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An opium den was an establishment where opium was sold and smoked. Opium dens were prevalent in many parts of the world in the 19th century, most notably China, Southeast Asia, North America and France. Throughout the West, opium dens were frequented by and associated with the Chinese, because the establishments were usually run by Chinese who supplied the opium as well as prepared it for visiting non-Chinese smokers. Most opium dens kept a supply of opium paraphernalia such as the specialized pipes and lamps that were necessary to smoke the drug. Patrons would recline in order to hold the long opium pipes over oil lamps that would heat the drug until it vaporized, allowing the smoker to inhale the vapors. Opium dens in China were frequented by all levels of society, and their opulence or simplicity reflected the financial means of the patrons. In urban areas of the United States, particularly on the West Coast, there were opium dens that mirrored the best to be found in China, with luxurious trappings and female attendants. For the working class, there were also many low-end dens with sparse furnishings. These latter dens were more likely to admit non-Chinese smokers.
Opium smoking arrived in North America with the large influx of Chinese who came to participate in the California Gold Rush. The jumping-off point for the gold fields was San Francisco, and the city's Chinatown became the site of numerous opium dens soon after the first Chinese arrived around 1850. By the 1870s, San Francisco's opium dens attracted non-Chinese residents, and the problem of opium addiction was acknowledged by the city at large. In 1878, the city of San Francisco passed its first anti-opium ordinance. In the early 20th century, huge bonfires, fueled by confiscated opium and opium paraphernalia, were used to destroy opium and create a public venue to discuss opium use. Due to opium-eradication campaigns, smoking opium was driven underground and was still fairly common in San Francisco and other cities in North America until around World War II. A typical opium den in San Francisco might be a Chinese-run laundry that had a basement, back room, or upstairs room that was tightly sealed to keep drafts from making the opium lamps flicker or allowing the tell-tale fumes of opium to escape. A photograph of one luxurious opium den in 19th-century San Francisco has survived, taken by I. W. Taber in 1886, but the majority of the city's wealthy opium smokers, both Chinese and American, shunned public opium dens in favor of smoking in the privacy of their own homes.
The opium dens of New York City's Chinatown, due to its geographical distance from China, were not as opulent as some of those to be found on the American West Coast. According to H. H. Kane, a doctor who spent years studying opium use in New York in the 1870s and 1880s, the most popular opium dens (or "opium joints" as they were known in the parlance of the day) were located on Mott and Pell streets in what is still Manhattan's Chinatown. At the time, all the city's opium dens were run by Chinese, except for one on 23rd Street that was run by an American woman and her two daughters. Kane remarked that New York's opium dens were one place "where all nationalities seem indiscriminately mixed". As in San Francisco, New Yorkers of all races would come to Chinatown to patronize its opium dens. New York City's last known opium den was raided and shut down on June 28, 1957.
Chinese immigrants first established Chinatowns in Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia, and here too, opium dens were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When the city of San Francisco began taxing imported opium for smoking, the trade was diverted to Victoria, and, from there, much of the opium was smuggled south into the United States. However, a fair amount of opium was consumed in the opium dens to be found in the Chinatowns of Victoria and Vancouver. The latter city's "Shanghai Alley" was known for its rustic opium dens. As in the United States, non-Chinese often frequented the Chinese-run opium dens in Canadian Chinatowns.
Unlike the opium-smoking scene in North American cities, opium smoking in France was introduced for the most part by French expatriates returning home from stints in their Indochinese colonies. By the early 20th century, there were numerous opium dens in France's port cities, particularly Toulon, Marseille and Hyères.
Victorian London's reputation as a centre of opium smoking is quite unjustified and testifies to the power of literary fiction over historical fact. The London press, along with popular British authors of the day, were fond of portraying London's Limehouse district as an opium-drenched pit of danger and mystery. In fact, London's Chinese population never exceeded the low hundreds, in large contrast to the tens of thousands of Chinese who settled in North American Chinatowns. Yet, upon this tiny community was heaped notoriety for opium-induced sordidness and debauchery—the sole intent of which was to titillate and shock British readers. Interestingly, scholars have yet to unearth a single historical photograph of opium smokers in London—in marked contrast to the relative abundance of period photos depicting smokers in the United States, Canada and France.
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