Want a recipe for perfect health? You might ask Paul Shu. He’s in his 80s, short and fit, with good posture and a full head of silvery salt-and-pepper hair. He’s also an avid gardener and beekeeper.
“I think everybody can live to 100, not a problem,” Shu tells me as we sit in his shop in downtown Princeton, NJ. “Maybe even longer.”
What’s his secret ingredient? Well, Shu has lots of ingredients, none of them secret. They’re proudly on display, piled in tall stacks against the walls, inside color-coded tins. Green is for green tea; red is for black tea; yellow is for oolong; blue is for herbals. Personally, Shu prefers oolong—he’s a veritable connoisseur.
Shu is the owner, proprietor, and walking advertisement of Holsome Teas and Herbs, a one-stop shop for all things that make you feel like a responsible adult: nutritional supplements, vitamins, essential oils, loose-leaf teas. Plus the fancy infuser teapots that are the real harbingers of adulthood, at least for me.
During my visit to Holsome on a wintry afternoon, an elderly lady purchased a huge quantity of single-serve aromatherapy bath salt packets, chatting with Shu in Mandarin as she hauled countless armfuls to the register. Two teenagers in oversized jackets bought a small measure of Irish breakfast tea. T oa visibly anxious middle-aged woman shopping for a friend’s birthday gift, Shu recommended sencha green tea with matcha. “It’s really calming,” he promised her.
Holsome also functions as an apothecary of sorts. The shelves boast alternative health products like homeopathic remedies and herbal medicines. Among these: dandelion leaf, bilberry, kukicha twig, bilberry, and rose corolla flowers. Ask Shu what these substances might be used for, and he’ll be happy to tell you—even happier if you buy some.
Does Shu use any of these herbal medicines himself? He likes reishi mushroom extract—“It’s very good. Reishi is an almost-perfect herb.” And, he assures me, you can add it to your cup of coffee without affecting the flavor.
We’re sitting at a spartan table by the shop window, which looks out onto the back alley where Holsome is located. So, what does reishi do? “In China, we call it the longevity herb because it keeps your many functions in good condition,” says Shu, “and you live longer.”
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Shu grew up in China just after WWII. He moved to the U.S. from Taiwan in 1964 to get his master’s and Ph.D. in chemistry, and he conducted industrial chemical research for Mobil Oil Corporation for much of his career.
In 1995, he was able to retire early from Mobil. Shu opened Holsome Teas and Herbs the next year in an effort to return to his roots—not only toturmeric, burdock, and ginger root, but also to his heritage. “It is part of our culture,” Shu says. “Since we were little, we hear about it. We see people practice it.”
In fact, both of Shu’s grandparents practiced Chinese herbal medicine. For Chinese people in his grandparents’ generation, he explains, those who did not go into government would turn to medicine. “The least you can do is to help people,” says Shu. “If you cannot be a good administrator, you can be a good doctor instead.”
Shu had seen how Chinese herbal medicine could help people. During his childhood in China, he remembers local people calling on the house when they were sick. His grandfather would make late-night visits, by carriage or boat, to visit patients far away. “This is not like you go to a medical center or you have insurance,” he adds with a wry smile. In such a decentralized system, herbal medicine was central to health care provision in rural areas.
Many of these patients were poor farmers or workers, Shu says, so his family would provide them with free medical care. His grandparents would write formulas for mixtures of herbs, which patients could buy at a local shop—“like drug stores, they had all the herbs there,” not unlike the Holsome shop today.
When Shu was starting Holsome in 1996, he noticed several trends in the U.S. that he believed would bolster the success of his herb and tea shop. “Number one,” says Shu, “I felt people in this country begin to be interested in a natural way of health.” He noted the rise of the supplements industry and spotted a lucrative opportunity in selling high-quality teas and natural remedies. “At the time, just as a business sense, I can sense herbal medicine is coming.”
However, once wellness entered the mainstream, many independent natural health stores were unable to compete with larger companies and drug stores selling the same, now-trendy products. There had been, Shu recalls, “so many supplement shops—vitamin this, vitamin that. Guess what? …They’re gone. They don’t have a way to compete. But for me? I survived. I prosper because what I have here, they don’t have.”
And what exactly does Shu have that others did not? Quite simply, he offers customers a worldview along with the tea and health remedies that he sells. One look at his business’s logo—the first “O” in “Holsome” is a yin-yang symbol—suggests that there is a philosophy underpinning Shu’s work.
The goal of herbal medicine, as Shu sees it, is simple: “To restore your equilibrium, that’s it. Yin-and-yang is really in everyday life. You always have opposite sides.”
“It’s all derived from a philosophy of balance, by understanding nature, the interchanges, the transformations,” he continues. “You never do anything excessive, that’s Chinese philosophy. We follow the middle road.”
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While I’m chatting with Shu, a well-dressed and jewelry-adorned local lady stops by the shop. She’s here to ask Shu about an herbal product she’d purchased, because she had noticed it was a slightly different color from previous batches of the same product.
Shu points out that herbal medicine, like anything that grows naturally, is not completely standardized. Variation should be expected. “All the cars on the assembly line, they’re the same, right?” he says. “But cherries, tomatoes… you expect all the celeries are going to look the same? No.”
“Well actually,” the woman interjects, “for a lot of people in the American supermarket — they do. They get all the carrots whittled down to this size,” she draws two fingers close together, laughing, “and they think they grow that way!”
“Anyway, this is perfectly normal,” Shu assures her.
The lady acquiesces. She goes on to tell Shu that she had begun developing shingles while traveling, so she’d started self-medicating with an antiviral herbal medicine “that you gave me in case of COVID,” she says.
“That’s good for shingles,” Shu confirms.
“So I took one pill, and the next morning, I noticed really a dramatic difference,” she enthuses. “It actually ran its course within a week, which is unusual for shingles.”
“Usually your body will fight it out,” says Shu, “but if you take some herbs, that will speed it up.” He asks if she needs to restock on ginseng, but she’s all set.
Despite selling products that claim to have health effects and offering guidance to customers like this woman, Shu has no institutional training in either mainstream biomedicine or traditional Chinese medicine. In his grandparents’ era, traditional Chinese herbal doctors gained their knowledge primarily through self-study—Shu has too.
“I’m not trained as a professional. A lot of the learned knowledge is very easy for me,” he says. “I’m a chemist. I do research. I’m a good problem solver. So that’s how this has become a very unique, very special place in town.”
All the same, Shu says, “It’s not gonna be clear-cut like doing chemistry — you know, A plus B equals C and D. Herbal medicine is based more on the natural.” But Shu has a complicated relationship with chemistry, and with humanity’s manipulation of nature, in general.
The ideology beneath herbal medicine is distinct from the worldview that dominates the realm of pharmaceutical medicine in the United States and Europe, he explains. “Right now, the medicine developed here is very new.”
On the other hand, he says, the healing system of Chinese herbal medicine is the product of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge. “It’s a different approach. We are based on a natural way to heal—to get you cured with minimum side effects and toxicity,” he claims. “Everything involved is from nature.”
His framework of health and illness draws a corollary between the body and the planet itself. “When our body is running harmoniously, you’re healthy. If something’s wrong or invaded by infection, then you get sick,” Shu explains. “Just like the earth—sometimes it gets too warm. So the earth is not running smoothly now, with all the extreme weather.”
Shu has serious qualms about modern applications of chemical engineering that produce things he deems “unnatural,” including man-made drugs. “In nature, so many things are to be discovered. But now, the pharmaceutical companies—they only believe in what can make money. They alter nature. That creates a lot of problems.”
Shu views nature with a deep reverence. His philosophy of health is based on what he views as the contrast between what is “natural” and what is man-made. “We evolved in nature,” Shu says. “You find the answers because all evolved together from the earth’s birth.”
Shu sees a large divide between Western ways of thinking and the philosophy he grew up with. “People are so ignorant… they think anything man-made is better,” he says. “You violate the natural law.”
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In Shu’s view, pharmaceutical drug development follows a familiar and troubling pattern. He walks me through the development of artificial statins, which are used to lower cholesterol, as one example of this process.
First, Shu says, drug companies discover a substance in nature that has healing effects, like the red yeast that produces natural statins. Then the companies study the natural substance to determine the chemical structure. They can try to sell the natural statin, he notes, “but they don’t have exclusive right to it, because you cannot patent that—you cannot claim ‘that’s mine,’ because it’s in nature.”
“So what do they do? They can use chemists to modify the structure,” Shu continues, “even to enhance a certain part of the molecule to make it even more powerful… to lower cholesterol.”
What then? The companies do some animal testing, he says, to confirm that their synthesized statin is effective. “You get 51% of benefit, 49% of side effect. Still, the benefit is greater than the side effect.”
But the chemical modification, Shu claims, has consequences. “Because of that small change in the molecular structure, when we ingest it, our bodies say, ‘we’ve never seen this before.’” A synthetic statin might have the same structure as natural statin, he says, but it’s not the same. “It achieves the purpose of lower cholesterol, however it also harms other things. Therefore, when you take the statins you have to watch out for your liver.”
Here, Shu draws further parallels between body and earth. Take the ozone layer, for instance. “Suddenly we’re losing ozone layers. Why is that? Because we create some chemicals that escape to the atmosphere and interfere with ozone.” He is referring to Freon gas, formerly used in refrigerants, which has damaged the ozone layer. “Mother Earth says, ‘we’ve never seen the Freon before.’ We reject it. That makes our ozone sick.”
Shu takes issue with chemical engineering that ignores side effects. His examples are wide-ranging and often laced with pointed cultural and political critique. “The United States during the Vietnam War—they used the Agent Orange. And then now, agriculturally, they use the RoundUp.”
He looked at me intently. “What’s the consequence? They don’t care.”
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Shu’s belief in the goodness and healthfulness of nature is so strong that artificiality itself is cause for concern. However, many years ago, a pharmaceutical drug saved his life.
As a toddler, Shu contracted a bacterial illness due to contaminated drinking water, resulting in severe diarrhea. “And my grandmother, my father’s side, got the same thing—she died.”
During WWII, he says, there was an extreme shortage of medicine. Without treatment, Shu became extremely dehydrated and was on the verge of death. “I was lucky because my mother’s best friend’s husband just returned from the United States. He brought some samples of what’s called sulfa drug. That was very effective… so I was saved because he brought back some samples. I was lucky.”
I point out that sulfa drugs (sulfonamides) are man-made. Yes, Shu accedes, but you wouldn’t use sulfa drugs every day. He agrees that pharmaceuticals can help people regain health in serious, acute situations.
But he doesn’t think the same applies to chronic illness. “If somebody has high blood pressure and then takes high blood pressure medication, that’s wrong… You lower blood pressure, maybe reduce risk of stroke, but eventually that drug is gonna kill you.”
Shu believes that many of the chronic illnesses that plague people today are the results of modern life, namely “the waste products we produce, the sewer, the air, the pollution, the chemical emissions.” This ethos is internally consistent with Shu’s own life experience, as his near-fatal childhood illness was caused by contaminated drinking water.
As for his own healthcare nowadays, Shu sticks to reishi extract and lots of tea. “I almost never take any medication,” he says. “I don’t want anything long-term, internally.”
So, while he’d be glad to sell some herbs if you visit his tucked-away Princeton shop, Shu doesn’t even think they should be necessary. “The idea is you don’t need to take any medicine, including herbal medicine,” he says. Assuming, of course, you live a Holsome lifestyle.
“If you live this way, the naturally healthy way, you’re not supposed to be sick,” says Shu. “Holsome is really natural, balanced, ideal. That’s it.”
Surely there’s some merit in viewing the earth like a body, and in considering the complex interplays of the chemical compounds that affect both our bodies and earth. However, unmitigated suspicion of pharmaceutical medicine can lead to widespread denial of empirical results, giving rise to anti-science movements like the COVID-19 anti-vaccination campaign in recent years.
Also, having dealt with serious chronic illness myself, and years of prescription medicine to treat the illness, it’s hard to grapple with claims that long-term medication use is inherently a bad thing. That line of thinking puts the chronically ill in a catch-22, with nothing to work with but advice to live more naturally. Whatever that means. (And it usually means buying some “wellness” product.)
But hey, I have nothing against tea. I drank three cups of (organic!) tea—ginger, lemongrass, and peppermint—while writing this. Another cup while editing. Not sure if this tea affects my health at all, but I’ll keep on drinking it, and keep my fingers crossed.
I’ll check back in at age 100, if I last that long. Never hurts to hedge your bets.