The experience of smoking in an opium den could be as luxurious – or as degraded – as the taste and financial means of the smoker allowed. While there were certainly many low-class, squalid dens, there were also luxurious ones in both China and the West which defied the stereotype of degradation which characterizes the modern view of opium smoking. Most of the accounts which survive were written by Westerners with strong anti-Chinese sentiments, and they often filtered their observations through layers of racism and resentment of the “yellow peril.” It is also important to consider that many of these writers, especially “journalists,” may have had ulterior motives for their unsympathetic portrayal of opium smoking.
This 1898 account of an opium den highlights the xenophobic undercurrent which characterized the anti-opium movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:
The pungent odor which greets you at the door is intensified a hundredfold, and is heavy and sensuous. A score of little lamps dot the place here and there, and are burning bravely, as if they were trying to light up the surroundings. Their attempt at illumination is a failure… Vice loves gloom and goes hand in hand with darkness. Here is vice of the vilest kind–imported vice.
And this one, from the French journal Figaro, which describes an opium den as a “wretched hole,”
... so low that we are unable to stand upright. Lying pell-mell on a mattress placed on the ground are Chinamen, Lascars, and a few English blackguards who have imbibed a taste for opium.
The tendency to demonize opium even carried over into Victorian fiction, such as this description of an opium den from “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” The den is in Upper Swandam Lane,
a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge. Between a slop-shop and a gin-shop, approached by a steep flight of steps leading down to a black gap like the mouth of a cave, I found the den of which I was in search. … I passed down the steps, worn hollow in the center by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet; and by the light of a flickering oil-lamp above the door I found the latch and made my way into a long low room, thick and heavy with the brown opium smoke, and terraced with wooden berths, like the forecastle of an emigrant ship.
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-luster 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 neighbor. … 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.
The den in the story is, of course, populated by an assortment of “Oriental” men, including Chinese and East Indian sailors.
The popularity of “slumming,” or visiting areas where Chinese immigrants and other racial minorities resided, also contributed to the popular perception of opium dens as havens for vice. Tours to Chinatown often included visits to chop suey joints, “joss houses,” or temples, and, of course, opium dens where depraved scenes were staged by actors. In reality, visitors would not have been allowed into an opium den simply to gawk – they would have been expected to smoke. This sort of “poverty theater” only fed the xenophobia already being directed at the Chinese in the US, and middle class “slummers” walked away from such experiences convinced that they had seen the “real deal” – and of their own moral superiority.
Opium dens were quite common in the Chinatowns of the Old West, and a detailed map of San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1885 shows a business labelled “Chinese opium manufactory and merchandise,” as well as no fewer than five “opium resorts” dens in its vicinity. While most smokers indulged their habit in rather prosaic surroundings with inexpensive paraphernalia, there is evidence, such as an 1886 photograph by Taber and an 1881 description by H. H. Kane of “magnificently fitted up” opium joints, that suggests that more luxurious accommodations were not uncommon. Opium dens remained relatively common in the US until around World War II, and the last den known to be operating in New York City, run by a Chinese immigrant named Lau, was raided and shut down in 1957.
Often, however, the reality of the opium den was much more prosaic and unremarkable than depictions found in fiction and newspapers. The following account of a Beijing hotel that functioned as an opium den by an Englishman named John Blofeld contrasts starkly with sensationalized depictions of opium dens and paints a rather mundane picture of opium smoking:
Knowing something of these matters, I expected the hotel to be a sort of chamber of horrors, but I cannot honestly say that the atmosphere we found there that night was vicious… we entered a number of rooms each furnished with padded divans and the six to eight lamps necessary to accommodate about thirty smokers per room… Some of the customers we saw were busy cooking little pellets of opium over their lamps or inhaling clouds of smoke from their heavy pipes. Others sat or lay upon the divans talking to one another with the noticeable animation which opium smoking produces in almost everyone. Those not ready yet for a smoke were seated at square tables playing mahjongg or bending over delicious snacks brought in by hawkers or ordered from neighboring restaurants. We saw very few people asleep or sleepy-looking; and only two or three elderly and undernourished men resembled my previous conception of “dope fiends” … This was nothing like the sort of hell I had pictured.
A surprisingly lack of sensationalism characterizes the account of a reporter describing an opium den in London’s East End as well. He was surprised to find that “it was not repulsive. It was calm and peaceful.” Other descriptions of opium dens shed light on the more luxurious end of the opium den spectrum.
One account from New York City in the 1890s paint a picture of genteel, high-class opium dens:
There was no shortage of wealthy users either. Some of them came with their own equipment, pieces made of gold silver, and ivory. At one point there was a house on Forty Sixth Street near 7th Avenue that catered exclusively to the hophead gentry… The house had heavy curtains, a piano at which sat a rotating staff of entertainers, and elaborately embroidered cushions and bunks.
While there is a proliferation of sordid opium den depictions, there also exist accounts of opium smoking as an ordinary daily activity and as a highly ritualized aesthetic endeavor which paint a more equivocal picture of the practice than most are aware of. Clearly, the experience of smoking in an opium den was a multi-faceted, complex one that could vary greatly depending on one’s social standing and means, and overtly sensationalized accounts should be taken with more than a few grains of salt by the modern reader.