An opium den was an establishment where opium was sold and smoked. Opium dens were prevalent in many parts of the world in the 19th century, most notably China, Southeast Asia, North America and France. Throughout the West, opium dens were frequented by and associated with the Chinese, because the establishments were usually run by Chinese who supplied the opium as well as prepared it for visiting non-Chinese smokers. Most opium dens kept a supply of opium paraphernalia such as the specialized pipes and lamps that were necessary to smoke the drug. Patrons would recline in order to hold the long opium pipes over oil lamps that would heat the drug until it vaporized, allowing the smoker to inhale the vapors. Opium dens in China were frequented by all levels of society, and their opulence or simplicity reflected the financial means of the patrons. In urban areas of the United States, particularly on the West Coast, there were opium dens that mirrored the best to be found in China, with luxurious trappings and female attendants. For the working class, there were also many low-end dens with sparse furnishings. These latter dens were more likely to admit non-Chinese smokers.
Opium smoking arrived in North America with the large influx of Chinese who came to participate in the California Gold Rush. The jumping-off point for the gold fields was San Francisco, and the city's Chinatown became the site of numerous opium dens soon after the first Chinese arrived around 1850. By the 1870s, San Francisco's opium dens attracted non-Chinese residents, and the problem of opium addiction was acknowledged by the city at large. In 1878, the city of San Francisco passed its first anti-opium ordinance. In the early 20th century, huge bonfires, fueled by confiscated opium and opium paraphernalia, were used to destroy opium and create a public venue to discuss opium use.
Due to opium-eradication campaigns, smoking opium was driven underground and was still fairly common in San Francisco and other cities in North America until around World War II. A typical opium den in San Francisco might be a Chinese-run laundry that had a basement, back room, or upstairs room that was tightly sealed to keep drafts from making the opium lamps flicker or allowing the tell-tale fumes of opium to escape. A photograph of one luxurious opium den in 19th-century San Francisco has survived, taken by I. W. Taber in 1886, but the majority of the city's wealthy opium smokers, both Chinese and American, shunned public opium dens in favor of smoking in the privacy of their own homes.
New York City
The opium dens of New York City's Chinatown, due to its geographical distance from China, were not as opulent as some of those to be found on the American West Coast. According to H. H. Kane, a doctor who spent years studying opium use in New York in the 1870s and 1880s, the most popular opium dens (or "opium joints" as they were known in the parlance of the day) were located on Mott and Pell Streets in Chinatown. At the time, all the city's opium dens were run by Chinese, except for one on 23rd Street that was run by an American woman and her two daughters. Kane remarked that New York's opium dens were one place "where all nationalities seem indiscriminately mixed".
Chinese immigrants first established Chinatowns in Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia, and here too, opium dens were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When the city of San Francisco began taxing imported opium for smoking, the trade was diverted to Victoria, and, from there, much of the opium was smuggled south into the United States. However, a fair amount of opium was consumed in the opium dens to be found in the Chinatowns of Victoria and Vancouver. The latter city's "Shanghai Alley" was known for its rustic opium dens. As in the United States, non-Chinese often frequented the Chinese-run opium dens in Canadian Chinatowns.
Opium smoking in France was introduced for the most part by French expatriates returning home from stints in their Indochinese colonies. By the early 20th century, there were numerous opium dens in France's port cities, particularly Toulon, Marseille and Hyères.
Victorian London's reputation as a centre of opium smoking is based on the belief of literary fiction over historical fact. The London press, along with popular British authors of the day, were fond of portraying London's Limehouse district as an opium-drenched pit of danger and mystery. In fact, London's Chinese population never exceeded the low hundreds, in large contrast to the tens of thousands of Chinese who settled in North American Chinatowns.
However, opium-induced sordidness and debauchery was portrayed in fiction books about London's Chinese, the sole intent of which was to shock British readers. Scholars have yet to unearth a single historical photograph of opium smokers in London, in marked contrast to the relative abundance of period photos depicting smokers in the United States, Canada, and France.
In popular culture
- Rudyard Kipling's short story "The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows" tells the history of a Chinese opium den in India.
- In Charles Dickens's final and uncompleted novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, an opium den is a critical element of the story.
- In the Sherlock Holmes story "The Man with the Twisted Lip" by Arthur Conan Doyle, Dr. Watson goes to an opium den in the East End of London to find Isa Whitney.
- Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin contains a short story where the main character finds herself within an opium den.
- In Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian visits the opium dens of London when indulging in the pleasures of life whether moral or immoral, subject to the influential character Lord Henry and his hedonistic outlook on life.[clarification needed]
- In Edgar Allan Poe's short story Ligeia, the narrator reports his use of opium to cope with the loss of his first wife.
- In Around the World in Eighty Days, Fix attempts to delay Fogg by giving Passepartout a pipe in a Hong Kong opium den.
- In The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913), Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie enter Singapore Charlie's Thames-side opium den in search of Dr Fu Manchu and his henchmen.
- In the 1923 Agatha Christie magazine short story The Lost Mine, Hercule Poirot is forced, much against his will, to conduct part of his investigation in a Limehouse opium den. The story appeared in book form in the American version of Poirot Investigates (1925) and in the UK in Poirot's Early Cases (1974).
- In the 1971 film McCabe & Mrs. Miller Constance Miller visits a very low-class opium den at the very end of the movie in the Asia quarter of the town.
- In Tennessee Williams' play, The Glass Menagerie, the main character Tom tells his religious mother that he goes to an opium den.
- In the The Adventures of Tintin story The Blue Lotus, the main character Tintin is involved in infiltrating opium dens.
- In the 1984 film Once Upon a Time in America, the character Noodles (Robert De Niro) frequents an opium den.
- In the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Mina Murray finds aged adventurer Allan Quatermain in an opium den. "Singapore Charlie's" den is the setting of their first encounter with the "Devil Doctor".
- In the film adaptation of From Hell the main character frequents opium dens.
- In the Simpsons episode Treehouse of Horror XV several characters, most notably Ralph and Mr. Burns, are shown smoking opium in an opium den in 19th century London.
- In Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally is depicted fainting in an opium den
- In Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Prince Will visits an opium den where a farie version of the drug is smoked. The characters still refer to it as an opium den.
- In the anime and manga Kuroshitsuji, one of the main side characters, Lau, owns an opium den.
- In the 1993 film Tombstone (film), the character, William Brocius aka Curly Bill Brocius (played by Powers Boothe), is seen smoking opium in an Old West opium den before exiting to the street and shooting the town marshal, Fred White (marshal). In reality, Curly Bill was intoxicated by alcohol rather than opium.
- The 2002 film The Gangs of New York portrayed rival political ward bosses in search of fraudulent voters rousting Chinese immigrants from an opium den in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan in the 1860s.
- In the 2014 show The Knick, set in Manhattan in 1900, Clive Owen's character, Dr. John Thackery is both a cocaine and opium addict, and frequently visits an opium den on Mott Street in Chinatown to get high and enjoy a Chinese prostitute/worker at the den.
- "Opium Museum".
- Commissioner Jesse B. Cook (June 1931). "San Francisco's Old Chinatown". San Francisco Police and Peace Officers' Journal. Retrieved 2007-09-22.
- Nick Toches, M.D. (2000-09-01). "Opium Dens". Retrieved 2009-11-24.
- H.H. Kane, M.D. (1881-09-24). "American Opium Smokers". Retrieved 2007-09-22.
- Jane F. Murphy (1922). "The Black Candle". Retrieved 2007-09-22.
- "Opium degrading the French Navy". 1913-04-27. Retrieved 2007-09-22.
- Martin, Steven (2007). The Art of Opium Antiques. ISBN 9-749-51122-0.
- Barra, Allen (2008). Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. p. 440. ISBN 978-0-8032-2058-4.
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