Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Opium Dens of Singapore

A volume called "A Voyage to China; Including A Visit to the Bombay Presidency; The Mahratta Country; The Cave Temples of Western India, Singapore, the Straits of Malacca and Sunda, and the Cape of Good Hope." [phew!-Ed.] written by the Dr. Julius Berncastle and published in 1850, gives an account of the good Doctor taking in the streets of Singapore's Chinatown. He was fascinated by what he had heard of the vices of the opium den [who wouldn't? - Ed.] and wanted to have a look in Singapore for himself. In a city as strict on drugs as Singapore is today, these habitats are now scarcely imaginable. But he had some surprising observations:
In the Chinese quarter of the town, we entered a few opium-shops, but they were all empty, and we were told by the Chinamen to return in the evening about eight or nine, when they began to fill. Government farms out, for a fixed revenue per annum, the privilege of licensing a certain number of these opium-shops, which is a speculation to the man who takes it, and who is called the opium farmer.... At night, we returned to the opium-shops, and visited in succession ten or twelve. Each shop contains a bench about four feet broad, reaching from one end of the room to the other, on each side, leaving a passage between; these are covered with matting, for the smokers to recline upon, and have affixed to them, at equal distances between every two persons, a small lamp constantly burning, heat being required to be applied often to the pipe whilst smoking. Leading from this principal room are many smaller chambers, or recesses, concealed from view by a curtain. These contain nothing but a table and mats, upon which latter recline, out of sight, those smokers who are so far gone, that the eye would be shocked by the public exhibition of such depravity.

We met principally with common, half-naked Chinamen, of all ages, and in all the different stages of narcotism, some merely becoming gently exhilarated from their first pipe. Certainly, to speak fairly, the gin-palaces of London, half filled with women and infants, besides the other inmates, spending their last farthing in as bad a poison as opium, is a much more immoral and disgusting spectacle, occurring amongst civilsed Christians of both sexes, in the boasted capital of the civilized world; whereas this opium-smoking, which is making such a stir and shuddering amongst us unthinking people, turns out to be almost entirely confined to Pagan Chinese coolies and mechanics, adults of one sex only indulging in it, and that principally at night, when their labour is over. Many of them are not much injured by it, when not taken to excess, as their looks, and the number of years they had been addicted to it, sufficiently proved. I am not going to sanction the custom at all, but seeing much worse practices at home, we should be cautious how we blame these half-barbarous people, without religion, or the advantages of education and civilization. Let us try to reform abuses here, before we interfere with them in the East
If one can get past the imperial tone of empire, what Dr. Berncastle was advocating was actually a rather liberal view, quite ahead of his time - that there was no 'white man's burden' to shoulder here in the form of vice, efforts best concentrated on home.

His visit then further takes an unexpected turn, even after having seen some bad addicts, perhaps out of scientific curiosity:
We had looked into all the secret cabinets and recesses, and at last found one occupied by its wretched tenant. He was an elderly man, and, on being roused, looked at us with an air quite "hebete." [Meaning 'dull', or 'stupid' - Ed.] He had finished his eighth pipe, and was an opium-smoker of ten years' standing. His idiotic aspect, and emaciated, shrivelled-up frame told plainly enough that he would soon finish his miserable career.

The opium-pipe is altogether rather more than a foot in length, and has in it a small hold, about the size of a pea, where the opium is inserted. The landlord weighs for five cents a small piece of the drug, which is mixed with bang and other compounds, and has the consistence of an extract. This he fixes on the end of a steel like a knitting needle, and hands it to the smoker, who pushes it with the steel into the small hole in the pipe, and then lights it at the lamp by his side.

The smoke when inhaled is retained the same as with the hookah. "Mine host" having prepared me a pipe, I took a few whiffs, and did not find it unpleasant, nor produce any effect on me, but a few more probably would have done so, and I did not wish to be in a state of narcotism during the short space of time I had to spend at Singapore. The Chinamen in attendance at all these places were very civil and obliging. They gave us tea, without milk or sugar, in little cups about the size of an egg-cup.

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