tea compound. They generally looked like pieces of tar paper, white corn flakes, balsa wood and plain old bark. Fong named them as Ong Kei (“Makes more blood”), Chun Kung (“Causes blood to circulate”), Steamed Root (“Makes rich blood”), Bacsec (“Equalizes to make new blood”), Ginseng (“To give air to body”), Baki (“To make air powerful”) and Pak shoot and Licorice—both “to equalize for power of air.”

“All these valuable formula to make air and blood strong,” declared Fong.

He divided the heterogeneous compound into seven plain white paper packages—a week’s supply—and gave them to the young woman who then gave him a $10 bill and walked out.

“Very small charge,” said the herbalist. “I do it for good of people. Sometime I lose money on herbs. Sometime I make 30, 40, 50 per cent.”

Fong follows his preaching and says he’s never been sick a day in his life, except for an occasional cold. “I have different compound for that,” he said. “Have kind of tea to cool blood down. Ha. ha.”

In fact, he’s in remarkable physical condition for a man of 66.

His youngest child is a boy of three, whose mother is Fong’s third wife, 42-year-old Hong May Fong—which can mean either “red eyebrow” or “radiance,” depending on how you look at it.

His first wife, who died, was named Fung Ling. (“Means she was a flower, like peacock lily.”) That marriage was in Canton in 1910 on a trip Fong took back to China. It occurred in a Methodist church though Fong had been raised in the Confucian religion.

He explained: “My mind is fast. Can change in five seconds.”

The Fong Wan article continued in “The Chronicle,” June 20, 1949.
Fong Wan’s troubles with the authorities have produced a sheaf of testimonials from people who agree with him that: “I can cure nearly all, anything with herbs.”

These individuals declared they had visited regularly licensed physicians and surgeons without avail for such ailments as arthritis, tuberculosis, stomach ulcers, colitis, diabetes, heart trouble, malignant growths, infected prostate gland, paralysis, kidney trouble, obesity, neuritis, enlarged liver, intestinal obstruction, dysentery, high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, rheumatism., eczema, catarrh, influenza, sinus trouble, bronchitis, violent sneezing, boils, piles, yellow jaundice, dropsy, varicose veins, cross eyes, lymphatic leukemia, deafness, poison oak and ringing in the ears.

Before postal inspectors, Federal Grand Juries and in various courts they claimed they received complete success With Fong’s herbs. The testimony of their condition before Fong “saved” them ran as follows: “My heart was in pretty bad shape. It would just beat a little bit and then sort of wait and then beat again. We called the doctor, and the doctor said. . . .”

“I was not able to walk a block. I was short winded. I had the afternoon fever. I had the night sweats. . . .”

“After nine months the cut made by the doctors had not healed. Each month I became weaker, my breath grew short and I could scarcely walk. I thought that I would surely die. . . .”

“Recently I suffered from growth on the navel and the pain became so severe that I was confined to my bed for three weeks. . . .”

“On March 1, 1932, I broke out with a venereal disease known as syphilis or blood disease. My blood test on November 3, 1932, came back ’3 plus’ and a test on December 1, 1932, came back ’4 plus’..... ”

To treat these many afflictions, Fong Wan leans heavily on the Chinese science of therapeutics based on the deductions of an ancient Emperor of China known as Shin Nong, the “divine farmer.”

He believed that all things on earth are included in five natural elements: water, fire, vegetation, mineral and earth. For instance, since the natural color of the fire element is red—and the heart controls the circulation of the blood and blood is red—Shin Nong said the heart belongs to the fire element.

He then classified medicinal plants according to their relations to the five natural elements. So, medicinal plants of a red color were classified under the fire element and were used to aid heart ailments. The early Chinese also went so far as to base their five principal musical tones (Kok, Ching, Kong, Sheng and Yii) upon the five natural elements. Thus, Fong Wan says he can tell what ailment is bothering a person by listening to him groan. He cited an Oakland case where a boy was in such pain he couldn’t explain the trouble. Fong said he recognized his howlings as belonging to the Ching musical tone—which is connected with the fire element—and immediately diagnosed that the boy’s liver had become overheated by the fire element and that his trouble was inflammation of the liver and intestines.

Fong mixed certain herbs for this condition, fed them in tea to the boy and the patient soon recovered, the herbalist said.

Fong illustrated the various musical tones, moaned low and so said: “Yii. That’s kidneys. Ha, ha.”

This sort of thing has irritated more orthodox practitioners for many years and the Government produced a series of expert medical men at the 1940 Federal Trade Commission hearing here to attack the theories of Fong Wan and to bear out the contention the herbalist’s advertising was false and misleading.

These gentlemen generally hooted at Fong’s methods as based on superstitious folk lore and attributed the testimonials to a feeling by many people that “the strange mysterious East holds things for us we don’t know.”

The doctors admitted, however, that two valuable drugs used in modern medicine, digitalis and ephedrine, are extracted from ancient Chinese herbs—namely, foxglove and Ma Huang.

Fong Wan’s lawyer introduced a parade of witnesses to testify to seemingly miraculous cures obtained from Fong Wan herbs and these persons were exceedingly loyal to the herbalist. Despite such testimony for Fong, more than a year later the Federal Trade Commission decided Fong’s “Methods of diagnosis are based upon doctrines which are of historical interest only and which have had no acceptability in the scientific sense for several centuries.”

Fong was ordered to “cease misrepresentation in the sale of herbs” and “to cease advertising herbs as cures or of therapeutic value” for a long list of diseases and disorders.

But the herbalist, astute as always, had already obtained untold advertising from the Federal hearing. In April, 1940, he bought pages of space in the Bay Area’s major newspapers and inserted therein the verbal testimony of the hearing—testimony which was predominantly pro-Fong from his followers. In The Chronicle alone this record ran 14 full newspaper pages on April 14.

Though he is no longer permitted to call himself a doctor, he is eager to acquaint listeners with his various interpretations of Chinese materia medica. One is the theory that the best time to shave is early in the morning when “blood is cool and skin firm and taut.”

Though Fong’s main business has been herbs, he does not neglect his real estate and night club holdings.

He pays nightly visits to his Club Shanghai and Club Oakland, chauffeured in either his 1948 Packard or 1949 Buick by Elmo, a young man who said Fong cured him of a serious disease.

In each night club he follows the same routine: Takes cat naps until the master of ceremonies introduces him after every show . Then Fong rises, grins and waves his arms in a Max Baer-type greeting, and resumes his dozing.

The performers in the clubs, most of whom were imported by Fong from China, universally respect and admire him. Lana Wong, a petite entertainer, and Barbara Yung, a willowy “Terry and the Pirates” sort of fan dancer, acclaimed: “The doctor’s wonderful!”

Fong accepts praise and recognition as a matter of course, He hit upon as good a reason as any for his phenomenal success by displaying an exceptionally long and rare “intelligence” line on his left hand, running an the way from his wrist to the first line to his middle finger.

He declared: “Means other people can’t follow me because I’m smarter. Everything I do—I sure to succeed before I start.”

The Chronicle
June 19 and 20, 1949

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