On a high shelf in Henry Chang's bustling herb shop sits a glass jar with a coiled, plump rattlesnake drowned in whiskey. It is smiling. There are worse ways to die.
"You want to drink some of my rattlesnake whiskey?" Chang offers. "It's good for you," says the agile, 84-year-old proprietor of Essential Chinese Herbs in Chinatown, for more than a century a supplier of herbs to doctors of traditional Oriental medicine in Los Angeles.
The West knows these doctors as acupuncturists, but that term simply refers to the technique of inserting needles in specific points of the body to relieve pain and the symptoms of disease. The use of medicinal herbs, prescribed just as prescription drugs from a pharmacy are in the West, is an essential component of traditional Oriental medicine.
Asians and non-Asians line up at the counter of Chang's store. The din of heavy traffic outside the shop at 701 N. Spring St. is the constant aural backdrop. The nose is overwhelmed by the heavy aroma of pungent medicinal herbs from China. And the eyes can not avoid the snake.
Chang points to the dark amber liquid surrounding the reptile, "You never use Scotch or whiskey," despite the way it looks. "You start off with rice gin, or vodka is good. You have to put the rattlesnake in live, the venom still in them." When they're in the jar, "you cover them up." Once the lid is on, the snake "drowns, it gets drunk in all that alcohol and just drowns." The snake's open mouth begins to look less like a smile and more like a frozen gasp.
The whiskey has to age "at least six or seven years before you drink it," Chang says. "I've had some for more than 60, 65 years." The brew on the shelf, next to a book titled "Chinese Herbal Medicine: Ancient Art and Modern Science," "is 70 years old."
Chang turns to a line of customers smiling but impatient for his attention. He speaks to them in Chinese, then explains in English the properties of various herbs for the visiting uninitiated. Nearly spinning on his heels as he speaks, he pulls herbs from wooden drawers behind him, weighing them on a scale in front of him, then sliding several feet to the right to pulverize some in the same, solid copper mortar and pestle that his grandfather used in Chinatown 100 years ago. Clank, clank , clank.
The sound of heavy metal is followed by the rustle of leafy herbs, ground nuts and sinewy bark being divided on five yellow plastic plates. The contents of each plate will fill a gallon-size plastic bag--two doses per bag. The patient will simmer the herbs in water, then drink it as a tea. Chang swiftly calculates the cost of a prescription on an abacus, drops a piece of candy in the bag and thanks his customer.
Chang's face wrinkles. There is anxious chatter to his right, between a customer and his assistant. "Oh, you want me to fix you one now?" he says to an elderly woman with silver gray hair pulled into a bun. She smiles affirmatively.
"She always asks me to fix at least one of the bags of herbs," he explains. "Lots of people, I don't know, it's maybe superstition, but they think it makes a difference. Maybe when I fix it, they get well faster." He laughs.
"You want to try my rattlesnake whiskey?" he asks again.
On an empty stomach?
The gracious proprietor can take care of that, too. Amid the herbs and teas are packaged snacks--smoked fish, prawn chips, candies and nuts. He takes a bag of prawn chips into his back office and motions for his guests to follow. The chips are light, spicy and delicious. He fills a small paper cup with the rattler's whiskey.
Too much, too much.
" Nawwww ," he says, "eat some more chips."
One does not drink rattlesnake whiskey for the first time with eyes open. And this is a brew one does not anticipate savoring. Down it, fast. What it lacks in flavor it makes up in heaaaatttt .
It's great for rheumatism and a general feeling of well being, Chang says.
So this is what keeps him looking so young?
"Nawwww, it's the girl in the back and a vodka tonic every day."