Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Opium Den

     'Opium smoking,' said a 19th century druggist, 'is almost entirely confined to the Chinese and they seem to thrive on it. Very few others hit the pipe.'
Thomas Syndenham
     'Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.'  - Thomas Sydenham (1624 - 1689), English physician.
     These are quotes from two professionals in health care. Opium was well recognized as beneficial but its addictive effects in the west were poorly appreciated.
     Opium smoking was common place in China before the communist revolution of 1949. It was seen at all levels of society, millions of people using the drug  from rickshaw pullers to emperors. The place that the opium was smoked reflected the economic status of the smoker. For the rich, a private smoking room in the home was fitted out with rich trappings, including an opium bed, and decorated with calligraphic scrolls bearing auspicious sayings. For the poor, a public opium den was the only corner to indulge the habit, a place where low-grade opium could be smoked on woven bamboo mats surrounded by four bare walls. This 'public house', analogous to the English 'public house' or 'pub' followed the Chinese immigrant workers to Europe and North America.
Private 'Opium Den' in Canton

     The smoking of opium smoking arrived in the West with the thousands of Chinese workers and adventure-seekers who came to California during the Gold Rush of 1848. There already was an established practice of narcotic/opium consumption in the West with thousands of men, women and children fed opium or morphine concoctions for coughs, anxiety and anything else that might be 'wrong' (see post: Victoria's Secrets).
     But, within twenty years of the California Gold Rush, recreational opium smoking had spread over much of North America. Chinese immigrants also arrived in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and brought with them their practice of opium smoking. Generally, in these countries, opium-smoking failed to become popular with the non-Chinese.                                          
Caucasian Women in French Opium Den
     In Europe, opium smoking was sparked by Europeans themselves, travellers returning home from their Asian colonies or from treaty ports on the China coast. But it seems that it was only in France that opium smoking took hold. In a special cable sent from France to The New York Times, dated April 27, 1913, the reporter lamented the degradation of the French Navy due to opium smoking among its seamen.
     The city of San Francisco was the arrival port for most of the gold-seekers in 1848 and the city's Chinatown (still the largest in North America) became the site of numerous opium dens. Within a short time the opium dens were attracting non-Chinese residents, and the problem of opium addiction 'blossomed'.
San Francisco Opium Den

     The city passed its first anti-opium by-law in 1878 and even into the early 20th century, huge bonfires, fueled by confiscated opium and opium paraphernalia, were used to destroy the contraband drug. Even though the smoking of opium was driven underground, it was still common in San Francisco up until World War II. A typical opium den in San Francisco would be a 'Chinese laundry' with a basement or tightly-sealed back room. As in China, the wealthy tended to stay away from the public opium dens and smoked the product in their own homes.
     The opium dens in New York City were not as posh or as ubiquitous as some of those to be found on the American West Coast.  The New York physician Harry H. Kane (1854-1906) found that the most popular 'opium joints' were located on Mott and Pell streets in what is still Manhattan's Chinatown. Kane estimated that in 1882, 20% of Chinese in America smoked opium occasionally and 15% smoked the drug on a daily basis.
Opium Smoking Paraphrenalia

     In the beginning, most of the opium smoked in America was smoked by Chinese immigrant workers but, according to Dr. Kane, a racial 'breakthrough' was achieved in 1868 when the first white man smoked opium in the USA. According to the doctor, the man's name was 'Clendenyn' and the practice of opium smoking spread rapidly 'among gamblers and prostitutes'. Non-Chinese opium dens were soon open in the state of Nevada in the cities of Carson, Reno and Virginia City.

     The maximum daily wage of a Chinese laborer was just over one dollar and the daily cost of the opium was about fifty cents. It wasn't long before the indentured worker had no funds to sends back home to China and his life was controlled by the secret Chinese gangs ('tongs') which controlled the opium supply. In Canada, Chinese immigrants established Chinatowns on the west coast in Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia. In both these cities, opium dens were common in the late 19th and even into the early 20th centuries. When the city of San Francisco began taxing imported opium for smoking, the trade was diverted to the Canadian west coast and, from there, much of the opium was smuggled south into the United States.

     In France, opium-smoking was introduced by French expatriates returning home from stints in French Indochina, the French possessions in Asia, today's Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.. By the early 20th century, there were numerous opium dens in France's port cities, particularly Marseilles, Toulon, and Hyeres.
The Portrait of Dorian Grey

     In London, the Chinese population was always small and the stories of opium dens and their associated (criminal) activities are likely all fiction. There is no photographic evidence of opium smokers in London and no firm evidence of established opium den. Oscar Wilde wrote about opium dens in his novel 'The Portrait of Dorian Grey' (1891) but largely these dens in Britain were fictitious but the idea, a good source for material.

     But even in the poor cities of the world, there was more to the opium den than just four walls and a bamboo mat. At its most basic, opium smoking could be accomplished with three key pieces of paraphernalia: the opium pipe, the opium lamp, and the opium needle. For smokers with no limits on time or money, there were numerous accoutrements crafted in materials both common and precious.
Opium Pipes with Bowls Attached

     The pipe-bowl is what set the opium pipe apart from all other pipes for smoking. This device was made from fired earthenware with pipe-bowls of the late 18th through early 20th centuries depicting Chinese motifs and iconography. Dragons, phoenixes, animals, and symbols representing longevity, wealth, and happiness as well as Buddhist and Taoist deities were all used to adorn the smoker's pipe.

     Many types of Asian pipes are mistaken for opium pipes, but there is only true opium pipe: one that was designed to vaporize the drug, not burn it. This was achieved by the means of a highly specialized pipe-bowl. The bowl, which looks like a door knob, was attached to a long stem by means of a metal fitting, referred to in English as a 'saddle'. The length of an opium pipe varied from approximately 15 inches (40cm) to about 22 inches (56cm). The most common material from which pipe stems were made was bamboo, but Chinese artisans experimented with ivory, jade, horn, porcelain, as well as enamels.

Opium Needles
     Opium needles were thin steel rods, essential to the smoking process. These devices were approximately six inches (15cm) long. A 'pill' of opium was skewered onto the sharp end of the needle and then heated over the lamp before being placed upon the pipe-bowl.

     Heat rather than light, was the purpose of an opium lamp. Opium was meant to be vaporized, not burned. The drug vaporized at low temperature, so an opium lamp was an oil lamp whose purpose was to harness and channel just the right amount of heat upon a very small surface. This heat process was the reason for the very distinctive funnel-like chimney. Opium lamps were made from a vast range of materials, most commonly brass and paktong (a nickel-like alloy), as well as glass. The cheapest opium lamps were mass produced from molded glass, while some of the most luxurious examples were meticulously crafted from layered Peking glass.
Opium Lamp

     The opium den fluorished in the west but 'prohibition' laws soon caught up with he practice of opium smoking. Legislation against opium smokers was passed in Nevad in 1877, South and North Dakotas in 1879, Utah in 1880, California and Montana in 1881, Wyoming in 1882, Arizona in 1883, Idaho and new Mexico in 1887 ans the State of Washington in 1890. New York City's last opium den was raided and shut down on June 28, 1957.

"I am engulfed, and drown deliciously
Soft music like a perfume, and sweet light
Golden with audible colours exquisite,
Swathe me with cerements for eternity.
Times is no more. I pause and yet I flee.
A million ages wrap me round with night.
I drain a million ages of delight.
I hold the future in my memory.
Also, I have this garret which I rent,
This bed of straw, and this that was a chair,
This worn-out body like a tattered tent,
This crust, of which the rats have eaten part,
This pipe of opium; rage, remorse, despair;
This soul at pawn and this delirious heart."

Arthur Symons
     * The history of narcotics use: subject of research for the novel Whip the Dogs - Amazon Kindle

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