Saturday, 17 January 2009

Immigrants in Colonial Malaya and Borneo: a pictorial account (4)

Opium and the Chinese Coolies in Malaya

Historians have argued that the harsh conditions of work in the tin mines and farms, the tropical heat, debilitating diseases and malnutrition had driven many coolies to seek succour in opium. But it is also probable that many who had left China were themselves already addicts. On the other hand, others have argued that opium fortified them with the energy and strength to endure pain, loneliness and back-breaking work. It was used as a cure for dysentery and fever from Malaria. Many coolies abandoned the tin mines when the supply of opium ran out as they could not work without opium. Whatever the rationalization, the opium trade was a significant contributor to the Malayan economy and made the Colonial business houses and Kapitans China tremendously rich. The kapitans, through kongsis, not only controlled the supply and sale of opium and spirits, but also the gambling dens and the suppy of daily necessities of the coolies , which kept the coolies perpetually in debt.

By the time the coolies came over, millions of Chinese in the mainland were already addicted to opium.

Workers in India processing opium for export to China and the British colonies

By 1885, China herself was already cultivating the poppy to meet burgeoning domestic demands
(Source: Peter Lee: Opium Culture)

Just as people of the west would meet in pubs for their regular doses of beer or liquor, the Chinese would meet in opium dens for their fix (Source: The social life of opium in China by Zheng Yangwen)

Smoking had become a means of hospitality offered to friends, colleagues and guests
(Source: Zheng Yangwen)

The rich of course had the pleasure of ladies attending to their smoking needs in lavish surrounding

(Source: Zheng Yangwen)

The culture of opium smoking had spawn a demand for a class of women well-versed in the art of preparing opium and pipes for their clients. They would also join their clients in the habit (source: Opium Culture: the art and ritual of Chinese tradition by Peter Lee)

For the rich, they had the purest opium and their utensils exquisitely crafted to indulge in the habit. Seen here is a gold plated lamp, black lacquered pipe and other paraphernalia
(source: Opium Culture: the art and ritual of Chinese tradition by Peter Lee)

Pipes with tips of ivory and jade
(Source: Zheng Yangwen)

Pipes with saddles of wrought silver
(Source: Zheng Yangwen)

The opium bowls. Two bowls (below left) shaped in the form of a lady's "golden lotus" ( bound feet, considered to be intensely erotic in the early Qing Dynasty)
(Source: Zheng Yangwen)

James Lee's description of an opium den for the poor in Shanghai ("The Underworld of the East). For the poor, the ultimate reward after daily toil was to smoke a pipe of the lowest grade opium while lying on a coarse mat in a roadside den
(Source: Peter Lee: Opium Culture)

John Blofeld's description of an opium den, Te I Lou in Beijing for the wealthy ("The City of Lingering Splendour" from Peter Lee)

Opium smokers in South East Asia in the early 2oth century

Arguments on why opium was beneficial to both the suppliers and consumers

The Empress Dowager Ci Xi of China's last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, was an opium smoker herself.

The Chinese called opium "Da yen" or "great smoke" and the pipe "Yen chiang" or "smoking gun". Pretty apt description I must say.


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