Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Opium smoking in China and in Sibu

Opium smoking is not foreign to the Tiong family. Grandfather's only brother died prematurely and untimely because of it.

He was an opium addict from a young age and he caught it when he was still growing up in China. At that time, the Imperial Court of China was totally against opium smoking.

Perhaps I would like to refresh your history on Chinese opium smoking here.

After China lost in the Opium Wars to Britain and its ally, Frnace, it was forced to tolerate the opium trade and sign Unequal Treaties opening several ports to foreign trade and yielding Hong Kong to Britain. Several countries followed Britain and forced unequal terms of trade onto China. This humiliation at the hand of foreign powers contributed to the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), to the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) and to the eventual downfall of the Qing Dynasty (1911).

Thus for a few hundred years, the black curse of opium actually ate away the strength and soul of the Chinese and empowered the foreign merchants and politicians to gain a great foothold on Chinese land and eventually brought down a 400 year old dynasty.

The arrival of the first European influence in Asia was reckoned as the direct maritime trade between Europe and China (without Arab intermediaries) which started in the 16th century, after the Portuguese established the settlement of Goa in India, and shortly thereafter that of Macau in southern China. After Spanish acquisition of the Philippines, the pace of exchange between China and the West accelerated dramatically. Manila galleons brought in far more silver to China than the ancient land route in interior Asia (the Silk Road). The Qing government attempted to limit contact with the outside world to a minimum for reasons of internal control. The Qing only allowed trade through the port of Canton (now Guangzhou). Severe red-tape and licensed monopolies were set up to restrict the trade flow. The results were high retail prices for imported goods and consequently limited demand for such goods. In order to prevent a trade deficit, Spain began to sell opium to the Chinese, along with New World products such as tobacco and corn.

As a result of high demand for tea, silk and porcelain in Britain and the low demand for British commodities in China, Britain had a large trade deficit with China and had to pay for these goods with silver. In an attempt to balance its trade deficit Britain began illegally exporting opium to China from British India in the 18th century. The opium trade took off rapidly, and the silver flow began to reverse. The sale and smoking of opium had been prohibited in 1729 by the Yongzheng Emperor because of the large number of addicts.

The growth of the opium trade

Opium destructionAfter Britain had conquered Bengal in the Battle of Plassey (1757), the British East India Company pursued a monopoly on production and export of opium in India.

In 1773, the Governor-General of Bengal pursued the monopoly on the sale of opium in earnest, and abolished the old opium syndicate at Patna. For the next 50 years, opium would be key to the East India Company's hold on India. Importation of opium into China was against Chinese law (although China did produce a small quantity domestically). Thus, the British East India Company would buy tea in Canton on credit, carrying no opium, but would instead sell opium at the auctions in Calcutta. Eventually, the opium would be smuggled to China. In 1797, the company ended the role of local Bengal purchasing agents and instituted the direct sale of opium to the company by farmers.

British exports of opium to China skyrocketed from an estimated 15 tons in 1730, to 75 tons in 1773, shipped in over two thousand "chests", each containing 140 pounds (64 kg) of opium.

Thus, in 1799, the Chinese Empire again banned opium imports. Shortly after, in 1810, the Empire issued an official decree:

Opium has a harm. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality. Its use is prohibited by law. Now the commoner, Yang, dares to bring it into the Forbidden City. Indeed, he flouts the law!
However, recently the purchases, eaters, and consumers of opium have become numerous. Deceitful merchants buy and sell it to gain profit. The customs house at the Ch'ung-wen Gate was originally set up to supervise the collection of imports (it had no responsibility with regard to opium smuggling). If we confine our search for opium to the seaports, we fear the search will not be sufficiently thorough. We should also order the general commandant of the police and police- censors at the five gates to prohibit opium and to search for it at all gates. If they capture any violators, they should immediately punish them and should destroy the opium at once. As to Kwangtung and Fukien, the provinces from which opium comes, we order their viceroys, governors, and superintendents of the maritime customs to conduct a thorough search for opium, and cut off its supply. They should in no ways consider this order a dead letter and allow opium to be smuggled out!
(Lo-shu Fu, A Documentary Chronicle of Sino-Western relations, Vol. 1 (1966), page 380)

The decree had little effect since the Qing government was located in Beijing, in the north. However, the merchants smuggled opium into China from the south. This, along with the addictive properties of the drug, the desire for more profit by the British East India Company (which had been granted a monopoly on trade with China by the British government), and the fact that Britain wanted silver (see gold standard) only further developed the opium trade. By the 1820s, 900 tons of opium per year came into China from Bengal.

From the Napier Affair through the First Opium War (1834–1843)

Lin Zexu's "memorial" (摺奏) written directly to Queen VictoriaMain article: First Opium War
In 1834, to accommodate the revocation of the East India Company's monopoly, the British sent Lord Napier to Macao. He attempted to circumvent the restrictive Canton Trade laws, which forbade direct contact with Chinese officials, and was turned away by the governor of Macao, who promptly closed trade starting on September 2 of that year. The British were not yet ready to force the matter, and agreed to resume trade under the old restrictions, even though Lord Napier implored them to force open the port.

Within the Chinese mandarinate, there was an ongoing debate over legalizing the opium trade itself. However, this idea was repeatedly rejected and instead, in 1838, the government decided to sentence native drug traffickers to death. Around this time, the British were selling roughly 1,400 tons per year to China. In March of 1839, the Emperor appointed a new strict Confucianist commissioner, Lin Zexu to control the opium trade at the port of Canton. His first course of action was to enforce the imperial demand that there be a permanent halt to drug shipments into China. When the British refused to end the trade, Lin imposed a trade embargo on the British. On March 27, 1839, Charles Elliot, British Superintendent of Trade, demanded that all British subjects turn over their opium to him, to be confiscated by Commissioner Lin Zexu, amounting to nearly a year's supply of the drug. After the opium was surrendered, trade was restarted on the strict condition that no more drugs would be smuggled into China. Lin demanded that British merchants had to sign a bond promising not to deal in opium under penalty of death.[2] The British officially opposed signing of the bond, but some British merchants that did not deal in opium were willing to sign. Lin then disposed of the opium by dissolving it with water, salt and lime and dumping it into the ocean.

In 1839, Lin (who was still of the opinion that the "real" British were capable of moral excellence and virtuous conduct) took the extraordinary step of presenting a "memorial" (摺奏) directly to Queen Victoria questioning the moral reasoning of the royal government. Citing the strict prohibition of the opium trade within England, Ireland, and Scotland, Lin questioned how Britain could then profit from the drug in China. He also wrote:"Your Majesty has not before been thus officially notified, and you may plead ignorance of the severity of our laws, but I now give my assurance that we mean to cut this harmful drug forever.". Contrary to the accepted Chinese bureaucratic etiquette, though which such missives directly engaged the Emperor, Lin's memorial was never accorded a response.[3]

The British government and merchants offered no response to Lin's moral questions. Instead, they accused Lin of destroying their private property. The British then responded by sending a large British Indian army, which arrived in June of 1840.[4]

British military superiority was clearly evident during the armed conflict. British warships wreaked havoc on coastal towns. In addition, the British troops, armed with modern muskets and cannons, greatly outpowered the Qing forces. After the British took Canton, they sailed up the Yangtze and took the tax barges. This was a devastating blow to the Empire since it slashed the revenue of the imperial court in Beijing to just a small fraction.

In 1842, the Qing authorities sued for peace, which concluded with the Treaty of Nanking negotiated in August of that year and ratified in 1843. In the treaty, China was forced to pay an indemnity to Britain and agreed to open five ports to Britain, ceded Hong Kong to Queen Victoria and granted. In the supplementary Treaty of the Bogue, the Qing empire also granted Britain most favored nation treatment and gave British subjects extraterritorial privileges in the treaty ports. In 1844, the United States and France also concluded similar treaties with China, the Treaty of Wanghia and Treaty of Whampoa respectively.

[edit] Second Opium War (1856-1860)
Main article: Second Opium War
The Second Opium War, or Arrow War, broke out following an incident in which Chinese officials boarded a vessel near the port of Whampoa, the Arrow in October 1856. Arrow was owned by a Chinese privateer. The Chinese owner registered the vessel with the British authorities in Hong Kong with the purpose of making privateering easier. He received a one year permit from the Hong Kong authorities, but it had already expired when inspected by the Chinese officials who boarded the vessel. The crew of the Arrow were accused of piracy and smuggling, and were arrested. In response, the British consulate in Guangzhou insisted that Arrow was a British vessel. The British accused the Chinese officials of tearing down and insulting the British flag during inspection. The Second Opium War was started when British forces attacked Guangzhou in 1856.

French forces joined the British intervention after a French missionary Auguste Chapdelaine was killed by a local mandarin in China. Other nations became involved diplomatically although they didn't provide military personnel.

The Treaty of Tientsin was created in July 1858, but was not ratified by China until two years later; this would prove to be a very important document in China's early modern history, as it was one of the primary unequal treaties.

Hostilities broke out once more in 1859, after China refused the establishment of a British embassy in Beijing, which had been promised by the Treaty of Tientsin. Fighting erupted in Hong Kong, and in Beijing, where the British set fire to the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace after considerable looting took place.

In 1860, at the Convention of Peking, China ratified the Treaty of Tientsin, ending the war, legalizing the import of opium, and granting a number of privileges to British (and other Western) subjects within China.

Having read all this background information you would have a clearer picture why the Chinese were adamantly anti-opium smoking but because many had already formed the habit of opium smoking they suffered a great deal, which eventually caused their death.

Sibu was not totally immune from opium smoking. Some how the Brooke and later the colonial government were quite tolerant about it as one could derive from the two special opium dens found in Market Street and Blacksmith Road.

As small children we were told that the terrible smell came from the opium smoke from upstairs whenever we went to the market.

One morning I went to visit my cousin who was a barber along Market Street. In our innocence and naughtiness another cousin and I challenged each other to have a peep at the opium den. We had long been told not to think about opium. She and I managed to climb the rickety wooden stair case and looked into a huge room which was partially dark but smoky and smelly. We had entered the Opium Den to have a peep at the Opium Kui (Opium Addicts)! With our heart beating, hands sweating and our temples throbbing, we took in the scenario. Against the morning sunlight, I could see smoke twirling up in the room with only one very very old man lying down on the huge day opium bed as we called it. There was a small lamp next to him. His pillow was the traditional bamboo block from China. He had a long pipe in his right hand and one of his very thin legs was folded at ninety degrees to his other leg. He was clad in Chinese pajama bottoms only. He was definitely drumming on his thigh happily and having hallucinations. We stayed for just about a long and minute which seemed to be eternity to me , to absorb this horrible sight and then ran all the way to my cousin's shop. I believe I stopped breathing then because I had just witnessed an "illegal " deed. My heart was literally in my mouth.

My cool cousin just looked at us and said,"What is there to see? Bad, bad, use, no use....waste,waste" And he shook his head. He did not say anything else. I suppose his response was a kind of hopelessness towards addiction.

In my youthfulness I could not imagine myself wasting away like that, with a pipe in hand and spindy legs sticking out from pajamas...Perhaps that scene helps me become a strong woman not to touch opium or any drug at all.

The need to be frugal also helped many of us girls not to learn smoking, drinking and gambling. And for that I am terribly grateful to my elders for teaching me well.

So thanks to all my aunties, uncles, grandpa Kung Ping, grandma Siew and all my cousins and relatives of Sibu.

2 memories:

pck said...

The Opium Wars were waged by the then powerful British Empire to force the Chinese to trade their tea, silk and porcelain with opium from India. The immoral wars have taught China a very painful lesson. One government may have high moral principles and international laws on its side. These do not count for anything if it gets in the way of interests which have the backing of a more powerful government. The British won the opium wars, but they also won a place in history as the greatest drug pushers ever known to mankind.
As a little kid, I was also adventurous enough to venture into the opium den in Market Street not only once, but many times. I remember it was operated by an elderly Hokkien lady, who always dressed in Nyonya attire and had a young daughter. To read on the internet that someone did exactly what I did some forty or fifty years ago is just fascinating and unbelievable!

Merry X’mas & A Happy New Year

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Dear Ikan Sembilan,
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. It is wonderful to be able to share something in the past with someone who perhaps not at the same material time, had the same "spirit of wonder" to venture up an opium den.

The smell of the den cannot be erased from my mind. My nose is like a chemist's. I can identify that opium smell any where. Just a whiff and I would remember all the opium smoking of the past days.

But I am afraid I do not remember the Nyonya and her daughter. But I remember one old opium smoker who was related to me and was part time care taker of one of the dens...I have always wondered where the day beds went to...they would be really great antiques now.

I like you statement. "the British remained the biggest drug pushers in history/" I totally agree with you.

Do drop by again.



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