Wealthier smokers like these three in China could afford better surroundings and a place to lie down that was off the ground.
Without wishing to advocate the consumption of opium or to glorify the environment surrounding it, it’s fair to say that the opium culture is fascinating and historically unlike any other.
Steven Martin, the author of The Art of Opium Antiques and founder of the Opium Museum, states: “In no other addictive substance did man’s quest for mood-enhancement reach such artistic heights.” In the image here, for example, we can see a Vietnamese opium smoker in luxurious surroundings with an elaborate set-up of smoking paraphernalia.
Millions are believed to have indulged in the vice, with the recreational use of opium having begun in China as early as the 15th century. Then, opium was still rare and mostly too expensive for the average person. Yet by the 18th and 19th centuries, fueled by the efforts of the British-controlled East India Company, opium had become more prevalent in China, and the drug was thus more affordable. Plus, it was mixed with regular tobacco for smoking, making its use easier.
It’s fair to say that by the 18th century, opium smoking had become an integral part of the Chinese Qing Dynasty culture. In the 19th century, it spread to the Chinese quarters of Asian cities like Rangoon, Saigon and Manila, brought along by Chinese immigrants and traders eager to trade in more than goods and human labor. The opium culture was quickly picked up in South Asian capitals, too, and soon became a craze among the local populations. In China, more than a quarter of the country’s male population is said to have been addicted by 1905.
From South Asian cities, the opium culture traveled to the West via Chinese workers, most notably those who came for the California Gold Rush and those who helped build the railway. San Francisco was a first entry point, and the city’s Chinatown boasted opium dens from 1850 onwards, admitting non-Chinese smokers by around 1870. In France, opium smoking also gained a fair amount of popularity at the turn of the last century after expatriates returning from assignments in the Indochinese colonies introduced it at home.
Soon, opium consumption permeated each level of society, from the rich — who could afford to smoke it in the privacy of their own salons — to the poor — who had to resort to often unhygienic public “opium joints.” Thus, the interior appearance of opium dens varied widely depending on the clientele that frequented them. As Steven Martin explains on his website: “[Opium was] indulged in at every level of Chinese society — from the lowliest rickshaw pullers to the court eunuchs within the luxurious chambers of old Peking’s Forbidden City.”
As we can see in the images shown here, opium smokers usually took up a reclining position. Though people often just passed out after consuming the drug, lying down while smoking opium also had a practical purpose: the opium pipes were too long to be held comfortably while sitting. And certainly few wanted to stand after consuming the powerful drug.
In this image, we can see two opium smokers in China who seem to have opted for a no-frills opium den with simple mats to lie on. The wall hangings also appear to depict scenes of opium smoking.
Here’s another group of “typical well-off opium smokers in China in the late 19th century.”
In his book Opium, author Matthias Seefelder describes the effects of smoking opium in the following way: “Depending on the level of addiction, soon or sometimes only after several pipes, the peculiar state of comforting pleasure came over the smokers. The drug of ecstasy took effect, all burdens were lifted and pleasant visions, often of an erotic nature, filled them. A leaden tiredness followed soon after and finally, narcotic sleep. The hangover arrived after waking up and with it the unconquerable desire for the next pipe.”
Four men at an opium den, part of a Chinese lodging house in San Francisco, 1890s.
The addictive side effects of opium became apparent once its use was more popularized in China in the 18th century, after opium was mixed with tobacco and smoking opium became widespread. Opium prohibition began in 1729 in China but this did little to dampen the drug’s popularity, which continued to increase for nearly 200 years. Formed in 1909 in the West, the International Opium Commission aimed at regulating the use of the popular drug. By the early 20th century, opium was prohibited in many countries.
These three opium smokers in Calcutta’s Chinatown don’t seem to mind the fact that their surroundings are a bit filthy (if the discoloration of the walls with what looks like mold or fungus is anything to go by). The photo was taken by American GIs in 1945, and here’s what they had to say about the experience: “A little snooping in Chinatown will turn up the little opium dens stuck down an alley (not recommended without police escort). Actually, the smokers shown in this picture do it legally. Each den is licensed for so many pipes. Each pipe costs a rupee, a phial of opium five rupees. The average smoker consumes a phial a day and there are about 186 pipes licensed in Calcutta.”
The figures quoted by the American GIs in Calcutta may not seem too expensive, though of course, one rupee or one dollar was worth much more than today. In fact, a dollar was worth about 3.32 rupees at the time, and a dollar had about twelve times the buying power that it has today – meaning $1 in 1945 was worth what $12.30 is worth today. A pipe in Calcutta’s Chinatown cost about 30 cents in 1945 – about $3.70, which is cheaper than most party drugs today.
According to Steven Martin, this photograph of an opium smoker with his cat in San Francisco became a “best-selling souvenir postcard.” Been there, done that, maybe? We’re just wondering if the cat had a whiff too.
These rather distinguished looking folk look like they’ve come straight from the office into this Chinese-run opium den in New York City’s Chinatown. Clearly, they wanted to check out for themselves what the craze is all about.
Here’s a woman smoking a pipe in the privacy of her own home in San Francisco around 1920. Is that a cat again at the foot of the bed?
Those who could afford to smoke – especially wealthy Chinese or non-Chinese opium smokers in San Francisco – did so from home where they were much less likely to be subject to a police raid.
This is a rather elaborately decorated opium den in Denver, Colorado. But it wasn’t aesthetics the owners were after; all the wall hangings were used to cover drafts so that the lamp wouldn’t flicker.
Word War II disrupted the opium trade routes and furthered the decline of the drug’s popularity and that of opium dens. Today, opiates either fall under the tightly regulated market of prescription drugs or are produced and distributed illegally as recreational drugs, usually in the form of heroin.
The opium dens of yesteryear are gone for good and all that remains are these fascinating photographs, perhaps taken to document the user in question having engaged in a “cool” activity – at a time when less was known about the lasting side effects or dangers.