Something my mum often did for me when I felt unwell—or “heaty”, as they say—was boil some traditional Chinese herbs for me to drink as they’re meant to speed up my recovery.
Now, whenever I’d call in sick at work (like the time I got the “C”), my boss would deliver plenty of these pre-made teas to my doorstep, meekly apologising that they might taste a little foul, but were good for me.
“It’s cool, I’ve acquired the taste,” I’d assure her.
Eng Chai Tong (ECT) is one traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) shop bottling up these herbal drinks with a modern twist.
Not only that, the store is running as a hole-in-the-wall coffee or bubble tea shop with to-go drinks and aesthetic social media-friendly branding.
This is the work of 30-year-old Leon Oh, the fourth generation PIC of the family business. He’s taken on the role of modernising the TCM brand to attract customers from younger generations.
Mining workers turned TCM store owners
ECT was founded in 1925 by Leon’s great grandparents who were once mining workers in Ipoh. They were offered an opportunity as apprentices in a TCM shop, which later pushed them to start their own traditional herbal medicine store known as ECT at Jalan Ayer Itam, Penang.
By the time the business was passed down to its third generation (Leon’s father), customers who visited were few and far between, Leon noticed while helping out his father at the store.
At the same time, the MCO slowed down foot traffic to the store.
“That led me to think about what I could do to improve our business to include the younger generation,” Leon told Vulcan Post.
He conducted a survey among his friend group and discovered that they found cooking traditional herbs troublesome and time-consuming.
“All my friends wanted a quick and convenient way to consume traditional herbal products,” Leon elaborated. That inspired him to create ready-to-drink and ready-to-eat products to solve the pain point of cooking traditional herbal products.
Solely relying on social media wasn’t enough
“Social media is a deciding factor in my branding and marketing strategy, especially during MCO where all the attention was moved into the online scene,” explained Leon.
But he foresaw that relying solely on the digital sphere would come to an end, and customers would prefer to visit the physical, offline store.
“This is why we came out with this modern takeaway pod that is convenient and Instagrammable for the public, especially for the younger generation,” Leon said, adding that the original ECT store at Jalan Ayer Itam is no longer open.
My father is getting older and wants me to take over the business. Today is no longer the same as what we used to do business. Traditional Chinese medicine shops are a sunset business and it will remain the same if I did not do anything to change it.Leon Oh, 4th-gen PIC of Eng Chai Tong
Leon admitted that his father wasn’t initially agreeable with the modernising efforts for the family business.
Hence, they came to a compromise, with Leon rebranding ECT by keeping the traditional core values but presenting them in a modern and creative way.
Familiar, popular drinks with a TCM twist
One of the beverages sold at ECT includes a milk tea-like Chinese Yam Red Dates with milk, where yam and milk create a thick and creamy texture, while red dates supply a natural sweetness.
There are also herbal teas packaged in to-go cups and bottles, with photogenic designs stuck on them.
ECT also sells its own pre-packed, ready-to-eat Peach Gum tong sui (a sweet, soup-like dessert in Cantonese cuisine). This is so consumers can skip out on the lengthy six-hour process of cooking the traditional Chinese herbs.
Leon shared that the food and beverages sold at ECT are based on recipes by his great-grandmother, while others are formulated from TCM recipes he learnt while visiting China.
Along the journey, new recipes are being formulated or improved after collecting feedback from customers. The products are made both in-store and in ECT’s central kitchen.
“Our main goal is to cultivate ancient herbal wisdom from our ancestors into modern-day wellbeing through the ready-packed herbs concoction,” Leon shared.
“Our ready-packed herbal concoctions have been included in our commercial brand blueprint for various stores.”
And speaking of blueprints, Leon revealed that there is a work-in-progress plan to expand ECT to more locations within Penang in near future.
Once they’ve stabilised their hyper-local expansion, only then will they consider growing the brand in other Malaysian states.
Featured Image Credi: Co-founder of Eng Chai Tong, Leon’s great-grandmother