Tourists in an Opium Den

San Francisco’s 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 Leslie’s 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. 

This illustration of a Chinatown opium den first appeared in 
Leslies's Illustrated Weekly in 1877.

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 opium—resembling 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.

The above is an extract of an account in Malcolm E. Barker’s book, More San Francisco Memoirs: 1852-1899, The ripening years. (Londonborn Publications, San Francisco, 1996).

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