James Greenwood: An Opium Smoke in Tiger Bay

From the Book "In Strange Com­pa­ny: Being the Experiences of a Roving Correspondent", 1874


HE per­son who would enjoy the in­ex­press­ible treat at­ten­dant on the smok­ing of a gen­uine and unadul­ter­at­ed pipe of opium must make a pil­grim­age for it. He must, for the time di­vest him­self of all gen­teel scru­ples and every shade of civ­i­lized fas­tid­i­ous­ness, and ap­proach the mys­tic shrine un­con­spic­u­ous among the hum­blest of the throng of opium wor­ship­pers. The main dif­fi­cul­ty is to dis­cov­er the where­abouts of the shrine. "It is the only es­tab­lish­ment of the sort," a friend in­formed me; "there is scarce­ly a sailor hail­ing from the East who does not, so soon as he touch­es at a Thames port, has­ten there at once to grat­i­fy his pent-up hunger for opium. The place is pa­tro­n­ised, be­sides, by many dis­tin­guished mem­bers of the no­bil­i­ty and aris­toc­ra­cy of Great Britain and it is ru­moured even that Roy­al­ty it­self has con­de­scend­ed to visit the opi­um-mas­ter in his mod­est re­treat."

Hear­ing this, and learn­ing that Shad­well was the re­gion hon­oured by the res­i­dence of so fa­mous a per­son­age, I had no doubt that I should be able to find him eas­i­ly enough but my friend deemed it pru­dent to give me a few more ex­plic­it di­rec­tions : "There are two ways of ar­riv­ing at. the opi­um-mas­ter's house," he said. "One is to make for High Street, Shad­well, and keep along till you spy a tav­ern, the sign of which is the Hoop and Grapes; next to it is an­oth­er tav­ern, the Gun­boat, and op­po­site is an­oth­er, the Gold­en Eagle; while with­in range of a pea-shoot­er are three other tav­erns, the Home of Friend­ship, the Lord Lovat, and the Baltic — and the last-men­tioned is at the cor­ner of the very street. Or you may go an­oth­er way, down Cable Street, till you ar­rive at a not par­tic­u­lar invit­ing-look­ing thor­ough­fare, on a cor­ner of which is in­scribed 'To Re­hoboth Chapel.' From the end of this street you make out a dingy-look­ing lit­tle pub­lic house, called the Coal Whip­per's Arms. The opium mas­ter's house is just handy — up a court."

Tiger Bay — or, more prop­er­ly speak­ing, Blue Gate fields — has been so often de­scribed that it will be need­less here to say more re­spect­ing it than that it is as tiger­ish as ever; that the dens to which, every night of the year, drunk­en sailors are be­trayed, swarm and flour­ish open­ly and de­fi­ant­ly in spite of the po­lice. I dis­cov­ered that my friend, in de­scrib­ing the street that re­joiced in a Re­hoboth Chapel and a Coal Whip­pers' Arms as "not par­tic­u­lar­ly invit­ing," had done it, no in­jus­tice. It is in the very heart of the Bay, and from end to end it pre­sents an un­bro­ken scene of vice and de­prav­i­ty of the most hideous sort. Al­most every house is one of "ill fame." It was not quite late enough for the ti­gress­es to make them­selves sleek and trim, prepara­to­ry to going on their cus­tom­ary prowl through their hunt­ing ground; and there they sat, or lolled, or squat­ted at their doors, blear-eyed and tou­zle-haired from last night's de­bauch. There, too, lounged, and smoked short pipes, and drank out of tav­ern mea­sures the con­ve­nient, rest­ing-place of which was the win­dow sills, the males of the tribe — the thieves and bul­lies, who, quiet enough now, would be wide awake and ready to show their qual­i­ty when dark came, and the tav­ern gas was flar­ing. It was some­what dis­cour­ag­ing to find the mys­tic tree of ce­les­tial so­lace plant­ed in such un­promis­ing soil; but I com­fort­ed my­self with the re­flec­tion that doubt­less the east­ern splen­dour of the opi­um-mas­ter's abode would shine the more bril­liant­ly for the shab­by set­ting. I en­tered the lit­tle pub­lic house, and, in­quir­ing of the bar­maid — who, all among the pots and glass­es, and in fair view of sev­er­al cus­tomers, was "chang­ing her frock" as cool­ly as if she were in her pri­vate cham­ber — I was at once di­rect­ed to the court where the opi­um-mas­ter resid­ed. An awful lit­tle court it was, with a nar­row arched entry, and preg­nant with the pe­cu­liar odour of ne­glect­ed gut­ters. The hous­es of the court were of three rooms and a wash­house order; and, as di­rect­ed, I ap­plied at the third house of the left hand row.

There was no one at home but the opi­um-mas­ter's wife; but as she is En­glish, I ex­pe­ri­enced no dif­fi­cul­ty in mak­ing known to her my de­sire. She ex­hib­it­ed not the least amaze­ment that one of her own coun­try­men should have a crav­ing after the ce­les­tial lux­u­ry.

"I 'spect it wont be long be­fore he's back," said she; "will you call again in a lit­tle while, or will you come up?"

"I will stay till he comes in, if you have no ob­jec­tion," said I; where­upon she shut the outer door, and toiled slow­ly, like a per­son who is very ill, up the nar­row filthy lit­tle stair­case. I fol­lowed her. There were not many stairs, but she mount­ed them so slow­ly that I had ample op­por­tu­ni­ty, ere we reached the mys­tic cham­ber, of mak­ing my­self ac­quaint­ed with the smell of that which, if all went well, I should present­ly enjoy the fe­lic­i­ty of tast­ing.

I can­not say that the odour was ap­pe­tiz­ing. The filthy lit­tle house seemed full of some sub­tle sick­en­ing essence lurk­ing on the stairs and under the stairs, and as­cend­ing in in­vis­i­ble vapours through the many chinks and holes in the rot­ten wood­work. It seemed like­wise to lie on the handrail in the form of a fine dust, that in­stant­ly melt­ed to some loath­some mois­ture the mo­ment the hand was laid on it.. There was a win­dow, ei­ther open or bro­ken, some­where over head, as I could tell by the down­ward draught; but this was not an un­mit­i­gat­ed ad­van­tage, for it stirred the dull lead­en-look­ing hair on the woman's head, and the sick­en­ing odour was in­stant­ly and un­mis­tak­ably in­creased. I have been since en­deav­our­ing to de­cide to what other fa­mil­iar smell or min­gling of smells the odour in ques­tion might best be likened, but not yet suc­cess­ful­ly. Trea­cle melt­ed with glue over an open fire, and flavoured with singe­ing horse-hoof in a far­ri­er's, might be some­thing like it; but after all the com­par­i­son is fee­ble. Ar­rived at a land­ing, the opi­um-mas­ter's wife pushed open a door. "Come in and take a cheer, sir," she said, po­lite­ly.

I went in, and un­less I out­live mem­o­ry I shall never for­get the strange spec­ta­cle that was re­vealed. The room, at a rough guess, may have been eleven feet long and nine wide. An aw­ful­ly di­lap­i­dat­ed lit­tle den, the much-be­grimed ceil­ing patched with rain leak­age, and bro­ken here and there, so that the laths were vis­i­ble; the walls black with smoke and grease; the shat­tered upper panes of the foul lit­tle win­dow plas­tered with brown paper. There was a bed­stead in the room — a bed­stead so large that there was left but a yard or so of space be­tween it and the fire-place — a "four-poster," amply hung about with some kind of flim­sy ma­te­ri­al, the orig­i­nal colour of which it is im­pos­si­ble to guess. But the bed­ding was more re­mark­able than the bed-stead; for the bed was "made" the wrong way — across the length of the bed­stead in­stead of its width, with a long bol­ster; and it was cov­ered, in­stead of a coun­ter­pane, with a huge breadth of fine Chi­nese mat­ting. A table and three chairs, if I re­mem­ber right­ly, con­sti­tut­ed the re­main­der of the fur­ni­ture in the opi­um-mas­ter's smok­ing-sa­loon, with a few gaudy prints on the walls, and the man­telshelf crowd­ed with or­na­ments, ev­i­dent­ly of Ori­en­tal ori­gin.

Hav­ing sur­veyed the fur­ni­ture, I was at lib­er­ty to con­tem­plate the opi­um-mas­ter's wife. I have said that she was En­glish, but it was only by her speech that her na­tion­al­i­ty could be so read­i­ly de­cid­ed. A small lean woman, with such a mar­vel­lous graft­ing of Chi­nese about her, that her cot­ton gown of En­glish cut seemed to hang quite awk­ward­ly on her sharp shoul­ders. Her skin was dusky yel­low, and tight­ly drawn at the nos­trils and the cheek bones; and ev­i­dent­ly she had, since her mar­riage, taken such a thor­ough­ly Chi­nese view of life, that her or­gans of vi­sion were fast los­ing their Eu­ro­pean shape, and as­sum­ing that which co­in­cid­ed with her adopt­ed na­ture. She was very ill, poor woman. It was killing her, she said, this con­stant breath­ing of the fumes of the sub­tle drug her hus­band dealt in. She didn't mind it, she had grown used to it, but it "told on her," and lodged in her chest, and gave her a cough.

"You mean that it is the smoke from your cus­tomers' pipes that af­fects you," I re­marked.

"There is no smoke from the pipes, it's too pre­cious for that," replied the woman. "No­body ought to smoke opium — no­body knows how to smoke opium — who is as waste­ful as that." And she ac­com­pa­nied the se­vere ob­ser­va­tion with a shake of her head, and a glance that be­to­kened her fath­om­less pity for a per­son in my be­night­ed con­di­tion.

"Then how do the fumes, or the smoke, or what­ev­er it is, get into your throat, ma'am ?" I en­quired, humbly.

"It's the prepar­ing of it chiefly," said she, "which I'd bet­ter be doing now, if you have no ob­jec­tion."

On the con­trary, I was but too grate­ful for the op­por­tu­ni­ty of wit­ness­ing such a mys­tery. I was present­ly amazed, too, as well as thank­ful; for, drop­ping on her hands and knees, she crawled a lit­tle way under the bed­stead, and again emerged with a saucepan — a com­mon iron saucepan, ca­pa­ble of hold­ing per­haps two quarts. This was a painful stab at my rev­er­ence for opium. Had I seen a ves­sel of an­cient porce­lain, or even a brazen pip­kin, it would not have been so shock­ing; but a vul­gar, smut­ty pot, such as pota­toes are boiled in! I began to have doubts lest, after all, I had come to the wrong shop; but a search­ing ques­tion soon drew out clear ev­i­dence that I had been pre­ced­ed in my visit by the il­lus­tri­ous trav­ellers of whom I had heard. The woman placed the saucepan with the water in it on the fire, and then pro­ceed­ed to fix on the mouth of it a sort of lit­tle sieve, the fine­ly-wo­ven mesh­es of which hung into the water. Then she shred­ded some cake opium, as sailors shred Cavendish for smok­ing, placed it on the sieve, and put on the brew to sim­mer.

I made no re­mark, for fear lest a fur­ther ex­po­sure of my ig­no­rance might turn pity to down­right con­tempt; but a light dawned on me. This was the se­cret of my fail­ures with the opium pipe! I had pro­cured the very best sort from the drug­gists, and filled with it the most freely-draw­ing of meer­schaums, but nau­sea had been the only re­sult. I had been guilty of the gross bar­barism of tak­ing my opium raw! It should be cooked-stewed in the man­ner that I have de­scribed; then the essence fil­ters through the sieve, and falls to the bot­tom of the pot in the form of thin­nish trea­cle, while what re­mains in the sieve is of no more ac­count than com­mon tea-leaves. The brew re­quired some care, how­ev­er; and, as I con­tem­plat­ed the poor woman with her head over the pot stir­ring and knead­ing, I could un­der­stand how it hap­pened that so much of the nox­ious fume got into her hair as well as her chest.

After a while the sound of as­cend­ing foot­steps was heard on the stairs, and the next mo­ment the door was opened. "Here he is! I thought he wouldn't be long," said the woman. It was the opi­um-mas­ter; and he has brought home with him two cus­tomers of his own na­tion. Once again was I doomed to dis­ap­point­ment. I had pic­tured to my­self an in­di­vid­u­al of com­mand­ing as­pect, rich­ly cos­tumed as a man­darin; but here came a shab­by, sham­bling, mid­dle-aged Chi­na­man into whose ap­par­el, if I mis­take not, vul­gar cor­duroy en­tered, and who wore his pig­tail over a sort of sta­ble­man 's smock. He had on Chi­nese boots, how­ev­er, and a Chi­nese cap, which, on see­ing me, he re­moved, bow­ing with great cor­dial­i­ty and po­lite­ness, as grace­ful­ly as his lame leg would per­mit. He looked at his wife in­quir­ing­ly, and ut­tered the word "Smoke?" and, on her nod­ding af­fir­ma­tive­ly, he again bowed and rubbed his dirty hands, and turned with what I knew from its tone to be a whis­per of apol­o­gy to his two friends.

It was plain that he was ex­plain­ing to them that prob­a­bly I had been wait­ing some time, and it would be no more than cour­te­ous to let me have my pipe at once. But they were of no mind to be put off. They were dirty, sav­age-look­ing vil­lains, ev­i­dent­ly fresh from ship-board, and sore­ly itch­ing for an "opium drunk." They wore knives at their waist­bands, and their very pig­tails seemed to stiff­en in anger as they scowled on me. I has­tened at once to de­clare that I was not in the least hurry, and would give up my turn quite cheer­ful­ly. They knew noth­ing of En­glish, but the mas­ter did, and in his quaint clipped lingo thanked me, at the same time ex­plain­ing that he pos­sessed but two opium pipes, else we could all have been served at one and the same time. This lit­tle dif­fi­cul­ty smoothed, the two dirty Chi­na­men, re­stored to good-hu­mour, flung off their caps and leaped upon the bed with the agili­ty and ea­ger­ness of cats bent on steal­ing fish from a dress­er. They curled down on the mat coun­ter­pane, about three feet apart, and mowed and grinned at each other as they wrig­gled into a per­fect­ly com­fort­able po­si­tion, with their heads on the bol­ster.

Then, with much grav­i­ty, the opi­um-mas­ter com­menced op­er­a­tions. Out, of a cup­board he pro­duced his tools — the two pipes, a sort of a tin­der-box of the old-fash­ioned pat­tern, a slen­der iron bod­kin fixed in a lit­tle han­dle, and a small brass lamp. The pipes were not a bit like or­di­nary to­bac­co pipes. Let the read­er imag­ine a six­teen inch length of dark-coloured bam­boo, as thick as a man's fore­fin­ger, hol­low, and open at one end. There was no "mouth-piece," ex­cept the wide, open bore: while, at the closed end, an inch or so from the ex­trem­i­ty, was a screw hole. Into this was screwed the tiny bowl, made, I think of iron, and shaped like a pi­geon's egg. The opi­um-mas­ter lit the lit­tle brass lamp, and step­ping up on the bed, squat­ted tai­lor­wise be­tween his cus­tomers, with his tools ready at hand. The thing like a tin­der box con­tained the opium, but it was not, even after the stew­ing it had un­der­gone, as yet ready for smok­ing; it had to be friz­zled. It seemed to be about the con­sis­ten­cy of trea­cle, and dip­ping in the tip of the bod­kin, he twad­dled it round till he had se­cured a piece as large as a com­mon grey pea. This he held in the flame of the lamp till it was done to his lik­ing.

Then he clapped the pre­cious morsel into the pipe that one of the Chi­na­men was al­ready greed­i­ly suck­ing, and, to all ap­pear­ance, the ugly fel­low was at once trans­lat­ed from earth to heav­en. As the woman had pre­vi­ous­ly in­formed me, the smoke that was drawn up through the stem was not blown out from the mouth — it was swal­lowed or oth­er­wise dis­posed of by in­ter­nal ma­chin­ery. Noth­ing but what seemed to be the thinnest pos­si­ble thread of pur­ple vapour es­caped from the pipe-bowl; and as the aw­ful-look­ing being on the bed rap­tur­ous­ly sucked and sucked, the thread be­came thin­ner, his face lit up with a strange light, and his pig-like eyes closed till but two mere streaks part­ed the lids — two streaks that glowed as though his eyes had turned to opals. While he was thus tast­ing fe­lic­i­ty, the other vil­lain was served, and present­ly there was a pret­ty pair. I never should have sup­posed the human coun­te­nance ca­pa­ble of wear­ing an ex­pres­sion so sen­su­ous, so bes­tial and re­volt­ing. Faint­ly and more faint­ly still they sucked, till a gur­gling sound in the pipe-stems an­nounced that the opium in the bowl was spent; then the pipes fell from their lips, and they lay still as dead men. I couldn't bear to look at them. I felt as though I were as­sist­ing at some sac­ri­fice with a strong flavour of brim­stone about it; and felt quite re­lieved when I turned my eyes to­wards the fire­place, to ob­serve the woman en­gaged in noth­ing more su­per­nat­u­ral than gut­ting a had­dock for her hus­band's sup­per.

In about ten or twelve min­utes the hideous fig­ures on the bed evinced signs of re­vival. Ob­serv­ing this, the opi­um-mas­ter, who was still squat­ted on the bed, has­tened to roll up a cou­ple of cigarettes of com­mon to­bac­co, and lit them by tak­ing a whiff at each, after which he hand­ed them to the Chi­na­men, who rose from the couch yawn­ing, and, like men only half awake, stag­gered to­wards the fire, and sat re­gard­ing it in si­lence. They were not going yet; they had come for a "drunk," and would prob­a­bly in­dulge in half-a-dozen more pipes be­fore the evening was over.

Now the opi­um-mas­ter was at my ser­vice. I would have given more money than I had about me to have post­poned my ini­ti­a­tion in the art of opium smok­ing; but the demon on the bed was po­lite­ly beck­on­ing me, and I dared not say him nay. With a tremu­lous heart I mount­ed the mat­tress, but was firm in my re­solve to take my pipe sit­ting, and not re­clin­ing. Dire­ful qualms beset me in a rapid­ly ris­ing tide; but I was an En­glish­man, and the eyes of at least one of the sleepy bar­bar­ians by the fire were blink­ing on me. The dose was toast­ed, and I took the great clum­sy pipe-stem be­tween my jaws, and sucked as I had ob­served the Chi­na­men suck. I swal­lowed what I sucked, or des­per­ate­ly en­deav­oured to do so, and the re­sult was pre­cise­ly what might have been ex­pect­ed. With­out doubt I was stu­pe­fied, or I never should have ven­tured on an­oth­er pull. That did it! Be­fore I ven­tured on my per­ilous ex­pe­di­tion I had a vivid rec­ol­lec­tion of what came of smok­ing my first cigar; but that dis­mal re­mem­brance is now quite eclipsed by one a hun­dred times more dread­ful. "Sispince, please!" said the still po­lite opi­um-mas­ter, ex­tend­ing his hand; but I hasti­ly pressed on his ac­cep­tance the whole of the half-crown I had brought for the pur­pose, and was glad enough to find my­self once more breath­ing the free and de­li­cious air of Shad­well.