SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Trip Report – Woo in my hometown

by Yau-Man Chan, Apr 05 2009

I just came back from a 10-day trip to my home town of Kota Kinabalu, capital of the State of Sabah (formerly North Borneo) in East Malaysia. It was a wonderful vacation.

Troupe of Proboscis monkeys

Troupe of Proboscis monkeys

The purpose of the trip was to attend my high-school class of 1969 40th reunion. In addition to meeting up with classmates who stayed and made their lives in Malaysia, I met up with classmates from Canada, Australia, Singapore and the U.S.  A few of us made our way (45 min. flight, 5 hr. drive and 45 min. up river by boat) to the interior of Borneo and spend a few nights in the Kinabatangan valley to see for ourselves what was left of the virgin primary forest – and communed with orangutans, horn bills, proboscis monkeys and even a pygmy Borneo elephant.
This is the area where Alfred Russell Wallace spent two years (1854-56) collecting specimens, many of which were sent to Charles Darwin. His book “The Malay Archipelago” (dedicated to Charles Darwin) was prominently on display and for sale in many local craft shops and book stores. I had to get a copy and ended up reading it on the plane on the way home. (Ok, he was a collector of specimens not a conservationist so he shot 17 orangutans within a month of getting there and sent skin samples and skeletons to England! Yikes!)

The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace

The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace

One of our classmates Robert Chong owns and operates the Kinabatangan Jungle Camp which has been written up in many eco-travel guides as the place to go for a taste of the real jungle.  In addition to a generous classmate discount, he threw in all the beer and wine we can drink in the 3 days and 2 nights.  I hope we didn’t scare away too many orangutans with our giggling and howling all night!  Robert has served as the expert guide for many naturalists and birdwatchers who came from all over the world to this forest still teaming with wild life, so to be reintroduced to the wilds of our old Borneo by one of our own was an especially moving experience.

Kota Kinabalu (KK) has changed a lot since I left in 1970. Its claim to fame of course was from the TV Reality Show “Survivor.” The first season in 2000 was filmed on Pulau Tiga, just off the coast of KK. Except for Season 1, Survivor Borneo, the show has not been shown on local TV since then – but local tourism officials still recall fondly the time when the American TV crews bought up all the rooms in the only 5-star resorts in town! When I left KK (1970 pop. – 30,000), there was not even television broadcast yet! Today, this city of half a million is a striving modern metropolis with direct flight from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Manila, and Taipei, four 5-star resorts, wall-to-wall malls and with Starbucks, KFC’s, Pizza Huts and McDonalds in every other block!

While all the malls are very modern and quite similar to any malls you will find in Anytown, U.S., there is one significant difference – the ubiquitous “health centres” on every level.  Woo is alive and well in KK shopping malls.  Every floor of every mall has their share of “health centres” which are actually facial and reflexology businesses.

“Facial” is not just for the face – it’s “skin care” woos of every description. Name any skin care and “youth restoration” product you ever saw on late night infomercial in the U.S. and they have it – and more. Other than the usual hype of different concoctions for different types of skin, they have specialties for different blood types, skin and facial treatments for different “time of the month” and time of the year (even though KK has no seasons and has average temp of 81 deg. and 90% humidity all year round.) For many of my female classmates, anecdotal evidence that their weekly visits to these parlors for their herbal/placenta wrap and botox/collagen cream treatment works was unfortunately reinforce by comparison with a few returnees’ foreign (read “white”) wives with their prematurely wrinkled and sun blotched skin (from over-enthusiastic sun tanning in their youth before SP30 sunscreen was deemed necessary!) True believers that they are, my suggestion that their good complexion may not be all due to their treatments at these facial salons devoid of any dermatological expertise was heresy. I suggested that they have such good complexion in their late 50’s should probably be credited to their Asiatic ancestor who endowed them with good genes and cultural taboo against being darken by the sun when they were young (every school girl walked under an umbrella when we were growing up.)

Reflexology centers are all adorned with anatomy posters on the wall with well-annotated “chi” lines and acupressure points.  But in reality, what is offered in these mall stores is nothing more than just hard pressure massage, and is offered for every combination and permutation of body parts. All my classmates, male and female, local to KK swear by them – a quick stop at one of these mall heath centers

Ear Candles - Made in Germany is the selling point!

Ear Candles - Made in Germany is the selling point!

on the way home after a hard days work is a must to be “rejuvenated” for the evening! Many of the health and facial centers like to attach the word “homeopathy” to their names. Upon questioning the “health professionals” in these centers, it became quite obvious that they have absolutely no idea what the term

What the heck is Homeopathy Reflexology?

What the heck is Homeopathy Reflexology?

“homeopath” really refers to. I think they confused “natural” or even “organic” with “homeopathy.” So, a “homeopathy reflexology centre” will use only organic oils and creams. Ear-Candling is big too – and European imported ear candles are all the rage.  Ear-Candling is included in most “package” deals you get from one of these health centers. My wife had to try the reflexology massage but definitely passed on the ear candling.

One of the Facial Rejuvenation centers advertise a “Breast Firming and Hot Mask” treatment which sounded very intriguing. In the interest of science and research, I tried to persuade my wife to find out what it was all about – I was going to pay for the RM$40 (about US$11.) But she was quite offended that the thought that her breasts needed firming would even crossed my mind. So, on that front, I have nothing to report!

Advise to husbands - do NOT suggest wife try last item!

Advise to husbands - do NOT suggest wife try last item!

12 Responses to “Trip Report – Woo in my hometown”

  1. Tuffgong says:

    Very insightful and I love the style of writing you have. It makes it very entertaining and funny.

    It’s always a let-down when woo artists come in and swindle people. It’s another thing when it has such an absolute hold on an area. I just recently had an argument with my mother (I’m 17 so don’t get the wrong idea) about placebos and I made the unpopular conclusion that people are NOT better off believing what they want to believe (even when it’s bull) because it makes them feel better. I find reality so substantial and amazing that to have anything else is a poor excuse for self-security. Besides that’s just asking to get duped.

    Great as always Yau-Man.

    • Jacqueline Hall says:

      Hi Yau Man,

      I just wanted to say that my partner and I think the world of you- we have just finished watching Survivor. You should have won. You played the game very well and you are a great role model for the world. Thank you for being an inspiration.

      PS We like your writing too.

      Kind Regards,

      Jacqueline Hall

  2. MadScientist says:

    I just cringe when looking through the list of snakeoils. The placenta creams are my favorite of course and to help put people off of buying it I tell them that it’s made from aborted fetuses. One of these days I’ll get myself into trouble while travelling through some country in Asia. These young ladies didn’t look too pleased (this is a few years ago now) when I said “it won’t make you whiter, but it’ll sure make you poorer.”

  3. Great article Yau-Man. I always look forward to your posts!

    On the Mall woo front it might interest you to know that over in the UK I’ve actually noticed something similar happening. Enclosed shopping centres on the scale of American ‘malls’ are still not all that common in the UK but in the scaled down UK ‘malls’ I’ve noticed that they almost always contain a Chinese medicine store. These stores tend to have the same kind of advertisements you point to, alongside the more common acne removal, baldness and impotency treatments. I rarely see people enter these establishments so I’ve no idea how they stay solvent. Even in Belfast, my hometown, I’ve noticed these stores popping up in the most obscure shopping centres far away from any Chinese communities. Mall woo may be on the rise globally it seems!

  4. Dan says:

    Great article. The homeopathy thing seems to be common. I’ve had a few friends talk about homeopathy as if it meant “holistic.” They’ve all sounded disappointed when I’ve explained it to them.

    I’ve bemoaned the fact that I haven’t got the heart to bilk people because it seems it’d be easy to take money from folks with this junk. (My ex-wife and I came up with Pet Exorcism but never put it into practice.) I just couldn’t take advantage of people like that. But I’ve had a change of heart. Now I want to get a job as breast firmer.

  5. Joe says:

    I’ve asked people what they think homeopathy is and they all think it’s “natural” or “herbal”. This is astonishing because it means the homeopaths are omitting information from their patients. Woo is growing here in Mexico as homeopathy, organic food and asian remedies are increasing. It’s quite scary.

  6. Jeshua says:

    Please, Joe from Mexico, don’t automatically group organic food with the likes of homeopathy, reflexology, moxibustion, acupuncture and other forms of Asian woo. I don’t think it’s such a bad idea to play it safe when buying fruits and vegetables that have a high water content, even though i’m not fanatical about organic food in general.

  7. Susan says:

    For the sake of science I’d be willing to get just one breast firmed…

  8. thai bar says:

    Can you provide more information on this? Im looking for a weight loss product that works.

  9. Samuel Howard says:

    Wow. I am a new reader but already a fan, good sir. :)

    I am highly confused about the picture with the (apparently) serene woman lying on her side with what appears to be a long dinner candle (lit, no less!) placed in her ear by an unseen doctor (which is implied by the white labcoat sleeve). Does such an activity do what it claims with pictures? (At least they didn’t use testimonials!) Disregarding the absurd sounding term “earcandle” and completely ignoring the words “Hopi & Essential Oil”, this does not strike me as being the sort of exercise that would invoke peace and tranquility in someone. In actuality, I would think the patient would be paralyzed with fear, wondering when the first drop of hot wax would hit. Mental images of what could happen surface in my mind, all of them quite amusing.

    Keep up the good work!

  10. heather says:

    Hello Yau-Man,
    I enjoyed your blog entry on your trip but especially enjoyed your serene presence on Survivor. I wish you had won. I could not watch again after that season.

    I found your blog while doing a search for you and a quote I heard you use once, that I love and use on my facebook page. “Love many, trust few, hurt none” Are you the author of this quote? If not, I would appreciate knowing who is, so that I may credit the appropriate source.

    Thank you,


  11. Doug H. says:

    Love the article. I’m headed to KK in about three weeks to being an indefinite backpacking journey of the region. I’ll be on the look out for all this stuff! Do you know of any skeptic organizations operating in KK?