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Smoke 'em if you got 'em
October 12, 2009 2:34 PM   Subscribe

They're responsible for the slang terms "hip" and "dive."1 Among many other traditions, Chinese immigrants brought opium dens to the Western world. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde all embellished the existence of opium dens in Victorian England. In the expanding US, Chinese railroad workers brought opium dens to outposts as far-flung as El Paso. By the 1880s, US readers were familiar with the stereotypical opium den of urban Chinatowns like San Francisco's (pdf) -- where it was made illegal for white people to smoke -- and New York's (pdf).2

Learn more about opium dens, and see the photos, at the online Opium Museum.

1 Warning: Commercial site that sells large quantities of poppy seeds. May not be appropriate for the workplace or for parolees.
2 Another warning: Extremely culturally insensitive account from the New York Times, 1880.
posted by mudpuppie (45 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
This cat is paying a little too much attention to that pipe.
posted by e40 at 2:50 PM on October 12, 2009


Nick Tosches' The Last Opium Den is a great (and quick) read if you're looking for a romantic tale of the search for a good old fashioned opium den.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 2:53 PM on October 12, 2009


The online etymology dictionary says hip comes from hep with the latter of unknown origin. I seem to remember that hip being associated with opium smoking comes from Norman Mailer asserting such in Advertisements for Myself.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:55 PM on October 12, 2009


Nice interface on the museum pics. /grateful
posted by Xoebe at 2:57 PM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


That last link to the NYT article was really fantastic. I especially loved this turn of phrase:

"like a wart growing on top of a festering sore"


It's fascinating, especially as Mott Street trends toward hip nowadays, rather than scary. (Although one might say they're the same thing.)

The article is worth reading for the writing alone; the subject makes it that much more enjoyable. Thanks, mudpuppie!
posted by brina at 2:58 PM on October 12, 2009


Also: "It doesn't seem as if a Chinaman ever had a mother, of course, but still, when you think it over, he must have had, you know."

For some reason that made me think of Frances Hodgson Burnett and the way she might have described Miss Minchin.
posted by brina at 3:11 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Interesting stuff! Thanks for posting.

From the El Paso link: "By 1893, El Paso still had more dens than any other town in Texas."

Couple of reasons for this:

The border town was a hotbed for the dregs of humanity. Thieves and murderers, horse and cattle rustlers, drug addicts, gamblers and prostitutes all gravitated to El Paso. It was known as "Six Shooter Capital" for a while after the railroad came, because law enforcement found it impossible to keep the peace.

Also,
"More than 1,200 Chinese laborers helped build the Southern Pacific Railroad from Los Angeles to El Paso, completed in May 1881. When the job was done, about 300 Chinese decided to stay in El Paso. Most were married with families to support back home. With the completion of the early railroad, the Chinese started settling in El Paso in larger numbers. Chinese women were scarce in Chinatown, however. Only two Chinese women were living in El Paso in 1883.

The laborers who remained in El Paso formed the basis of the El Paso Chinese colony. All over the U.S., Chinatowns developed where a large number of Chinese congregated. El Paso's Chinatown was located downtown from St. Louis Street (later Mills Street) south of Fourth Street, Stanton to El Paso and south of Overland Street. In her 1972 study of El Paso's Chinese population, Nancy Farrar says Chinatown served as a place of spiritual refuge for it was there that the Chinese could hear their native language and practice their native customs.
Chinese immigrants then found that the Juarez / El Paso border was a relatively easy entry point into the US -- especially after the Chinese Exclusion Laws were enacted. They could vanish into the established community.
posted by zarq at 3:17 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Frank Dikotter had a bit of a revisionist look at opium in China in some of his recent work. Tend not to see eye to eye with him on much, but he's always interesting.
posted by Abiezer at 3:28 PM on October 12, 2009


Per OED editor Jesse Sheidlower, the origin of hip remains utterly obscure. And this reported origin of dive seems without evidence, even if the explanation that many dive bars were in cellars suggests an imitative usage only by speculation.
posted by dhartung at 3:30 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Incomplete without a mention of cauliflower ears!
posted by GuyZero at 3:32 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Great post. Really enjoyed the NYT article. ("Oh, you stealthy old heathen!").

zarq: Chinese immigrants then found that the Juarez / El Paso border was a relatively easy entry point into the US -- especially after the Chinese Exclusion Laws were enacted.

From that link, I see that the one of the acts was called "Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States." Such candor. These days, it would surely be the "Protection of American Freedom" act.
posted by Maximian at 3:33 PM on October 12, 2009


The Opium Museum site is run by a close friend of mine, Steve Martin. He became interested in opium antiques (and subsequently built one of the largest collections in the world) after coming to Lao with Karl Taro Greenfeld to work on this story. The article ended up getting all of us expat business owners kicked out of the country. Once we were back in Bangkok, I called upon Steve to come over to my apartment and explain himself. He did so without hesitation, and we've pretty much been in contact everyday since the middle of 2002.
posted by gman at 3:41 PM on October 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


We should take a moments silence here to commemorate all the brave British troops who fell fighting to keep China on smack.








Thank you.
posted by Artw at 3:45 PM on October 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


From that link, I see that the one of the acts was called "Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States." Such candor. These days, it would surely be the "Protection of American Freedom" act.

Well, racist sentiments used to be voiced quite openly by American politicians, without fear of retribution.

That Times article mentioned the Sand Lots Orator, Denis Kearney, who used to end every speech with "And whatever happens, the Chinese must go." That eventually became his campaign slogan. More.
posted by zarq at 4:03 PM on October 12, 2009


Nowadays, pols just apologize for their errant racist remarks.
posted by zarq at 4:05 PM on October 12, 2009


Carthage must be destroyed and the Chinese must go?
posted by Neofelis at 4:22 PM on October 12, 2009


Flowering from intolerable terror!!
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:33 PM on October 12, 2009


This is really great! I'm getting ready to give a lecture Wed about Chinese immigrants in the Western US and violence against them in labor movements. This is really nifty!
posted by strixus at 5:19 PM on October 12, 2009


Good post. I have a yen to do a tangram now.
posted by tellurian at 5:46 PM on October 12, 2009


You know who else liked to kick the gong around?

No, not him. Minnie the Moocher

BTW gman, I really enjoyed Speed Tribes. Fascinating book.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:49 PM on October 12, 2009


Wasn't Sherlock Holmes shooting cocaine, not opiates?
posted by kozad at 6:03 PM on October 12, 2009




fwiw david silbey, at the edge of the american west, recently gave a fascinating tour of the boxer rebellion, cont'd...
The outbreak in 1900 was one of the first media crises. By this, I mean it was one of the first to be reported by the newspapers almost immediately, as it developed. In that way, it resembles the modern world of CNN and the Internet rather more than we might think. I’m reading the newspaper coverage for the project anyway, and I thought it might be interesting to do it in chronological order and write about it as I read it: insert myself back into the flow of the crisis, as it were. I’ve chosen to use the New York Times for this as they have (kindly enough) opened their archives back to 1851. So, over the next few months, I’ll be trundling through the Boxer Rebellion*** day by day and trying to treat it as if it were an ongoing moment, details murky and end unknown.

[...]

***There are arguments about its name. The traditional name has been Boxer Rebellion. Historians of Asia prefer Boxer Uprising, as the consensus has been that this was not a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty but an uprising in support of it against the foreigners. At the moment, I don’t really have a dog in the fight, though I’m coming to the sense that the Boxers were supporting the Chinese Dowager Empress in the sense of pushing her to live up to her responsibilities. They probably had–to steal a idea–bumper stickers announcing how disappointed they were in her.
re: visionist look at opium in China, heh :P

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 6:34 PM on October 12, 2009


The CHINAMAN comes to a young man whose pipe has slipped from his hand and, crouching beside him, calls his name in an urgent whisper.

CHINAMAN: Noodles...Noodles...

But NOODLES doesn't answer. He doesn't hear him. He feels the pipe again in his hand, grasps it, and takes a long drag. His glazed eyes stare up as he gropes beside the bed for a newspaper whose headline catches our eye:

BOOTLEGGERS TRAPPED BY FEDS; THREE SLAIN

Also, Dude, "Chinaman" is not the preferred nomenclature. "Asian-American," please.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:03 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Fascinating! I read a book about this back in the eighties, and it completely changed my thinking about China, England, and Empire. The book is still in print and a quick Google shows that it is the topic of courses, scholarly reviews and what not.
Great FPP!
posted by dbmcd at 7:06 PM on October 12, 2009


If anyone's looking for a book, I recently enjoyed Tea that burns - the author's family had a long history in New York's Chinatown, with a few Tong relatives. Lots of Chinese history, mixed with interesting tidbits about the evolution of modern NYC - my wife recognized a few anecdotes from her grandfather's stories about growing up in the nearby Jewish neighborhood.
posted by adamsc at 7:07 PM on October 12, 2009


According to some sources, "Hip" comes from the Wolof word "Xippi" meaning eyes wide open.
posted by mike3k at 7:54 PM on October 12, 2009


I've never had opium....oh, wait, yes I have. Lots of it, actually.
posted by Poagao at 9:18 PM on October 12, 2009


From the El PAso link: "Authorities on the subject concur that the majority of the Chinese workers coming to the United States were already heavily addicted to opium."

I don't think this is right. A colleague of mine who is a historian of the Chinese in the west said once that the per-capita white consumption of opium was about the same as that of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century. White Americans were just more likely to consume it in the great variety of patent medicines which contained the drug. Chinese workers definitely did tend to use opium to relax but a lot of the contemporary white literature is the product of racist hysteria and we have to be careful not to take it literally.
posted by LarryC at 9:20 PM on October 12, 2009


I suppose I'll have to read The Sign of Four again, but I'm pretty sure that Holmes IV of choice was cocaine, and also that he was taking it because he was bored, and his usage would abate when he had an interesting case.

(or, what kozad said).

Hey, I don't mind reading Holmes again...
posted by pompomtom at 9:28 PM on October 12, 2009


According to some sources, "Hip" comes from the Wolof word "Xippi" meaning eyes wide open.
Cry Wolof - with a special appearance by languagehat.
posted by tellurian at 9:39 PM on October 12, 2009


I was going to add a comment, but I'm lying in a den in Bombay. With a slack jaw and not much to say.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:21 PM on October 12, 2009


Don't stand downwind in 1914 Chinatown.
posted by ...possums at 12:02 AM on October 13, 2009


Don't stand downwind in 1914 Chinatown.

Gee, I wonder why they did this in front of the unfinished City Hall?

I wonder if Tommy Chong would know?
posted by Enron Hubbard at 7:06 AM on October 13, 2009


Carthage must be destroyed and the Chinese must go?

Cato would have been proud.
posted by zarq at 7:06 AM on October 13, 2009




A colleague of mine who is a historian of the Chinese in the west said once that the per-capita white consumption of opium was about the same as that of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century. White Americans were just more likely to consume it in the great variety of patent medicines which contained the drug. Chinese workers definitely did tend to use opium to relax but a lot of the contemporary white literature is the product of racist hysteria and we have to be careful not to take it literally.

*nod* I studied the Opium Wars and did a paper on Lin Tse Hsu in college. I'm not an historian of the period, but my understanding is that the propaganda makes determining whether opium really was a serious problem in China murky at best. The Chinese certainly seemed to think so, but that might have been the result of deliberate or inadvertent Western influence.

The timeline does seem to indicate that after the British forced the opium trade to remain open and flowing at the conclusion of the two Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, the drug continued to be a serious concern for China over the next 50 years. That doesn't necessarily mean it was still a serious problem after the conflicts, but at the very least, the Chinese believed there was an opium crisis.

Why? In 1906, the Chinese Empress issued an edict (in agreement with the British) that the opium trade must cease by 1917. The reason the agreement was forged and the edict was issued was out of the Empress' concern over the report of Philippine Opium Commission. The Commission had concluded that Japan's military and economic superiority over China was due to their ability to ban opium trade. Interestingly enough, the edict was successful.
posted by zarq at 8:09 AM on October 13, 2009


I find it so fascinating how much thought and detail went into the aesthetics of opium use. I can't fathom, say, a modern-day crackhouse having elaborately ornamented pipes or a heroin dealer providing couches set aside just for people to laze around and enjoy their high.
The lamps on that site are particularly stunning. Something people, if they found it in an antique shop, would happily place on an end table. I don't think the same could be said for most modern drug paraphernalia.
posted by Kellydamnit at 9:50 AM on October 13, 2009


I don't think the same could be said for most modern drug paraphernalia.

Many bongs, slides and pipes are quite artistically carved. They're also created in a variety of media, such as wood, acrylic, glass, etc.
posted by zarq at 2:05 PM on October 13, 2009


Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature... Asian American, please.
posted by mylaudanumhabit at 9:40 AM on October 14, 2009


zarq, that's true. I guess pot paraphernalia didn't occur to me since it doesn't really register in my brain as a "drug" on the same level that opium does. I can totally see some of the more ornate glass pieces and the like being collectible as art objects in 100 years. Can't say the same for a crack stem.
posted by Kellydamnit at 8:28 PM on October 14, 2009


Go to Thailand and you can find some nice and ornate opium pipes.
posted by pompomtom at 9:30 PM on October 14, 2009


chinese snuff bottles, esp from the qing, can be pretty intricate and artistic, too.
posted by kliuless at 5:55 AM on October 15, 2009


The Secret Paris of the 30s
posted by vronsky at 11:51 AM on October 18, 2009


"Does the word hip really hail from a West African language?"
posted by dragonsi55 at 8:00 AM on November 7, 2009


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