‘Talk and Tea with Monica Lo and Felicity Chen’ dispels tales, highlights traditional medicinal connections with cannabis

Anna Ho/Staff

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The general Mandarin term for using drugs is “xi du,” which directly translates to “sucking poison.” “Du” can refer to a wide umbrella of substances, from opioids to heroin to cannabis, all of which are vocabularily and legally afforded the same severity in the culture. 

In China, anyone — citizen or foreigner — found in possession of more than 10 grams of du ping, “poison products,” is subject to jail time and a mandatory stay in government-run rehab. Those found smuggling more than 50 grams can face the death penalty. 

Though attitudes toward cannabis have softened among Chinese youth, older generations tend to harbor hardline stances regarding its perceived dangers and addictive properties. 

Yet on Thursday at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, a unique tasting event was taking place in Samsung Hall. Monica Lo and Felicity Chen, two local Asian American food entrepreneurs known for their cannabis-spiked recipes and products, hosted a traditional tea ceremony followed by a conversation on the historical and modern influences of the cannabis industry.

From the stage, both speakers waved hello to their parents in the crowd. Lo’s mother sat in the front row, having flown in from Texas to see her daughter. Chen’s father leaned against the back wall. He had been a co-host of the ceremony, steeping wu long tea and narrating its properties in Mandarin. 

(I hope to) … open up conversations within our Asian American communities on the topic of cannabis,” Lo said in her opening statement. Having grown up with traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, in a strict no-smoking, drug-free household, she personally used cannabis to help alleviate pain after suffering from a herniated disk in her spinal cord. Her blog, Sous Weed — a pun on her preferred odorless method of preparing edibles, sous vide — features collections of recipes and photos meant to destigmatize the incorporation of cannabis in everyday dishes.

Chen takes a similar approach in making cannabis approachable through her food manufacturing company. Potli infuses products such as honey and chili oil with strains of CBD and other cannabis derivatives. Chen remarked on her parents’ initial disapproval toward her choice in path; she only gained their support after her topicals helped alleviate her mother’s asthma. 

“There are lots of old wives’ tales to dispel (on cannabis),” Chen said. “My mom’s first thought when she heard (about Potli) was ‘Oh, my god, my daughter’s a drug dealer.’ ” 

Part of the evening’s theme of destigmatization hinged on revealing the historical context between TCM and cannabis use. A PowerPoint talk conducted by Lo, who is also the co-founder of the nonprofit Asian Americans for Cannabis Education, cited the third-century TCM manual “Shennong Bencaojing” — in which hemp seed, flower and oil were prescribed as key ingredients to promote health and wellness as well as pain relief. It was only in 1985 when China followed countries like the United States and joined international conventions that classify cannabis as a dangerously addictive narcotic..

“Most practitioners of traditional medicine do not learn cannabis in school. A lot of techniques and information was passed down through lineage, which meant a lot of that information was lost during the wars and the cultural revolutions,” Lo explained. The dilemma of cannabis in China, as in the United States, is that its dangers are exaggerated while its benefits are scarcely studied within controlled settings. Users do not possess enough institutionalized knowledge to use the drug safely. 

Scott Leung, CEO of Medabloom, a company that sells cannabis products, was in attendance. He was heartened by the event’s robust demographic, noting the high number of senior ticket holders within the room as well as Lo and Chen’s roles as Asian American CEOs in the largely white male-dominated industry.

Others held a more cautionary stance. Naoko Aiko, a gallery volunteer at the event, expressed that cannabis is still banned within her native Japan and that she preferred to “observe from a distance.” As a Japanese citizen, it would be illegal for her to partake, even on foreign soil. 

Daniel Chen, Felicity Chen’s father, expressed adjacent worries about his daughter’s involvement within the industry. He has a background in traditional medicine himself, and he cautions that even the best medicine contains negative and harmful properties. Though he was at the event to support his daughter, he said that he would not hesitate to “cut father-daughter ties” if she becomes reckless in her use or manufacturing of cannabis products. 

“We learned that in medicine, both good and bad exists. Modern technology has resulted in a separation of good and bad, where the good can be extracted and used. The outcomes can be pretty good, but we are also not as knowledgeable about the separation’s consequences,” Daniel Chen said in Mandarin. “(Cannabis) is still medicine, and we must use it in moderation.”

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected].