10 Urban Underworlds of the Opium Age

Opium: to the ancient Sumerian, ‘the plant of joy’; for the laudanum addicted British author Thomas De Quincey, ‘the celestial drug’, and for Homer in The Odyssey, ‘nepenthe’, an alcoholic medicine believed by scholars to contain raw opium, is given to Telemachus by Helen of Troy to ease his woes. Imbibed by the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Romans before spreading via Arab traders to the Chinese, opium, in its diverse incarnations, has cured ailments and chemically instigated euphoria for millions of people for thousands of years; its use continues to this day legally, in tiny quantities, for painkillers and anti-diarrhoeal medication, and illegally, in the immeasurably vast and profitable heroin trade.

However, its presence in modern societies the world over during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is perhaps what most intrigues humankind today. In the dank, seedy underbelly of Victorian London; in the California Gold Rush of the 1850s as well as dynastic China during the two Opium Wars and many other destinations globally, where the toxic, unquenchable thirst for the drug infected a range of countries and cultures. Opium, glorious, contagious, ruinous, is potentially humanity’s greatest and most incessant addiction.

London, United Kingdom

The opium dens of Victorian-era London are one of the most well-documented, but fiercely contested examples of opium smoking in literature of the period. Modern scholars argue that writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens and Thomas De Quincey portray a skewed image of a London overrun by an insidious opium network. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, De Quincey’s seminal 1821 work, titillated society from top to bottom; although it is true that opium was sold readily over the counter in pharmacies, in the form of laudanum, which De Quincey himself administered orally rather than smoking opium itself, it’s significant that there’s not one known photograph in the world of an opium den in London.

Unlike in American cities of the same period, there were only handfuls of Chinese people in London at the time, and whatever trade there was centred around the Limehouse docks area. Nevertheless, the existence, or perhaps nonexistence of an opium trade in Victorian society still intrigues people today, particularly fans of Sherlock Holmes; did Holmes ever smoke opium in his pipe, enthusiasts wonder? Although Holmes, in the opening to The Sign of Four and in other stories, injects himself with cocaine, ‘his only vice’ according to John Watson, his trusty sidekick, Holmes seemingly disapproves of opium dens in another story, entitled The Man with the Twisted Lip. However, what is clear is that, to Sherlock Holmes aficionados and many people in general, the presence of opium dens in Victorian London continues to be a highly contentious issue.

Paris, France

Unlike London, where spurious claims of the sinister reach of opium were greatly exaggerated, Paris was a European city with a genuine incidence of addiction to the drug. Predominantly through the return of soldiers from French Indochina (now modern day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), the practices of opium smoking began to pervade French society. Newspaper reports from 1901 scandalised Parisian society by estimating that the city had in excess of 1,200 opium dens; despite this probably being an exaggeration, it’s certain that opium permeated the society of the time. The legendary Moulin Rouge was rumoured to be a hub of opium related activity, and it was even suggested that the notorious elephant’s head section of the building was an opulent, exclusive smoking den. Even the nobility was implicated; the Countess de Salles’ opium den in the Bois Boulogne was raided in 1947, where the rich and aristocratic mixed with famous writers and artists. Additionally, the problem was so prevalent throughout French port cities that in 1907, the navy ship La Nive’s much publicised crash was attributed directly to the insobriety of opium addicted sailors on board, causing loss of life and much embarrassment for the French government.

San Francisco, United States

West Coast America, and San Francisco in particular, had the most luxurious dens and the most acute opium smoking problem in the whole of the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. Asian, and particularly Chinese workers arrived to seek their fortunes in the Californian Gold Rush around the same time that the first recognised mass shipment of opium (fifty-two boxes) was brought ashore on the clipper Ocean Pearl in 1861. Initially, only the Chinese settlers were permitted entry into the dens but, within a short space of time, canny businessmen loosened this rule so that by the 1870s any paying customers were welcome. Such was the popularity of opium smoking within wealthy society that upper class patrons began to use their own paraphernalia to smoke at home, allowing anonymity, privacy and avoiding the possibility of police raids on dens used by the wider public.

New York, United States

Despite the fact that New York was, and arguably remains, the archetypal modern metropolis, its opium dens were never quite as magnificent as those which succeeded on the Pacific coast of America. Nevertheless, a thriving trade was definitely present, particularly in Mott and Pell Streets which were situated in the city’s Chinatown. Intriguingly, John Jacob Astor I, America’s richest man during the early 19th century and the patriarch of the modern Astor dynasty, made immense profits from trafficking tons of Turkish opium to Canton in China, before later deciding to ship exclusively to London. Similarly to most other global cities which possessed an opium smoking trade, the business began to peter out as World War Two loomed; however, one particular den at 295 Broome Street, between Forsyth and Eldridge Streets at the edge of Chinatown, continued trading until June 28th 1957. The tenant, a Chinese immigrant named Lau, owned merely a handful of decades-old pipes and lamps in addition to a fairly meagre quantity of opium and heroin before he was imprisoned, his two floor apartment a relic to a more prosperous and decadent past.

Vancouver, Canada

In an effort to curb the influence of opium on American society, the authorities in San Francisco began taxing imported opium; as all good businessmen do when attempting to search for the best possible price, importers switched some trade north to Canadian territory, particularly to Victoria and Vancouver. The latter’s opium trade grew alarmingly, especially after the emergence of Shanghai and Canton Alleys in the city during the early 1900s, an area renowned for its rugged, downmarket dens. These were the antithesis of the magnificent, extravagant dens on show in Paris or the private smoking rooms of the upper classes in San Francisco. Opium remained legal in Canada until 1908, although the practice of smoking it continued illegally long afterwards.

Bombay, India

Although Bombay, or Mumbai as it’s now officially known, was once one of the finest jewels in the British Empire’s crown, at the opening of the 19th century it was a collection of seven pestilent, disease-ridden islands that had originally been fishing villages. Within fifty years, the East India Company had helped to transform the city into an Asian trade hub; albeit one underpinned by the British Empire’s rampantly profitable and brutally corrupt shipping of opium to Chinese ports, where they traded the drug for the tea which was so popular back in Britain, is a shameful political manoeuvre which casts an ugly humanitarian stain on the British to this day. Bombay’s opium dens were said to be widespread until the 1970s and ’80s which, if true, would make it one of the last cities to lose its booming opium trade, although this claim is highly disputed.

Shanghai, China

At the epicentre of the two Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, the first between the British and the Qing Dynasty and the second between combined British and French forces against the Qing, Shanghai was responsible by 1845 for almost half of the opium imported into the whole of China, and was the most strategically significant port for importing the drug. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a transformation in the dynamic of the opium trade in Shanghai, as imports from India dried up due to the Chinese growing their own domestic product, at approximately 45,000,000 pounds on average annually. With over 1,500 opium dens during this period, Shanghai, truly, was the opium capital of the world. Despite the creation of the International Opium Commission in 1909 and the eventual banning of opium by law in 1917, the trade continued to prosper illegally during the 1920s, before a gradual decline in consumption as well as the criminal monopoly on the drug during the build up to World War Two.

Hong Kong

Similarly to Shanghai, Hong Kong was a fundamental pawn in the British Empire’s efforts to extract a profit from showering China in supplies of opium so as to get millions of its population addicted. However, Hong Kong also offered a uniquely debauched type of opium den: the ‘hua-yan jian’, or flower-smoke rooms, were hugely popular in Hong Kong for over a hundred years until their downfall in the 1930s. These were houses of ill repute- or brothels, if you will, where ‘flower’ referred to the prostitute, and ‘smoke’ referred to the opium. Essentially, one could suck on the smoke whilst the ‘flower’ sucked on… Well. One can use their imagination.

Bangkok, Thailand

Although the Chinese, after the advent of Communism, went to great lengths to outlaw and eradicate opium from their new, revolutionary society, the southeast Asian countries surrounding it took longer to follow suit. Thailand, which legally allowed opium dens until 1959, is said to have been home to the world’s largest ever den; Heng Lak Hung on Bangkok’s Charoeng Krung Road, was apparently able to house between 5,000 and 8,000 customers depending on which report you believe. As the sun set on Asia’s last remaining legal opium smoking establishment, thousands of pipes and other paraphernalia were set alight in a celebratory bonfire near the royal family’s Grand Palace. It was, truly, the end of an era.

Vientiane, Laos

Despite the legal enshrinement in 1971 of a law attempting to curb opium smoking in Laos, widespread corruption within the police and government ensured that the number of opium dens subsequently prospered. Indeed, three years after the law came into effect, the police estimated that there were approximately eighty registered dens, with at least a hundred more which remained unregistered. Considering the population at the time, this equates to seven hundred or so residents per opium den. Indeed, the prevalence of opium in Laos during this era precipitated its spread into smaller rural communities, where arguably, it even served a social function as a place to meet and encounter other addicts. Despite a return to popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s in the notorious party town of Vang Vieng, further attempts have been made to eradicate opium smoking in the country, which have been generally very successful.

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