The Mysteries of the Opium Den (part 1/2)

“Through the gloom one could dimly catch a glimpse of bodies lying in strange fantastic poses, bowed shoulders, bent knees, heads thrown back, and chins pointing upward, with here and there a dark, lack-lustre eye turned upon the newcomer. Out of the black shadows there glimmered little red circles of light, now bright, now faint, as the burning poison waxed or waned in the bowls of the metal pipes. The most lay silent, but some muttered to themselves, and others talked together in a strange, low, monotonous voice, their conversation coming in gushes, and then suddenly tailing off into silence, each mumbling out his own thoughts and paying little heed to the words of his neighbour. … As I entered, a sallow Malay attendant had hurried up with a pipe for me and a supply of the drug, beckoning me to an empty berth.”

(- excerpt from The Man with the Twisted Lip; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle)


This is a small paragraph in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes describes one of the popular images we have of opium dens (read below). Author Doyle was not the only one that described opium dens as part of a darker side of Victorian London; Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens described these dangerous places run by mysterious Oriental people as well in their books. Even newspapers in European cities gleefully described the city of London as the sensationalist and sinister center of a sprawling network of opium dens.

However, in reality opium dens weren’t nearly as widespread in London (they were in France though) or as mysterious as these popular stories tell us. In Victorian times laudanum, an derivative of opium, and other opiates were easily available in chemist’s shops and used as a common medicine for a great range of illnesses. So how come that the Chinese were the evil instigators of addicting people to opium? Why are mysterious opium dens such a prevailing stereotypical image, even nowadays in movies and TV shows?


Opium Den in London East End, 1880, J.C. Dollman
An Opium den at the East End, London 1880



Let us start 300 years ago. England and the Chinese Qing Empire were engaged in some pretty difficult trade relations. The English imported tea, silk, porcelain and other items from China. China, in return, was actually pretty much self-sufficient and only interested in some English silver. With their silver supply rapidly dwindling (because the English have a love affair with tea), they went looking for something else the Chinese would be interested in in trading. And in their Bengal colonies they found opium.

Opium had been known in China for at least a thousand years, but the drug was hard to get by and was only used as medicine by the elites. This changed when the English started supplying tonnes of opium every year and with the invention of vaporising opium, instead of eating it or mixing it with tobacco. The use of opium recreationally became immediately a widespread social problem. The Qing Emperor tried banning and outlawing the trade and use of opium, but to no avail. There were millions of opium users in China and for England the trade was far too lucrative to stop.

Satire showing an Englishman ordering the emperor of China to buy opium.
Satire showing an Englishman ordering the Emperor of China to buy opium. Another Chinese man lies dead on the ground with troops in the background; one man poised to fire a gun. The text says: “I tell you to immediately buy the gift here. We want you to poison yourself completely, because we need a lot of tea in order to digest our beefsteaks!”

China’s efforts to ban opium started the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century. However, China was defeated and humiliated in both wars. The results of these wars were a big decline of power of the Qing Emperor, a flourishing and forced legalised opium trade, ransacking and burning of the royal Summer Palaces by Anglo-French troops, and Hong Kong becoming a British colony.

Looting_of_the Yuan Ming Yuan pavilion by Anglo-French forces in_1860
Looting of the Yuan Ming Yuan pavilions by Anglo-French forces, 1860

China was forced to open its borders for trade. This led to the grow of Chinatowns and Chinese communities abroad. For example, the greatest number of Chinese immigrants came to the USA to work on the railroads or tried to find their fortune during the Gold Rush.

Of course, with the influx of Chinese workers in the 19th century came their social habit of opium smoking and opium dens. Most opium dens were run and frequented by the Chinese and were situated near where the Chinese lived and worked. But also French seamen and expatriates brought back the habit of opium smoking from their own colonies in Indochina. Opium smoking acquired a mysterious image due to the exotic-looking immigrants and romanticised tales brought back from far-flung colonies.

– To be continued in Part 2: The Opium Den


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