Opium To London: Pictures From The Science Museum

| 06 July 2007
painting shows recumbent man taking drugs

Painting of a man in an opium den. Courtesy of the Science Museum.

Jonathan Chan has uncovered rare pictures of the Chinese opium scene in East London.

Here he describes the chain of events that spread opium around the world, before telling the story of Ah Sing, whose den was one of the best known in London

How Britain brought opium to China

The story of how opium was forever associated with the Chinese, can be explained by trade in the eighteenth-century and the two Opium wars. In the latter half of the eighteenth-century, the Qing regime in China, was subjected to increasing pressures from European governments to open up to foreign trade. Britain was among the leading nations trading European products and technologies to China, in exchange for Chinese goods such as tea and silk. But it was one particular export that was to become controversial and later led to great hostility between the two governments - opium.

Despite this association with the Chinese, opium had historically been brought over from outside China. The earliest records of opium date back some 5000 years ago, in the Middle East; coming to China with Arab traders in 400AD. In fact, it was only the British and other European powers that traded opium to any great degree.

With India under British rule, the British were able to export vast amounts of opium to China, where it had become increasingly popular as a recreational drug. It was an important commodity to balance the trade deficit caused by Britain's own addiction to tea. But the effects of the drug, soon took its toll on the Chinese populous. Opium was prohibited and the import of the drug banned in 1838. The British reacted by declaring war. Only after losing two wars between 1839 and 1860 did China cede to foreign intervention and reluctantly allow opium use.

sepia photo shows two chinese ladies in bare room with table

Outside Ah Sing's opium den. Courtesy of the Science Museum.

How China brought opium to Britain

The Chinese have a long history of migrating to all parts of the world, in particularly to North American and to Europe. The Chinese immigrants to London often arrived in the East London ports by boat, such as the Blue Funnel Line. Most of them would have been seamen, and many would have settled in only a few select streets.

Despite xenophobic writings suggesting that there were huge numbers settling, the population of the Chinese community in England and Wales barely numbered a few hundred. When jobs on the docks and on boats dried up, many Chinese turned to other businesses, such as the restaurants or laundries.

Yet despite the seemingly humble occupations of the Chinese community, the Chinese gained an undeserved reputation spurred by literature and hearsay, of a dark and sinister underworld lurking in the east of London. Central to these myths were a handful of opium dens. A character from Charles Dickens' last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) sets the scene:

'O my poor head! I makes my pipes of old penny ink-bottles, ye see, deary - this is one - and I fits-in a mouthpiece, this way, and I takes my mixter out of this thimble with this little horn spoon; and so I fills, deary. Ah, my poor nerves!'

Dickens is famous for his portrayal and caricature of nineteenth-century London. So it is significant that he has immortalised this opium den in east London, identifying it as part of the fabric-weave of the Victorian city.

Ah Sing's Opium Den In Pictures

The establishment 'run by the Chinaman' described in Edwin Drood, was a based on a real opium den. It was run by Ah Sing, or John Johnston as he was known to his clients, an immigrant from Amoy in China.

A photograph held at the Science Museum shows two Chinese women outside his opium den. Ah Sing was a smoker himself and it was claimed that only he had the 'true secret of mixing opium... with an eye to business'. His secret evidently brought him much success, as his den was frequented by the local Chinese sailors on a break from working on the ships, but also others.

Ah Sing's opium den was probably the most famous of the dens in Victorian London. It was reported that some of the literary elite of the time including Arthur Conan Doyle and Dickens himself visited the area, although whether they themselves took up the 'pipe' has remained undisclosed.

When the small number of opium dens gradually declined in London, following crackdowns from the authorities, individuals like Ah Sing were forced to move from their properties, and had to find alternative ways of making a living. In his latter days, it was said that he continued to smoke, despite finding religion.

He did eventually manage to give up opium smoking, though only days before he died around 1890, aged 64. He is now buried in Bow Cemetery.

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