Tourists in an Opium Den
San Franciscos Chinatown has intrigued tourists from its beginning. One of the main attractions toward the end of the 19th century was a series of opium dens that flouristhed in the warren of underground passages beneath the houses, shops, and restaurants there. In 1877 Miriam Florence Leslie, wife of the publisher of Leslies Illustrated Weekly, toured one such den with a group of her friends. She recorded her impressions in her book, California: A Pleasure Trip from Gotham City to the Golden Gate. The tour guide was a local police officer.
illustration of a Chinatown opium den first appeared in
Passing through an alley-way, we entered a perfectly dark court where nothing was to be seen but so much to be smelled that the imagination became more painful than the reality could have been. A light twinkled from some windows on a level with the side-walk, and our guide unceremoniously pushing open the door led us into a small, close, but apparently clean room, filled with the fumes of burning opiumresembling those of roasting ground-nuts, and not disagreeable. A table stood in the centre, and around three sides ran a double tier of shelves and bunks, covered with matting and with round logs of wood with a space hollowed out, cushioned or bare, for pillows. Nearly all of these were filled with Chinamen, many of them containing two, with a little tray between them, holding a lamp and a horn box filled with the black, semi-liquid opium paste. But although every one was smoking, it was so early in the evening that the drug had not as yet wrought its full effect, and all were wide awake, talking, laughing, and apparently enjoying themselves hugely.
The largest of the Chinamen was lying
upon the shelf nearest the door, preparing his first pipe. He looked up
and nodded as we crowded around him, and then calmly continued his
occupation, we watching the modus
operandi with considerable interest. The pipe was a little
stone bowl, no larger than a baby's thimble, with an orifice in the
bottom the size of a pin's head. This bowl is screwed on to the side of
a long bamboo stem, and the smoker, taking up a mass of the opium paste
upon the end of a wire, holds it to the flame of the lamp until it is
slightly hardened, and then works it into the pipe, inhaling strongly as
he does so, and drawing the smoke deep into his lungs, where it remains
for a moment and then is ejected through the nostrils, leaving its fatal
residuum behind; for opium in an accumulative poison, and when once the
system becomes saturated with it, there is no release from the misery it
entails but death.
The tiny charge constituting one pipe-full
is soon exhausted, and holding the last whiff as long as possible, the
smoker prepares another, and another and yet another, as long as he can
control his muscles, until, at last, the nerveless hand falls beside
him, the pipe drops from his fingers, and his head falls back in heavy
stupor, the face ghastly white, the eyes glazed and lifeless, the
breathing stertorous, the mind wandering away in visions like those De
Quincey has given to the world in the Confessions of an Opium
Eater. Looking at the stalwart Chinaman, with his intelligent face
and fresh, clean costume, we tried to fancy this loathsome change
passing upon him and felt quite guilty, as he looked up with a twinkling
smile and offering us the lighted pipe said: Havee Smokee? and
when we declined, held out the wire with the little ball on the end for
us to smell.
above is an extract of an account in
Malcolm E. Barkers book, More San Francisco Memoirs: 1852-1899, The ripening years. (Londonborn
Publications, San Francisco, 1996).