1. Chinese and Opium 1875-1880

Submitted by Steven. on January 20, 2012

Sociologists who have examined the early involvement of the Chinese in narcotics use in America have regarded the phenomenon as a widely diffused cultural norm brought in from China (Ball and Lau 1966; Lyman 1972). This is wrong or misleading in several respects.

First of all, opium use in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was socially stratified in such a manner that, even though opium was in use by members of all social classes up to the Emperor's court, it was concentrated in the urban labor and poor peasant elements of the working class (Philippine Commission 1906). With the introduction of morphine in the 1890s (often as a substitute for opium), this class differentiation grew sharper and the association between drugs, criminality and the working class, which is conventional in American sociology (Ching-Yueh Yen 1934).

Since the first generation of Chinese immigrants to America was typically not recruited from this class, but were instead from the better-off independent peasantry or the urban petty bourgeoisie, they neither used opium in China nor brought the habit or demand for the drug with them between 1850 and 1870. These Chinese generally paid for their sea passages and brought personal capital with them to invest - in small mining claims, trading and commercial ventures. In 1852, the total amount invested by Chinese in Californian commerce alone was estimated at $2 million (Chin 1963:24).

Not even recurrent incidents of anti-Chinese rioting and virulent propaganda against them on the California gold fields during the 1850s and early 1860s produced a claim that opium was in use among them (Helmer 1974). Since this was a common feature of the anti-Chinese campaign of the late 1870s, early 1880s, it is important to note the omission. And even at a later time, in the Mississippi Delta where Chinese immigrants had been invited by the planters, and where the newcomers were typically of artisan rather than laboring origins, there was no mention of the drug (Loewen 1871).

However the aggregate inflow of this class of Chinese more or less dried up by the middle of the 1860s, coinciding with the rise and then decline of surface gold-mining in the West. Since successful mining required deep excavation, more water, blasting and sluicing equipment, the necessary technology gave large capital an important advantage, and small operators like the legions of white forty-niners, together with the Chinese, were edged out of business. In order to survive, the old generation of independent miners either had to become wage laborers or leave, and many of the Chinese preferred the latter. Between 1862 and 1863, California's gold production fell by more than half, and for the next four years more Chinese left the country than entered it.

From 1867 a new class of Chinese immigrants arrived. They were either landless peasants or laborers; they had no assets; they had borrowed to finance their passage and were ready for any job that would help pay off this debt. For nearly ten years they were contracted in large gangs for railroad construction, large-company mining or farming, or they worked in the infant manufacturing industries of San Francisco (boots and shoes, bricks, cigars, textiles and clothing).

Anti-Chinese agitation was relatively rare during the 1870s, at least for as long as labor scarcity and high wages held out for white workers - and these conditions depended upon a high rate of railroad construction. If the new Chinese smoked opium (according to Kane [1882], Chinese-patronized dens were operating in California in 1868), then there is no public record of concern about it; in fact, labor contractors themselves offered an allowance of half a pound of opium per month as a bonus above wages to attract Chinese laborers (Barth 1964:197).

As Table 1 indicates, there was a sharp fall in railroad construction in 1873, but this revived for a short time. After 1876, the decline paralleled a sharp depression in the urban industrial sector, with the result that labor scarcity turned to surplus, and wages slumped. especially hard hit was San Francisco, the center of the region's industrial growth. To an important degree this had been built on Chinese labor whose availability, passivity, and low price made them essential to local entrepreneurs and the market for common manufactures. In terms of concentration and visibility, the Chinese dominated the boot and shoe, cigar, and brick manufacturing industries, and they were also visible and economically important in agriculture and fishing.

When the depression struck, this high visibility again precipitated anti-Chinese agitation just as the decline in surface gold mining had done earlier. Although the principal cause of these economic conditions was the competition of the sweat-shops of the Eastern seaboard states which had gotten freer access to the West upon completion of the railroads, both small manufacturers and the white urban labor force aligned themselves together and identified Chinese competition as the cause of their problems. Farmer interests, along with the mining and railroad companies, stood to benefit the most from a Chinese labor surplus, and they opposed the immigrant cut-off and repatriation measures proposed by the urban groups. Craft unionists dominated the exclusion campaign and made it part of the platform of the democrats.

The effect was that exclusion of the Chinese became the rallying cry of (white) working class mobilization in the city. (Saxton 1971; Hill 1973). Tactically, this was the "single issue wherein skilled and unskilled workers, small businessmen, some (small, family) farmers and the democratic politicians could from a common front' (Chin 1963:137). The use of opium was just one of the many issues which fueled the conflict. It was part of the hostile stereotype of the Chinese which appeared in popular circulation to justify and legitimize the white working-class ideology of the time.

There can be little doubt that this latent function was an important one. Not until the depression struck was any official notice taken of the opium dens, and even then it was never suggested that the use of the drug was harmful per se. It was its character as a Chinese habit, not as a narcotic, which warranted the earliest legislation against opium in the country, enacted by the San Francisco municipal authority in 1875.

With very rough estimates it is possible to show how the aggregate number of Chinese users and the prevalence rate changed between 1870 and 1890. The figures in Table 2 a re based on four simplifying assumptions: (1) minimal smuggling of the drug (2) all smoking opium imported in that form and not prepared in the U.S. from gum opium base; (3) all opium smokers Chinese; and (4) all Chinese smokers heavy ones. Variation in any of these or in combination would radically alter the aggregate and rate estimates, and there is no telling whether such variation was equal and constant at each time period. Both the 1880 and 1890 estimates do come close, however to the 10% heavy smoking rate figured from different sources by Wright (1910:43).

There is thus the suggestion from the data of a significant increase in opium smoking by the Chinese between 1870 and 1880, although most of the increase probably occurred between 1875 and 1880, that is, AFTER the anti-opium ordinance went into effect and during the period when Chinese population growth virtually stopped. Between 1870 and 1889 there was a net outflow of Chinese, and opium imports jumped an extraordinary 27%; between 1880 and 1884 the annual average imports (smoking opium) were running at two and a half times the 1871-1879 level (Wright 1910:82-83).

The explanation of Chinese drug use has typically been oriented to demand factors. that the demand existed in the mid-1870s and increased thereafter cannot be doubted, but the data suggest that an increase on the supply side preceded the rise in demand for consumption, that it was unrelated to population changes, and that the whole process may be explained differently. This has been attempted in another source (Helmer 1974). Briefly what was involved was a complex system of speculation in the international opium trade and the development of opium-trading organizations (tongs) within the highly stratified and oligopolistic structure of the Chinese community in San Francisco. During the depression and wage slump, opium was both an alternative source of income and a money token itself within Chinatown.

This is necessarily beside the point, however, for these developments followed the start of the exclusion campaign, and the initial legislation against the drug. The latter were primary responses to labor market failure, and the extent to which the secondary labor market, dominated by Chinese, offered no "work relief" to the unemployed or insecure white working class. The ideological role of the anti-opium campaign was to get rid of the Chinese, and it had a practical consequence: it provided a legal basis for unrestrained, and in the circumstances quite arbitrary, police raids and searches of Chinese premises in San Francisco. Ostensibly to identify opium dens, these raids served the same purpose that the vigilantes of the mine fields had performed against Chinese encampments in the mid- 1850s.