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Opium den

An opium den was an establishment where opium was sold and smoked. Opium dens were prevalent in many parts of the world in the nineteenth century, most notably China, Southeast Asia, North America, and France. Throughout the West they 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 and the smoker could inhale the intoxicating 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.[1].


San Francisco

  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 brought to the attention of city authorities. In 1878 the city of San Francisco passed its first anti-opium ordinance, but it wasn't until the early twentieth century that huge bonfires, fueled by confiscated opium and opium paraphernalia, were used as a way of destroying opium while at the same time educating the public as to the illegality of smoking the drug. Due to the anti-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 as well as not letting the tell-tale fumes of opium escape. A photograph of one luxurious opium den in nineteenth-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.[2].

New York

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 what is still Manhattan's Chinatown. At the time, all the city's opium dens were run by Chinese except for one on 23rd Street which was run by an American woman and her daughter. Kane remarked that New York's opium dens were one place "where all nationalities seem indiscriminately mixed". As in San Francisco, New Yorkers of all races would come to Chinatown to patronize its opium dens. According to the writer Nick Tosches, New York City's last opium den was raided and shut down in the 1950s.[3][1]


Chinese immigrants first established Chinatowns in Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia, and here too opium dens were common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth 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. [4]


Unlike the opium smoking scene in North American cities, opium smoking in France was introduced for the most part by French expatriates returning home from stints in their Indochinese colonies. By the early twentieth century there were numerous opium dens in France's port cities, particularly Toulon, Marseille and Hyères.[5]


  Victorian London's reputation as a center of opium smoking is quite unjustified, and testifies to the power 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. Yet upon this tiny community was heaped notoriety for opium-induced sordidness and debauchery -- the sole intent of which was to titillate and shock British readers. Interestingly, 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.[6]

References in fiction

  • In the Sherlock Holmes story "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson goes to an opium den in the East End to find Isa Whitney.
  • In The Insidious 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 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.
  • In the The Adventures of Tintin story The Blue Lotus, the main character Tintin is seen infiltrating opium dens.
  • In the 1984 film Once Upon a Time in America, the character of Noodles (played by Robert De Niro) frequents an opium den. There is a theory that the entire film is an "opium dream".
  • In the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Mina Murray finds aged adventurer Allan Quatermain in an opium den.
  • In the movie From Hell the main character frequents opium dens.
  • An opium den (located behind a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco) is portrayed in The Wild Wild West episode The Night the Dragon Screamed.
  • In the animated series of Spawn, an opium den is one of the main locations in the final episode of season 3.
  • The metal band Tool has compiled very rare demo's and live-tracks from before their debute-album period in an album called Opium Den, which is officially unreleased.[7]

See also


  1. ^ a b Opium Museum.
  2. ^ Commissioner Jesse B. Cook (1931-06). San Francisco's Old Chinatown. Retrieved on 2007-09-22.
  3. ^ H.H. Kane, M.D. (1881-09-24). American Opium Smokers. Retrieved on 2007-09-22.
  4. ^ Jane F. Murphy (1922). The Black Candle. Retrieved on 2007-09-22.
  5. ^ Opium degrading the French Navy (1913-04-27). Retrieved on 2007-09-22.
  6. ^ Brilliant Chang in Limehouse. Retrieved on 2007-09-22.
  7. ^ Opium Den. Retrieved on 2007-12-10.

Further reading

Opium Museum [1]

San Francisco's opium dens [2]

New York City's opium dens [3]

The Black Candle - opium smoking in Canada [4]

Opium in the French Navy [5]

Limehouse debunked [6]

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Opium_den". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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