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Opium smoking arrived in North America with the large influx of Chinese who came to participate in the California Gold Rush. The jumping off point for the gold fields was San Francisco, and the city's Chinatown became the site of numerous opium dens soon after the first Chinese arrived around 1850. By the 1870s, San Francisco's opium dens attracted non-Chinese residents and the problem of opium addiction was brought to the attention of city authorities. In 1878 the city of San Francisco passed its first anti-opium ordinance, but it wasn't until the early twentieth century that huge bonfires, fueled by confiscated opium and opium paraphernalia, were used as a way of destroying opium while at the same time educating the public as to the illegality of smoking the drug. Due to the anti-opium eradication campaigns, smoking opium was driven underground, and was still fairly common in San Francisco and other cities in North America until around World War II. A typical opium den in San Francisco might be a Chinese-run laundry that had a basement, back room, or upstairs room that was tightly sealed to keep drafts from making the opium lamps flicker as well as not letting the tell-tale fumes of opium escape. A photograph of one luxurious opium den in nineteenth-century San Francisco has survived, taken by I. W. Taber in 1886, but the majority of the city's wealthy opium smokers, both Chinese and American, shunned public opium dens in favor of smoking in the privacy of their own homes..
The opium dens of New York City's Chinatown, due to its geographical distance from China, were not as opulent as some of those to be found on the American West Coast. According to H.H. Kane, a doctor who spent years studying opium use in New York in the 1870s and 1880s, the most popular opium dens or "opium joints" as they were known in the parlance of the day, were located on Mott and Pell streets in what is still Manhattan's Chinatown. At the time, all the city's opium dens were run by Chinese except for one on 23rd Street which was run by an American woman and her daughter. Kane remarked that New York's opium dens were one place "where all nationalities seem indiscriminately mixed". As in San Francisco, New Yorkers of all races would come to Chinatown to patronize its opium dens. According to the writer Nick Tosches, New York City's last opium den was raided and shut down in the 1950s.
Chinese immigrants first established Chinatowns in Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia, and here too opium dens were common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When the city of San Francisco began taxing imported opium for smoking, the trade was diverted to Victoria, and from there much of the opium was smuggled south into the United States. However, a fair amount of opium was consumed in the opium dens to be found in the Chinatowns of Victoria and Vancouver. The latter city's "Shanghai Alley" was known for its rustic opium dens. As in the United States, non-Chinese often frequented the Chinese-run opium dens in Canadian Chinatowns. 
Unlike the opium smoking scene in North American cities, opium smoking in France was introduced for the most part by French expatriates returning home from stints in their Indochinese colonies. By the early twentieth century there were numerous opium dens in France's port cities, particularly Toulon, Marseille and Hyères.
Victorian London's reputation as a center of opium smoking is quite unjustified, and testifies to the power of literary fiction over historical fact. The London press, along with popular British authors of the day, were fond of portraying London's Limehouse district as an opium-drenched pit of danger and mystery. In fact, London's Chinese population never exceeded the low hundreds, in large contrast to the tens of thousands of Chinese who settled in North American Chinatowns. Yet upon this tiny community was heaped notoriety for opium-induced sordidness and debauchery -- the sole intent of which was to titillate and shock British readers. Interestingly, scholars have yet to unearth a single historical photograph of opium smokers in London -- in marked contrast to the relative abundance of period photos depicting smokers in the United States, Canada and France.
References in fiction
Opium Museum 
San Francisco's opium dens 
New York City's opium dens 
The Black Candle - opium smoking in Canada 
Opium in the French Navy 
Limehouse debunked 
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Opium_den". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.