In the early 20th century, smoking opium was all the rage in Guangdong Province
Where do you go in Guangdong when you want to hang out and score good drugs?
In the 1920s and 1930s, it would have been your friendly neighborhood opium den.
Guangzhou back then was a city of gangs, warlords, revolutionaries and awash in the sweet smell of dope smoke.
Sure, there had been sporadic attempts to eradicate narcotics trade, but where’s the fun in that? More importantly, there was money to be made.
In 1923, the combined forces of Chen Jitang and Nationalist Party leader Sun Yat-sen wrested control of Guangzhou from the warlord Chen Jiongming. Chen had made himself unpopular in the city, in no small part because he tried to enforce a prohibition on the sale and use of opium. Sun Yat-sen, ever the pragmatist, felt it was more expedient—and lucrative—to organize a monopoly on the sale of the drug managed through the “Office for the Suppression of Opium.”
Opium had long played a role in the economic and social history of Guangdong. Foreign ships brought the drug from India and Turkey while local traders trafficked in less expensive and less well-regarded opium from the poppy fields of Guizhou and Yunnan.
Between 1840 and 1842 and between 1856 and 1858, Great Britain and the other foreign powers waged war against the Qing Empire to expand and protect their control over trade along the China coast. At the center of trade was opium. As a result of the unequal treaties signed at the end of these conflicts, the imperial government lost control over the opium trade. After the end of the empire in 1912, the lack of a central government authority exacerbated any attempts to manage the problem. Not everybody agreed that opium was even a problem at all.
Far from being the dark and dank “dens” of popular imagination and fiction, many establishments for the smoking of opium were often plush lounges catering to the discerning gentleman.
In the early 20th century, the elites of Guangzhou saw opium both as a social ill, when it created crime and addiction among the lower classes and as a social lubricant when they smoked with their friends. The qualities of a good smoker paralleled those of a proper Confucian gentleman: benevolence, and a willingness to share and reciprocate. Sharing was encouraged and stinginess was a good way to run afoul of fellow smokers.
Sharing was easier for those who claimed only a “modest habit.” Sharing became harder as addiction took hold, and it was common for former friends to fall out when the need to feed the addiction became too much.
Where people smoked mattered, as well. Far from being the dark and dank “dens” of popular imagination and fiction, many establishments for the smoking of opium were often plush lounges catering to the discerning gentleman. Nevertheless, there was still a stigma associated with being a house of dope. Local government would periodically reinforce bans on opium dens doing any public advertising.
In official registers, many establishments obscured their real purpose of business. Because of this, it’s hard to estimate the number of opium dens in Guangzhou. Based on a variety of sources, one study counted about 500 establishments whose principal business was opium in 1924.
The majority of dens were located in the Honam District south of the river, which in the early 1930s accounted for about 1/3 of all opium dens in the city. Why south of the river? In his study Opium in the City: A Spatial Study of Guangzhou’s Opium Houses, 1923-1936, historian Xavier Paulès argues it was due to apathy of local officials. On the other hand, different interests, including the Nationalist Party, warlords, and local elites vied for control of the city, attitudes toward the suppression of opium swung wildly.
It was easy to take control of Guangzhou, but difficult to hold on to power. Better to try and regulate, tax and isolate the trade in opium. Moving the opium dens south of the river was a compromise. The trade continued, under government supervision. Historian Paulès suggests that part of the reason for relegating the dens south of the river was to shame addicts, forcing them to travel to what was then the outskirts of town for their fix.
South of the river was also already full of vice; it was one of the only areas with legalized gambling parlors. It all sounds like a recipe for a fun Saturday night of dissipation and dissolution among friends.
The drug trade in Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta continued to flourish throughout the 1930s, but in 1949, the new government of the People’s Republic of China had the power to attempt an eradication of the drug. Addicts were rounded up, dealers arrested, and poppy fields destroyed. Much of the opium production in South China then moved into Burma and Thailand.
Jeremiah Jenne is a rogue Sinoligist and free range historian; he has lived in China 13 years and runs the Chinese history, culture, and travel blog, Jottings from a Granite Studio.