In this black-and-white photograph, men appear to smoke opium on top of couches and benches.
Widely circulated as a photo of an opium den, the photographer has never made clear if it really is. Library of Congress/Public Domain

The anti-immigrant history behind these spaces should make you reconsider casting the stereotypical drug den as the inspiration for a lounge.

The brand-new, luxurious Hotel 50 Bowery sits at the heart of New York City’s Chinatown, its 22 stories of gleaming glass towering over the buildings nearby. With Asian restaurants inside, and decorated with a gallery of artifacts from the Museum of Chinese in America and vintage photographs of Chinatown, the hotel is supposed to honor the legacy of the historic immigrant enclave that’s helped defined the city.

But the hotel company Joie de Vivre unwittingly drew ire from Chinatown activists last week when a press release described one of its highly anticipated hotel bar lounges, The Green Lady, as “opium den-themed.” Writing on the blog Bowery Boogie, the local lawyer and activist Karlin Chan called out the company for what he says is an insult to the neighborhood’s residents:

So when it comes to Joie De Vivre’s intent to highlight Chinatown’s past and culture, is the fabled “Opium Den” really an appropriate theme for a lounge in their hotel? I say HELL NO. It’s ironic that a hotel honoring the neighborhood would allow a business to highlight a negative stereotype within. In the end, is this insensitivity or racism? Is this another nail in the coffin for our hometown Chinatown?

Celebrity chef Dale Talde, who curated the hotel’s food offerings, has distanced himself from the phrase, telling Eater that it was never part of the original design plan. And Wagstaff Worldwide, the PR team for the hotel, has since walked back on that description and issued an apology in an official statement to Eater. In an email to CityLab, a spokesperson for Wagstaff Worldwide further emphasizes that the vision “has always been and still is to create a welcoming, theatre-inspired lounge that pays homage to both the nostalgia of the neighborhood’s storied past as well as the electric energy of its future. While we recognize the sensitivity surrounding the initial description of the space, the design of the lounge will showcase contrasts, with softly draped fabrics alongside gritty, distressed finishes.”

It’s hardly the first time that “opium dens” have become a gimmicky design concept for trendy establishments. There’s the Dragon’s Den in New Orleans, for example, that boasts a “opium den vibe,” and in Washington, D.C., the Chaplin’s Bar and Restaurant offers an “opium den” private room. These shticks exploit a part of Chinese-American history fraught with racism and xenophobia. Opium dens—or at least the old Hollywood portrayal of them—helped perpetuate the stereotype of the evil and morally corrupt “Chinaman” who is engaged in organized crime and prostitution and who preys on white, middle-class women.

Those depictions cloud the real, more complex history behind opium dens and Chinatowns—and ultimately the fabled drug den’s connection to the ban on Chinese immigrants in the 1880s into the 1900s, says Jack Tchen, a professor of Asian American studies at New York University. "The whole thing about opium dens is that they’re really a subset of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which most Americans don't know about,” Tchen, who also wrote the book New York Before Chinatown, tells CityLab.

Opium may have been in the U.S. as far back as the 1600s, when the drug was dissolved in alcohol and likely brought over on the Mayflower by a chemist. It was a popular painkiller—Thomas Jefferson, despite his skepticism of medical treatments, is said to have been a “habitual” user. Eventually, it became even more widely used as a recreational drug, creating a nationwide addiction that exists still today.

Harper’s Weekly, in 1857, reported that roughly 300,000 pounds of opium were arriving on American shores each year, 90 percent of which was estimated to be reserved for recreational use. But while smoking opium has historically been perceived as a “Chinese habit”—the popular narrative, though murky, is that Chinese workers brought the practice to America when they migrated to California during the Gold Rush—it was more widespread among the Anglo-American community. In fact, opium dens, which are often depicted as cramped rooms filled with filthy Chinese workers lounging around, were actually frequented by white Americans.

“The [opium dens] that we have records of in New York may have been run by the Chinese, but the actual clientele were white men and women,” Tchen says. In the 19th century, he adds, drugs were not outlawed or criminalized, and “opium dens, in a sense, became chic and popular among people who were interested in having an exotic experience.” They became, in a sense, “hip.”  As Vanity Fair notes, that may in fact be where the word originated:

The word “hip,” whose currency was common enough for it to have appeared in print by 1904—around the time, coincidentally, that the first opium song, “Willie the Weeper,” seems to have originated—may have derived from the classic, age-old, pelvic-centered, side-lying opium-smoking position, and may have been used originally as a sign of mutual recognition and reference by those who were in the know about the big sweet smoke.

As the opium addiction spread, it would eventually lead to what’s become known as America’s first drug war. Yet the laws weren’t so much about curbing the nation’s addiction as they were about targeting the burgeoning Chinese population. San Francisco passed the country’s first ordinance in 1875 and while it didn’t ban smoking, selling, or distributing the drug, it did specifically outlaw keeping or visiting opium dens. Many similar federal and local laws would soon follow as the Yellow Peril reached its height.

That first law came in the midst of an economic crisis for which Chinese immigrants ultimately became the scapegoats. Civic leaders blamed the 41,000 Chinese people in California for stealing white people’s jobs, and America was harboring a xenophobic fear that the country was being invaded by “orientals” who were not only less than human and morally corrupt, but also a threat to national security. (This should sound familiar.) Workers put pressure on lawmakers to enact anti-immigration laws that restricted the communities’ rights and that would bar them from entering the country altogether.

In trying to convey the Chinese community’s threat to public health, San Francisco lawmakers mapped all the vices of Chinatown, including opium dens. (David Rumsey Map Collection)

San Francisco, in the midst of a moral panic, even went as far as mapping in great detail all the opium dens in the 15-square-block area that made up Chinatown. The goal, The New Republic reports, was to “convey the severity of the perceived crisis” of how the Chinese population was endangering the city’s public health. The map was part of a larger report by the city’s Board of Supervisors highlighting all the vices found in Chinatown, including gambling houses and brothels.

Yet even as the Yellow Peril was playing out and as Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, opium dens were proliferating across the country. They popped up in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and New York City. They weren’t necessarily located inside Chinatowns, nor were they run exclusively by Chinese immigrants, as white Americans began seeing profit in the demand.

The historian Diana Ahmad documents one on 23rd street in New York City, for example, operated by a white woman and her two daughters and “fitted up with Oriental luxury,” as reported by an 1882 article in The New York Times. No Chinese people were involved in the business. “If the first reports of Anglo Americans smoking the drug are to be believed,” Ahmad writes in her book, The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-Century American West, “it took less than 20 years [from 1870] for the narcotic to spread throughout the U.S. to the white elite and middle classes, including the ownership and management of opium dens.”

Meanwhile, depictions of opium dens played into that racist narrative, and further justified such anti-immigrant laws on moral grounds. “A lot of the dehumanized representation was circulating the commercial press at this time,” Tchen says. “Music, theater, and, later on, silent films had these notions of opium dens being behind laundries and in tunnels, operated by this kind of 'Chinaman,' that were way beyond reality.”

“White Women in Opium Den, Chinatown, S. F,” by American photographer I. W. Taber, c. 1885-1895. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

One of the tropes that drew a particularly visceral reaction from white Americans was conveyed in drawings and photographs (some perhaps staged) depicting young white women smoking among Chinese men. “These representations of opium and addicting white women became a big image of white slavery—white women becoming enslaved by opium,” says Tchen. “In fact, the largest, most potent image that really circulated about the dangers of opium dens wasn't so much about Chinese being addicted, but about this corruption seeping into the virtuous, mainstream, middle-class culture of Americans. That was how the fear and paranoia were propagated.”

Indeed, tabloids run by the publisher William Randolph Hearst sensationalized the motif in the 1890s by repeatedly publishing stories of white women being seduced by Chinese men as part of the newspapers’ anti-drug campaign.

In 1909, America had won a major battle in its drug war with the passage of the Opium Exclusion Act, which banned the import of the drug for smoking. By the 1930s, opium dens became a rare sight—so rare, in fact, that one 1936 book supposedly written by two Chinatown insiders documented fake opium dens that were created just to give tourists a “false local color.” Still, the stereotypes of devious, opium-smoking Chinese men in pop culture and movies have distorted how America’s war on these spaces really played out for the Chinese-American communities.

Even Tchen admits that historians like himself haven’t been able to piece together the history in full, largely because it’s been remembered by commercial depictions and anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the government and from sensational journalism. Still, the convenience of painting a restaurant red, throwing up some lanterns, and serving Asian-inspired cuisine may mean the “hip” trend of opium-themed lounges and restaurants are, at the moment, here to stay—history be damned.

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