Opium Dens and the Yellow Peril

The image of the opium den is deeply embedded in the culture of countries such as the UK and the USA. While 50 to 100 years ago the opium den represented for most people a place of dread and horror, nowadays hip nightclubs fall over each other to use the name, while perfumes are sold on the mass market by appealing to opium imagery. How has this change in the cultural coding of opium come about?

Opium, Tea and Empire

Opium has been used by human beings since prehistory, but its modern story begins with the Anglo-Indian opium trade to China, a key feature of Britain’s imperial past. The trade involved another psychoactive substance which is both widely used and legal—tea, the humble cuppa. As Britain’s tea drinking culture spread to the urban masses of the industrial revolution, a problem arose for the government; with China already producing rich fabrics and porcelain, this sophisticated trading nation did not wish to trade the goods that Britain had to offer. Yet China was the sole source of good quality tea, and Britain’s balance of trade suffered as silver bullion continually leeched out of the treasury to pay for it. A solution to this problem was found in Britain’s expanding Empire: indeed, in the ‘Jewel of the Crown’ of Empire—India. The Moguls, who ruled India prior to the British, had established a state monopoly in the production and sale of opium, the gum produced by the opium poppy, which was cultivated on a large scale in India. The British East India Company, a trading company chartered by the British crown, was able to call upon the armed forces of the British state to enforce its will. It came to govern India in the 18th Century, taking over the opium monopoly and selling opium to China; this was done via third party traders, since the importation of opium was in fact forbidden by Chinese law. The opium trade assumed massive proportions in the 18th and 19th centuries, with large numbers of Chinese taking up the habit of opium smoking. Soon the figure of the opium-smoking Chinese became familiar in the literature, science and popular culture of the western nations.

Lurking in Laundries

The popularization of the image of the Chinese opium smoker was linked to two main developments. The first was the growth of a powerful religiously based movement dedicated to stopping the opium trade. Based in Britain and America and with support from both Western missionaries and those Chinese who resented the foreigners and their influence, this movement would achieve political success in the early 20th century by bringing an end to the British opium trade. The propaganda circulated by the anti-opiumists in support of their cause portrayed the Chinese as the addled and degraded victims of the drug, greatly exaggerating both its harmful effects and the prevalence of excessive use. The second factor in spreading the mythology of the oriental opium-fiend was the arrival in the ports of the Western world of Chinese sailors. Over time some of them settled, and set up businesses in San Francisco, London, Liverpool, Amsterdam and many other port cities, to cater for the needs of their compatriots. These ventures included laundries and restaurants—and also the supply of opium, which was smoked to relax and to socialise. While groups of men would usually gather in one or another’s lodgings to indulge in a few pipes, the trope of the “opium den” took on a life of its own in the culture. Again, its representation in the press and in literature was important.

Limehouse lairs

Many of the Chinese seamen were young; some stayed on to work in the ports they visited. In London, a Chinatown formed in the dockland area of Limehouse in the London Borough of Poplar. Never more than a few hundred strong, this colony nonetheless acquired a notoriety out of all proportion to its size. It loomed large in the cultural imagination, and was widely circulated in literature and newspapers. The lonely young sailors sought female company, and since Chinese woman were exceedingly scarce, the women tended to be drawn from the indigenous population. It was this mixing of white women with “yellow men” which especially inflamed opinion against the Chinese community, in a process vividly described by Marek Kohn in his book “Dope Girls”.

The tiny Chinese community thereby came to be perceived as a large threat to British society and the health of the British ‘race’, and the threat was perfectly symbolized by opium, the weird, ‘oriental’ drug which these ‘aliens’ smoked. A flurry of lurid headlines accompanied reports of Chinamen using opium to lure white women to their ruin. There were anti-Chinese riots in a number of UK cities, and the possession of opium was criminalised during WW1 when the Defence of the Realm Act was used to prohibit a number of previously available drugs following the 1916 cocaine scare in the press. This period and the 1920s saw the advent of figures like Fu Manchu in popular fiction; meanwhile rumours circulated of a Chinese master-criminal who ran a global empire of crime based on opium. The press gave form to this figure in the early 1920s when one Brilliant Chang was arrested for dealing in cocaine; Chang was sentenced to prison with hard labour and then deported, having come to embody the Fu Manchu myth, or as one contemporary newspaper put it, the “Chinese Moriarty”, referring of course to the arch villain from the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Brilliant Chang

Opium and the Outsider

Yet there was another side the mythology of the opium den. Since the Victorian period, aristocratic hedonists from London’s rich West End had trodden the path eastward to the dark heart of Limehouse in search of forbidden pleasures. The Holmes stories feature one such story, as do Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde.

In this period the use of opium became more widespread, with stars of stage and screen holding opium parties, and opium becoming a familiar element in the nightlife of the West End. The opium culture led to rich and famous individuals mixing with Chinese dealers and characters from the Soho underworld. The prohibition of opium had helped to establish its transgressive image, and became integrated with the whole Bohemian scene of exoticism and the exalted status of the outsider. It is the cultural complex formed by these elements of the foreign, the oriental, the illicit, the forbidden and exotic species of pleasure that is still invoked by references to opium in music, movies, style, perfumes and other lifestyle accoutrements. As the cultural significance of what once was feared as belonging to the outsider has shifted as the outsider has become the figure of the cool, the hip—so has opium’s signification changed.

This is of more than simply historical importance. It demonstrates how deeply embedded drugs are in our cultural frame of reference, in the background ‘unconscious’ of our society where reactions are formed prior to conscious reflection. It also shows how ‘drugs’ are so much more than mere chemical substances, but are, in addition, repositories for the deep anxieties and desires of our civilization.