City of Darkness: Revisited


Smoking opium in Hong Kong in the 1950s
Smoking opium in Hong Kong in the 1950s

Cathie Breslin, author of the article The World’s Wickedest City (see below), was not the only journalist to enter the Walled City in its early years to taste – and write about – the delights or otherwise of opium. Breslin had visited the City in 1963 and was not taken with her experience of smoking opium, but five years earlier she had been preceded by a British journalist, Lois Mitchison, who had found the drug much more to her liking.

She recounted her experiences in an article for The Spectator, published in May 1958.

“The first time I smoked opium was with Hank, the American news-film photographer, in Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. Hank had all his cameras with him; and an interpreter who asked first in a whisper, then in a loud voice, in Cantonese, wouldn’t somebody, anybody, sitting round in the street please be good enough to tell him where he could find some opium for the rich foreigners? There was plenty of opium about; we could smell it, a rich, rather pleasant and homely smell like overdone cinnamon toast for tea. But most people didn’t want to tell us any thing because of Hank’s cameras.

Hank’s cameras, although the interpreter shouted that they were not, might have been police cameras. Hong Kong is a British colony and smoking opium is illegal there as it is in Britain, only a lot more people do it. But in Hong Kong itself they do it very carefully, and mostly only in private houses. Kowloon Walled City is a little different.

Kowloon is the industrial suburb of Hong Kong with 30 miles of farming country between it and the Chinese border. The Walled City is in the middle of the rest of Kowloon and ten minutes bus ride in double-decked, scarlet London buses from the harbour. But it is unlike anywhere else in the colony. It was the old city of Kowloon – there when the British first leased the New Territories, across from the original island of Hong Kong, in 1898. The country and villages all round the Walled City became British on a 99-year lease, but the City itself was to remain Chinese territory as long as the Chinese in the city behaved themselves. In a few months the British said the Chinese were not behaving themselves, and we took over the city. But successive Chinese governments have never agreed that we had any right to do this, and both Kuomintang and the present Communists nudge us about our imperialist usurpations when they want to tease the Hong Kong government.

The result is that the Hong Kong government is shy about the city. Uniformed police do not generally go there, and most laws are not strictly enforced. The laws you are most conscious of as not being enforced are the colony’s sanitary regulations. After the broad, fairly clean streets of the Kowloon markets round the city, the city itself is filthy. The streets are so narrow that in the main ones you can stretch out your hands and touch the house walls on either side., and in the alleys you walk sideways, or move backwards in front of men carrying shoulder-yoked pails of night soil. All the streets have gutters of mixed sewage and household muck running down them. In the main street the children play in the gutter, and the grown-ups sit outside on small stools, gossiping, spitting, cleaning the vegetables for their evening meal, or just staring.

It was these people our interpreter asked about opium. After a while, a small, very thin man came up and said in English that he was from San Francisco, and he could arrange everything for us very quickly, very cheaply. Did we want to see a blue film, he said, a girlie show, or perhaps we wanted to eat dog? He meant this literally; the stew made from six-month-old Chow puppies, according to the traditional Chinese recipe, is one of the main reasons why ordinary Chinese go into the Walled City. It used to be a perfectly respectable dish in all good Hong Kong restaurants, until one day the wife of the English governor heard about it, and badgered her husband until he had dog-eating made illegal in the colony.

We said the only thing we wanted to do was to smoke opium. So the man from San Francisco, who now said his name was Joe, took us off the main street to a corner with a dentist’s sign above it. He knocked at the door and took us upstairs. The smoking room was like the others I saw later, furnished with wooden bunks built close together one above the other, and crowded with a lot of poorish-looking men, most of them gossiping gently with each other and a few reading Chinese newspapers. The atmosphere was like an eccentrically furnished and scented club.

Joe turned everybody out before we could stop him and opened a window, because, he said, the place needed some fresh air. But Hank wanted to film actual opium smoking, and he asked me to smoke a pipe or so for him. Joe showed me how to put a small wooden pillow under my neck so that I was propped up on the bunk. We were given a small pill-box of brown ointment-like opium, and Joe forced a little of it into the bowl of a miniature pipe, which I had to hold over a spirit lamp until the opium bubbled and almost melted, and then draw the smoke into my lungs in quick puffs. It was difficult to manage at first, and after I had tried four pipes, Joe took over and finished the pill-box while Hank took his film. Opium, Joe said, was not at all a good habit, but it was his habit – and his reason for leaving San Francisco. Opium, he said, had been too expensive there, ten American dollars a pipe.

In the Walled City it was very cheap. After we had finished our pill-box, we gave the man who kept the smoking room five Hong Kong dollars (about seven shillings and sixpence) because we had disturbed his customers. These men were regulars who dropped in most evenings for two, three, or four pipes, paying a few Hong Kong cents a week. The smoking-room keeper’s main expense, he said, was the 87 dollars he paid the Hong Kong police every month. It was too much, he said; and the police had wolf-hearts. He bought his opium with, he said, no trouble at all from what was smuggled into the colony. It was not, Joe said afterwards, very good opium, probably Indian grown. In fact he thought this particular smoking-room keeper mixed it with horse dung to make it go further. But anyway good opium, smuggled in from Laos and Upper Thailand, is much more difficult to get, more expensive, and mostly smoked by wealthy and fastidious men giving business parties.

Later I went back to the Walled City about four times with people who wanted to see the smoking dens. We went to different places each time, and the only time there was any difficulty about finding a place to go was when we took a Hong Kong Englishman who spoke Cantonese and wore knee-length woollen socks and white shorts. Americans and most Chinese in hot climates wear long linen trousers. Everybody in the Walled City thought the Englishman must be a police spy, and nobody would show us a smoking place until he went away.

I found that opium always had the same, most pleasant effect on me. I felt enormously self confident, very happy (like the pleasantest effects of drink) and then very hungry. I never felt at all dreamy or as if I was seeing visions, but I did feel after four pipes that I was walking six inches above the ground, and I found unexpected beauty in the rush of Kowloon traffic. The hunger never failed, and I think the enormous Chinese meals I used to eat after smoking accounted for the one time I felt slightly sick four hours later.

It is nearly two years since I last smoked, and I never felt any particular craving for opium. But if somebody offered me a pipe now, I would just as soon spend a free evening smoking as reading a woman’s magazine or going to the cinema. It can, I know, be a dangerous habit. Joe, like other strongly addicted opium smokers, was so thin that his clothes seemed to be falling off him, and smoking left him, not hungry as it left me, but unwilling and unable to eat. Another Chinese I knew in Hong Kong – American and British educated – had to get up at seven o’clock in the morning if he had a lunch engagement. He could not begin work or talk to people until he had his five hours of opium smoking first. Other opium smokers leave their jobs and spend all the money they have on their drugs. Both Singapore and Hong Kong have private temples, as well as the official British-run cures and prison hospitals where Chinese addicts can go for a voluntary cure.

On the other hand the club I stayed at in Hong Kong had an old reporter living there who could not keep his lunch engagement unless he started drinking whisky at 8 o’clock in the morning – and whisky is much more expensive than opium and seems to have a more unpleasant effect on its addicts. Also more than half my friends cannot work unless they can smoke at the same time. Opium, so the Chinese told me, does not excite people to crime, or to beat their wives or to shout. Moreover, so the educated opium addict I knew said, it does not give people lung cancer.”

Lois Mitchison went on to write numerous books about China that were translated into several languages
Lois Mitchison went on to write numerous books about China that were translated into several languages