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The world of Chinatown to Portlanders was almost absolutely alien to citizens of this city. This sentiment seems odd at face value, for in 1890, Portland’s Chinatown was the second largest in the United States, exceeded only by San Francisco. The men who lived there were the cooks and cleaners, launderers and laborers of the municipality. If not employed by these toils, they often were between jobs in mining, logging, canning of salmon or some other such seasonal occupation.
Most of the Chinese that came to the United States hailed from Kwantung province. Almost all were men, from poor families coming to make some money and return back home. Being penniless, they entered into contracts with labor traders who financed their voyage and in return expected the fare and interest. Coming as simple laborers, promising positions with plenty of profit were elusive.
Culturally isolated, and not seeking further assimilation, these Chinese workers formed small, homogeneous societies, often within American urban centers. Keeping to themselves, they sought to emulate Chinese society, and constructed facilities for traditional foods, medicines, and pastime pursuits. Penniless and far from home, perhaps forlorn or even depressed, these men sought to essentially forget their current status, or to at least take part in activities to busy the mind with some other topic than the present.
As a Bureau of Planning History of Chinatown states, “the relaxations of gambling, of smoking opium, and of visiting prostitutes, indulged in by single China-born men, contributed to the negative Chinese stereotype held by Americans.” But as Timothy Wei wrote in an unpublished thesis, “images of Chinatown ridden with vice have been handed down through the popular imagination in literature, television and cinema, but the origins of these images, even if they have been considerably romanticized, are rooted in historical fact.” Stories of these activities filled the local papers. The public needed an enforcement response, and the police would make regular “daring raids” into the depths of Chinatown in an effort to curtail these enterprises. After reviewing the documents, a reader may rightfully wonder how much effort was really exerted by this “sin police?”
In 1902, the elite of the city were not opposed to the illegal opium trade in any real manner. Portland Mayor George Williams knew he had to keep the safety of the community in mind when establishing policy. As Portland historian E. Kimbark MacColl has written, “well aware of such activities in the unrespectable part of the city, Mayor Williams exerted efforts to keep opium use, gambling and prostitution away from the “prominent” areas.” Furthermore, these businesses of ill-repute provided a steady source of revenue for the city in the form of “periodic fines.”
This reasoning of an isolated, segregated illegal district, if you will, had a long precedence in Portland, Oregon. As far back as 1866, the Oregonian had drawn attention to the “Chinaman disease” and noted that in Californian towns, the Chinese were “rightly crowded upon the outskirts, where they can carry out their beastly practices, smoke their opium, and enjoy their own intolerable stenches without inflicting them upon white men and women.” The Oregonian editor called for their removal to a more isolated section of the city where “their temptation” would not be as visible and accessible.
But within the central business core they were, and with that came challenges to those who wished to be “on the down low.” Chinese proprietors of opium went to great lengths to secure their customers away from prying police. Period press reports note the labyrinthine passages that were created to slow law enforcement down when attempting to enter these dens. Often behind barred doors, and even guarded by watchmen, these literal mazes concealed “small rooms, approximately seven by ten feet, designated for opium use were as crowded as laborers’ quarters, with bunk beds or straw mats and wooden block pillows arranged so tightly end to end.”
This documentary reader will present some historical photos and news clippings to demonstrate a visual survey of the media’s impression of opium use, and the occasional inclusion of women into that highly male world. The review is Portland-centric, but some visual aids are from other locales, even other countries, to help “flesh out” the story and provide some context to our local musings. It is not a pretty picture, and it is not always a “true” representation, but a number of of these impressions were surely based in some fact.
John P. Hoffman, in his study of the criminalization of opium has noted that “press stories from this era often reported about the frightening opium dens where Chinese “yellow fiends” forced unsuspecting White women to become enslaved to the drug. Although there is some evidence that opium smoking caught on among White gamblers, prostitutes and thieves, most of the accounts appear to have been sensational news stories.”
A 1912 account in The Oregonian demonstrates this impression. Entitled “Opium Joint Unearthed,” the writer notes that following up an assault charge on a Chinese man in Medford, a woman named Laura White emerged, “an alleged white slave.” The article continues with intriguing suggestions that her story “revealed conditions scarcely thought possible to exist outside of San Francisco’s Chinatown.” It notes that during the man’s trial the public learned that “opium is being smoked in the local colony and that white people have been purchasers of the drug. It also brought out strong grounds to suspect that a general white slave business is being conducted by local Chinamen.”
In an encapsulated form, this story has it all. Opium, Chinese dominated white slavery, suggestions of interracial sex, and white women hooked on dope. It seems almost too good to be true from a fictional standpoint. If you wanted to write a pulp thriller, a dime store seller, you would be hard pressed to find a better plot synopsis.
But this supposed use of the drug by women does have a historical truth, or at least that is what Hoffman maintains. He states that recreational use in the later half of the 19th century was rampant among white women. “Throughout the nineteenth century it was considered unseemly, by both males and temperance-minded females, for women to drink [alcohol]. Yet there was a powerful temptation, particularly for women of high social station, thoroughly bored with their lot… to resort to some euphoric agent. Opium and morphine, which at least in the initial stages of their use produces euphoria, suited these purposed very well.” Could this desire for excitement, for passion and euphoria have been as prevalent during the first two decades of the twentieth century as well, in Oregon?
Attraction to this illicit trade by “white” society is obvious when reviewing period sources. Perhaps one of the better known, and due to its popularity, evidence of mainstream curiosity is the “A Trip Through Chinatown Brochure.” This guide, prepared for the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, detailed various sights to see in Chinatown while visiting Portland for the expo. The pamphlet notes “Secluded among the many passageways and most vigilantly guarded may be some opium dens and places of ill repute. But the fact that they are conducted in violation of the law makes it impossible for visitors to ascertain their location.” By merely suggesting such nefarious locales on such a public tour demonstrates the public’s fascination with this immoral and decadent addiction. These dens were abhorred as well as seemingly engrossing. The wickedness, the off-limits, the lack of inhibition; all of the “acceptable” social barriers were broken down by the opium dens, and sex and race added even more spice to the exotic gumbo. By pandering to the public’s preoccupation, the Portland press perpetuated the desire for these stories; the reporters kept the themes alive and breathing, sensual and corporeal, exotic as well as erotic.
And they sold a lot of papers.