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I was reminded during a recent visit to Calgary, Canada about the world of difference between getting a prescription filled there versus Hong Kong.

I remember this experience being one of the most flummoxing when I was new to Hong Kong. I had no clue where to get prescriptions filled here. I would see tiny little shops with the international pharmacy sign out front, but I was intimidated by their size (smaller is scarier because you can’t hide), the Chinese-only labels, and unrecognizable things behind the counter.

You have to have a sharp eye to spot a pharmacy sign amidst all the other colourful signage in Hong Kong.

Product behind the shelf at a small Kowloon pharmacy. 

Now, newcomers to Canada might also be confused because it’s hard to find the “drugs” behind all the cosmetics and groceries in the massive Shoppers Drug Marts there. When filling a prescription at a Shoppers, which I did recently, you wait in line for a really long time while the people working behind the counter appear oblivious to the waiting customers. Eventually you have the opportunity to hand over your prescription, whereupon the pharmacy person goes straight into the computer system, leaving you feeling like you’ve been forgotten again and already. But then the pharmacy person starts in with a barrage of questions about your address, date of birth, have you had the prescription filled there before, what other drugs are you taking, etc. Your entire drug purchase history is logged into their nation-wide computer system and will, I suppose, set off alarm bells if it looks like you are in danger of mixing drugs you shouldn’t. Your new prescription is added to the dossier, and you are sent away for 20 to 60 minutes while the pharmacy person works their magic.

Upon pick-up of your prescription, the pharmacist him/herself shows up to explain all the reasons why you may or may not want to partake of their concoction. You leave with a sheaf of papers explaining the entire history of the drug, its side effects, what to do if you get some, an official receipt, an unofficial receipt, and buried in all this material, the drug itself.

There is a pharmacy hiding behind there! You can see the width of this shop; the depth is not much greater.

Compare the small but typical HK shop to the massive “Shoppers”, which are absolutely everywhere in Canadian cities. They are hard to miss with their massive signs, square footage and parking lots.

Getting a prescription filled in Hong Kong is a lot simpler once you figure it out. Thankfully, a Hong Kong friend directed me to Fanda pharmacy in Central where, she assured me, I would find the best prices and everything I needed. What I found was a full dose of culture shock.

You are immediately swept up by the frenzy of customers in front of the pharmacy counter and impressed by the full team of people (always men) scurrying around behind it. There is no line-up because there is no room for one, so you just cram into a narrow aisle-way. You think it will take forever but before you know it, you’re at the front. You are cheek-by-jowl with the people on either side and all around you. You hand over a prescription or just ask for what you need, which might be available over the counter. Everyone around you can hear perfectly what you are asking for. You will know immediately that the guy on your left has hemorrhoids, the gal two down has a rash and the one in between has constipation. No worries about having to tell the pharmacy-type person your life history because they don’t have a computer. They write up your purchase on a paper receipt pad and ring it in at the cash till. Do you want a bag, you are asked, and then you’re on your way, out through the narrow jammed aisles through a couple of sublet cosmetics counters and shelves of other drugstore-like items. No milk or potato chips in sight.

You are likely to have slightly more privacy if you get your prescription filled at your doctor’s hospital or clinic, and the pharmacist there will take time to explain the drug. You will pay more than at a regular pharmacy but it’s very quick and easy. You can also find a more Western-type of pharmacy in the larger Mannings or Watson’s around Hong Kong.

I’ve gotten used to the Fanda experience and certainly find the system to be efficient—just not discreet. In contrast, it makes the Canadian system seem overblown.  Nevertheless, my advice to anyone moving here is to stock up on your regular prescriptions before you leave in order to buy yourself time to find a doctor and pharmacy in Hong Kong. And then brace yourself for a typical Hong Kong rush and crush—after all, why should it be any different in a drug store than anywhere else in this city?!

Another alternative is traditional Chinese medicine. This is a little shop in Wan Chai that you can smell from a block away. People tell the shopkeeper their ailment and she pours them a glass of some type of tea or broth.

The shopkeeper at this little place was more than happy to pose for my photo.