A vintage drug known among the Chinese for its ability to cure illnesses, from common colds to menstrual cramps, is now being marketed to the younger generation.
The drug, Po Chai Pills, was developed in 1896 by Li Shiu-Kei in China’s Guangdong Province. It was manufactured in the city of Foshan until 1949, when the Chinese Civil War broke out.
After the war, the Li family moved to Hong Kong and re-established their company, Li Chung Shing Tong. Meanwhile, their property left in the mainland was nationalized and became the Guangzhou Wanglaoji Pharmaceutical Company.
Due to these circumstances, the drug is now manufactured in both factories owned by two different organizations, but the Guangzhou company — whose rights are limited to mainland China — exports them as Bao Ji Wan (aka “Curing Pills”).
By 2010, Jacobson Pharma, a corporation that produces generic drugs for Hong Kong hospitals, bought Li Chung Shing Tong. By this time, Po Chai Pills had already become a household name, known by 97% in Hong Kong, 96% in Singapore and 89% in Macau.
The tiny brown pills are so iconic that Chinese adults who took them as children feel nostalgic whenever they see them — even if they’ve moved away from China.
Pharmacist Derek Sum Kwong-Yip, now the CEO of Jacobson Pharma, told the South China Morning Post:
“It has become a household name that passes from one generation to the next. It comes with a high level of trust and confidence among end users. There is a lot of value in this brand waiting to be unlocked.”
The drug has kept 14 traditional ingredients, but its manufacturing process was revamped with the help of Kevin Chu, the general manager of Li Chung Shing Tong, who was hired by Sum for this express purpose.
Chu, who is also a pharmacist, told SCMP:
“The production staff here are so proud of what they are doing. But they were so proud they didn’t want to change.”
Nonetheless, the staff eventually adapted to the changes. Today, the new factory in the district of Tai Po produces 10 million boxes of Po Chai Pills annually.
The drug maintains its reputation as “cure-all pills,” helping with chills, diarrhea, fever, headache, menstrual cramps, stomach pains and even hangover prevention.
Po Chai Pills have also sought the help of pop singer Angela Yuen Lai-lam, who appears in commercials that target consumers in their 20s. This move to attract young adults is likewise seen in modern graphic designs that appear in print and digital ads.
The product range will expand to include lines devoted to gastrointestinal problems by 2018.
With its respect for heritage and keeping up with the times, Hong Kong’s Po Chai Pills are appear to be headed to a bright future. As Chu said, “People say if there are Chinese people, there are Po Chai Pills.”
And with the West gradually opening its arms to traditional Chinese medicine, these “cure-all pills” could soon provide relief to the rest of the world.