Opium Smoking in the West

Wherever opium smoking took root, it carried an air of foreignness. Ironically, the drug decried as “foreign mud” by Chinese officials became almost synonymous with the Chinese when they migrated to the US to mine gold during the California Gold Rush. Although the use of opium in the form of tinctures had been an integral part of Western medicine since ancient times, the custom of smoking the drug recreationally was inextricably linked to contact between East and West. Following the large-scale immigration of Chinese immigrants to the US in the nineteenth century, first to mine gold, then to build the transcontinental railroad, opium dens became a relatively common feature in cities and large towns across the country, particularly in the West. Chinatown opium dens attracted many white customers as well as Chinese, which fueled fears about the “yellow peril” and contributed to discrimination against the Chinese.

In Europe, France became the locus of opium culture, as French colonials inevitably brought the custom of smoking the drug back from French Indochina. By the early twentieth century, opium smoking had become common among certain social circles, particularly the artistic and creative class. The French filmmaker, artist, and writer Jean Cocteau was an opium smoker, as was Pablo Picasso. The photographer Brassai documented opium smoking in his famous photographic study of Parisian nightlife, and the practice was often romanticized, with Buddhas and other Eastern symbols highlighting the “exotic” cache which was attached to the drug.