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The Chinese Opium Crusade PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Drugs and Minority Oppression
Written by John Helmer   

There are many ways to take opium, and smoking it has been the Chi-nese way since the end of the seventeenth century. The practice was a small and geographically limited one in the beginning, confined to the coastal province of Fukien and the offshore island of Formosa. But early in the nineteenth century new pressures of trade caused a vast in-crease in the supply shipped to Chinese coastal merchants who, in turn, stimulated popular consumption and the diffusion of the habit up and down the coast, as well as inland.

Trade pressures were primarily from the British, who were the sup-pliers, and secondarily from the Americans, who were among the Ship-pers and go-betweens. Cultivation of opium was how the British had financed the colonial administration in Bengal, and for the merchant companies involved, trade in the drug with China earned double profits—once when the drug was exchanged in Canton and Shanghai for silver, tea, and silk and again when these were landed and sold on the London markets.

The rising Chinese merchant class also stood to multiply its profits as the popular demand for opium grew. Inland, they bought tea and silk at low local prices and bartered them with the foreigners on the coast for the drug, whose real cash value depended on the merchants' ability to resell it to consumers at double (or more) the price. The profitability of the opium trade to the Chinese was an essential element in the expan-sion of the British trade. Without the coastal merchant to act as the comprador, or agent, for the drug supply, trade between the Euro-peans and China would have been too one-sided to endure, since, apart from opium there was initially little the Chinese could or would have wished or needed to buy from abroad as fair exchange for their tea and silks:1

China was force-fed opium, to be sure, as all the textbooks of nine-teenth-century imperialism aver. As we will see many times over, sup-ply preceded demand. In one sense of the old-fashioned economic law, the supply created its own demand.2 It took a class of native Chinese and aunique role for opium as a medium of exchange, a form of money, along with the expectation of high profits among the Chinese compra-dors, to establish such a vast market for opium in China.

As it developed, the Chinese opium market was divided along clear lines of occupation, wealth or class. Most Chinese consumers, and the largest number of the most regular users, were poor peasants on one hand and wage laborers on the other, living in cities like Canton and Shanghai. According to one witness at the Philippine Commission in-quiry, urbanization significantly increased the extent of opium use. Testimony by both Chinese and Europeans in China confirmed the class distribution: "the wealthy class in China, as a rule, does not smoke opium; the habit is largely confined to the poor. Among the smokers the proportion of the significantly well-off may be 20 percent; of the poor, 80 percent."3 This was equally true outside the homeland, among the Chinese in America, who started coming to California dur-ing the gold rush period in the early 1850s.

Between 1852, when the migration across the Pacific began to grow heavy,4 and 1863, when the gold mining for which they came was virtu-ally played out, the Chinese immigrants were typically the younger sons of landowners without primogeniture rights of inheritance or many others living above rural poverty but with a stake too small to en-large their wealth. They were usually not from laboring origins. Their stake, while small, insured that their interest in mining in California was independently capitalized. They paid for their own passages and brought capital with them to invest. In 1852 the total amount invested by Chinese in Californian commerce alone was estimated at $2 million.3 The number of wage laborers among the Chinese in the early period was low. As can be expected, if opium use was confined to this class, there is no record of its use among the first generation of immi-grants in California. Not even recurrent incidents of anti-Chinese riot-ing and propaganda during the 1850s produced a single instance of the kind of claims about opium use that became commonplace 20 years lat-er. Indeed, there is no mention of opium-smoking until the mid-1860s. None of the sources already cited have placed the beginning of the habit any earlier.6 There are no reports of the widespread opium use until the mid-1870s, when anti-Chinese demonstrations and the cam-paign to cut off immigration began in earnest. This period, roughly 1875 to 1880, is the first of the great antinarcotic crusades in our history. It is marked by the first attempts to legislate against drug use, which, as I will show, were closely related to the economic goals and motivation of the exclusion drive.

Getting rid of the Chinese had been spasmodically popular as an is-sue since the earliest arrivals. The conflict in the mining fields in the mid- to late-fifties reflected the slow but inevitable deterioration of the economic position of the independent white miners, prospectors like the Chinese themselves who had immigrated to the West with a small amount of capital, the traditional poke and burro, a partner or two per-haps, and much optimism that small-scale entrepreneurship could be vastly profitable. Of course, the surface gold did not last long. The deeper the miners had to go into the ground, the costlier their mining became. Water was expensive, as was blasting and sluicing equipment, and the new technology for such mining gave the large companies an important advantage. So the illusion of riches passed, and in the new economics of mining, the prospector had little choice. Without the cap-ital to sustain himself, he could either lay down his pick altogether or swing it for the companies which could afford to stay in business. Wage labor came hard to men who aspired to independence, and natu-rally they vented their spleen on the companies which were taking over their claims. They were also ready to attack the Chinese in the mining fields, not because the Chinese were responsible for reducing the eco-nomic condition of the whites but because the Chinese were prepared to accept the terms of wage labor dictated by the companies to an ex-tent that the white forty-niners were not. This, in turn, meant that the companies could afford to drop the wages of the white laborers, as long as there was a ready supply of Chinese who, if not happy, were at least willing to accept it. To stabilize the labor market in the mining fields and hold the line on the level of wages, the whites turned their attack from the source of economic power to the source of labor competition, and attacked the Chinese to drive them off the fields.

Calculated hostility of this kind, plus continually diminishing returns to mining, led to a drying up of the earlier petite bourgeoisie Chinese immigration around 1863-64. 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.

After 1867 the newcomers were prepared to work. They had no as-sets; they had borrowed to finance their passage and would take any job that would help them pay off the debt. They were the perfect solution to the California employers' problems, the chief of which was the high cost of white labor. In a number of cases Chinese were introduced during the mid-1860s to break strikes against the Central Pacific Rail-road, and other railroad companies followed suit. Anti-Chinese agita-tion was fairly rare, though, during the 1870s, at least for as long as the scarcity of labor and high wages held out for white workers, conditions that depended on a high rate of railroad construction.

As major lines were completed during the seventies and construction slowed down, labor scarcity turned to surplus and wages began to drop. An increasingly diversified economy in California was able to ab-sorb this labor and cushion against wage declines, but around 1876 the economy began to suffer from competition from industries in the East whose access to California markets had been increased, by the comple-tion of the railroads and the resulting drop in freight rates.

Especially hard hit was San Francisco, the center of California's manufacturing industries. To a large degree these industries had been built on Chinese labor, whose availability, passivity, and low price made them essential. This was also true in labor-intensive agriculture, especially fruit-growing and truck gardening in and around the city. By 1880, the Chinese in California were distributed among a variety of oc-cupations, but in terms of concentration they dominated boot and shoe, cigar, and brick manufacture and were quite visible and economically important as relatively high-skilled labor in agriculture and fishing.

This high visibility, achieved by concentration rather than by large numbers overall, again precipitated anti-Chinese agitation. As the eco-nomic-depression in the city deepened, both small manufacturers and the white labor force focused their attention on Chinese "competition" as being responsible for the conditions of low wages and high unemployment. As Chiu has shown,7 the pattern of concentration of Chinese labor was the consequence, not the cause, of the low-wage (as well as the low-price-per-good) condition. White laborers, especially those with an independent-miner background, were unwilling to work at low wage levels of agricultural and industrial work and certainly not while railroad construction was paying a premium.
The economic basis of ethnic antagonism is clear:

Technological changes led as well to a hierarchy of profits. Large capital was concentrated in trades enjoying a high rate of invest-ment returns, as in railroads and factory manufacturing. Small capital was crowded into fields where profit was low and diminish-ing. Caught in this process, apprehensive over the loss of their status as independent producers, lacking any understanding of the workings of "economic forces," small manufacturers of cigars, shoes, and clothing rose to vent their anger upon a scapegoat, as had the independent miners in the 1850's .8

Urban industrial workers had little in common with the small manu-facturers, but, like them, they felt that unemployment and low wages had been caused by the Chinese. This feeling was reinforced by strong class antagonism as it became clear that the large capitalists of the area, the railroads and the mining companies, were not in favor of ex-cluding the Chinese. Indeed, they argued that Chinese labor was the basis of California's rapid economic growth.8 At first, farm elements were not hostile to Chinese labor, although interests diverged between large and small, often family, farm producers who were locked in con-flict with the railroads over freight and land prices. The farmers chose to side with the white urban workers against "big business," and ex-clusion of the Chinese was the touchstone of the alliance.

It is worth reconstructing the political-economic picture in some de-tail in order to illustrate the kinds of pressures that were being brought to bear against the Chinese at the beginning of the first antiopium cru-sade. It is also important to understand the nature of the economic and political crisis into which the Chinese immigrants, especially the urban workers among them, were thrown by the depression of the late 1870s.

Among the first generation of Chinese immigrants who had weath-ered the decline of surface mining, a number had succeeded in building up their investment in commerce or small industry. Sizable profits were made by Chinese merchants in supplying the large construction gangs of the sixties and seventies. The second-generation, or laboring, immigrant may have had some hope of paying off his debts and going into truck gardening, the cigar business, or a laundry himself, but the worsening economic conditions after 1875 killed his chances.

The depression split the Chinese community down the middle. Gen-erally, the merchants and petite-bourgeoisie group from the first wave of immigration had the assets with which to weather the economic pressure and falling profits, but the economic conditions depressed the Chinese laborer's wages and employment chances even further, thus deepening his debt and leaving him with fewer means for meeting the conditions of his immigration contract. The result was that Chinese la-borers turned to the merchants as the employer of last resort and as the only available source of food and credit during prolonged unemployment.

The Chinese merchant class had other sources of income. During this time the incentive to shift to them was greater than at any time in the history of Chinese immigration. These were essentially the provi-sion of illicit services. The first was sex, the second gambling, and the third opium.

At the time, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants to America were men.w Later, by the Act of Exclusion of 1882, the wives of all but the wealthiest Chinese were officially barred from entering the country. In 1870 there were nearly 13 men to each woman. During the next decade and the spurt of immigration in the first few years of the 1870s, the sex ratio grew wider until, according to the census of 1880, it exceeded 21 to 1. Trade in sex was inevitable, and the established sources of capital in the community were in a unique position to finance and conduct it.

Since white women were also scarce in California at the time, the de-mand for prostitutes drove the price of sex beyond what a Chinese la-borer could afford, even supposing that cultural differences and latent racism on both sides were not sufficient to make the trade unaccept-able. What was needed were Chinese prostitutes. To this end, capital was needed to pay for the recruitment and passage of girls from China to the United States, as well as to take care of the police payoffs and other overhead involved. Individual merchants or associations there-fore undertook the contracting, often attracting girls in Canton and Hong Kong with offers of marriage, and set up houses for the trade.11

Gambling was provided in these and other establishments. In the conditions of tighter money, faro, fan-tan, and other games of the long shot offered the isolated, indebted, unemployed Chinese laborer his only chance to maintain his solvency. Under the circumstances in which the owners of the gambling houses were also the employers of legitimate labor, credit in the form of wage advances was made avail-able, since it increased their control over the laborers. This was used, in turn, to depress real wages further and simultaneously raise the profitability of licit and illicit enterprises.

Now consider the opium trade. From 1871 to 1879 the average annu-al imports of smoking opium to the United States were 52,716 pounds. In the single year 1879, 60,648 pounds entered the country officially. The next year this shot up 27 percent, to 77,1% pounds, the largest sin-gle rise for the decade. Between 1880 and 1884 annual imports aver-aged 139,504 pounds, that is, more than two and a half times the earlier level.

What was happening?

The conventional explanation, and the one Hamilton Wright adopted retrospectively in his Report on the International Opium Commission in 1910, blames increased demand. As he saw the situation, the rise in imports of smoking opium reflected the increased demand for it from the larger numbers of Chinese arriving in the United States. We know that these numbers were increasing between 1868 and 1876, but the fol-lowing year the number of arrivals dropped sharply, while that of those leaving increased. For the next four years the outflow rose steadily, and in 1880 there was a net outflow of over a thousand.

That the demand for opium existed among the Chinese in the mid-1870s and increased thereafter cannot be doubted, but it appears that the increase on the demand side was preceded by an increase on the supply side and that this was virtually unrelated to what was happening to the Chinese in California. What was involved, instead, was a complex network of speculation in the international opium trade which, coming on top of deteriorating economic conditions in Califor-nia, encouraged opium importers in the United States, that is, Chinese importers, to introduce larger quantities of the drug for sale than ever before.

During the 1870s Persian-grown opium, which for years had tricked into China along the overland route through Bokhara, increased in vol-ume to the point where the British administrators in Bengal, although they had no way of determining the exact size of the Persian imports, began to fear for the health of their monopoly. Chinese cultivation of the poppy was also becoming extensive, and significantly, from the consumer's point of view, its quality was beginning to approach that of the best Indian product.

Although the volume of Persian and Chinese opium in the late seven-ties was only a fraction of the Indian, the fact that it existed and was expanding had serious repercussions in the highly speculative condi-tions of the Indian industry.12 Since the British colonial exchequer de-pended so heavily on a profitable opium trade, protection of the monop-oly was considered essential. So the viceroy and his administration decided on a vast expansion of output, to allow the unit price to fall if need be, all in order to drive the competing opium off the market.

This tactic reached its zenith in the trade of the year 1879-80, when, altogether, 95,000 chests, or 15.2 million pounds, of opium were ex-ported to China. Following this, both competition in the China market and fluctuations in opium acreage in Bengal, as well as drought and other factors, led to a steady decline in the volume and value of the trade.

As a market for opium, the United States was insignificant compared with China (annual imports of crude and smoking opium in 1880-84 were less than 3 percent of the Indian exports to China).12 Neverthe-less, the climate of changing expectations regarding the trade interact-ed with other speculative interests to produce the sharp rise already noted." To traders burdened with a growing Indian surplus, the Amer-ican market was a minor, but convenient, outlet. To shippers and clip-per captains operating between the Chinese ports and San Francisco, new cargo was needed once the flow of Chinese began to reverse itself. For the voyage from Hong Kong or Canton to San Francisco, the num-bers of immigrant passengers fell by over 50 percent in 1877 alone. But the key element in this situation was the behavior of the Chinese mer-chants operating, for the most part, in San Francisco. The economic depression that had struck the city precipitated a special crisis for them, and the expansion of the opium trade offered a way out.

From the beginning of the immigration, the Chinese had established many associations among themselves. These were the tongs, and were originally based on a clan, or kin, connection, occupation, or the region from which members had come. They served several functions—as fraternal and mutual-help groups, as quasi-unions to represent their members in collective bargaining or in negotiations for jobs, as com-munity policing agents, traditional courts of arbitration, and trade as-sociations. While the name, or clan, tongs functioned as loose mutual-aid societies, the trade tongs operated as tight cartels regulating every aspect of a particular industry, allocating raw materials, fixing prices, providing insurance, and generating commercial and investment credit. There were also tongs that represented most of the political and ideo-logical tendencies then current in China.15

Tong leaders kept a tight rein on their organization, while the organi-zations themselves regulated and maintained a fairly rigid hierarchy of power, wealth, status, and prestige throughout the Chinese communi-ty. For instance, the economic controls imposed by the trade asso-ciations were particularly useful to members in dealing with the non-Chinese world. They were also so tight that their effect was to eliminate what little chance for social mobility there was among the Chinese at large. There was little likelihood, for example, of a laborer rising to become a merchant. The one gap in their power, however, was the illicit trade in sex, gambling, and drugs.

How legal and illegal enterprises were joined together and managed by the tongs at the time cannot easily be known.16 It is likely that some legitimate traders were forced by their tong associates, either directly or through protection payments, to help finance the brothels, casinos, and opium dens. The gangs supplying protection often supplied a bonafide service, for the threat of violence from whites in the Chinese quar-ter of San Francisco was a real and constant one. To the extent that the first generation of immigrants retained control of the major tongs, how-ever, those lower-class Chinese whose aspirations for wealth and pow-er were checked by the existing system sought to branch out and spe-cialize on their own. Selling protection was the first step. What was evolving in the mid-1870s, then, were a number of specialized "crimi-nal" tongs composed of members who were excluded from any other trade by the ruling groups.

These tongs fought violently with each other to establish exclusive territories and areas of operation. With the onset of the depression they appear to have competed with elements of the ruling tongs to in-troduce and then control the trade in opium. The outcome of this strug-gle was victory for the criminal tongs, a clear split by 1890 between the criminal and the legitimate trading tongs, and the elimination of over-lapping or competitive operations. Several years later, at the turn of the century and for 20 years more, the two groups battled for economic control of Chinatown. This resulted in victory for the legitimate side when Chinatown changed from serving sex to serving chop suey.17

At the same time, there were many legitimate tong interests which needed no pressure to direct their investment into criminal operations. The majority of these organizations were not the evil conspiracies they were accused of being by the anti-Chinese press and agitation of those years. Some may, however, have specialized in the illicit trade and some may not, but the connivance of many of the legitimate traders in financing the importing, processing, distributing, and sale of opium cannot be doubted.18

There were good reasons for this, quite apart from the profits to be made from the business. Remember that the period 1875-1880 was one of deteriorating economic conditions for most Chinese laborers. There were few alternatives. They could leave the United States; they could move out of California to other parts of the country, looking for work; or they could stick it out in California, relying on credit and other help from the tongs.

To the merchants, exodus was more of a threat than was depression, because it removed for good the very basis of Chinese enterprise: cheap labor. Opium may have been offered as an inducement to stay (close to the source of supply), and there is fragmentary evidence that opium rations were specified for this purpose in the terms of some la-bor contracts.19 But we know that the big increase in opium imports took place during a decline in the Chinese population, so it seems likely that the importers intended to initiate a demand for the drug that did not already exist.

Wright, whose report was based in part on "inquiry amongst the leading Chinese in this country," stated that the opium habit was ac-quired by the immigrants after they arrived in this country and not, as others have claimed, before they left China." In his study of the tongs, Reynolds also came to the conclusion that the Chinese did not bring opiate use with them, but that instead, it had begun in the United States because "the basis for their temperance was largely removed in America."2' By this he meant a combination of factors—a psychologi-cal predisposition to use the drug and the absence of traditional kin structure and normative bonds which might have inhibited drug use.

There is no telling what exactly motivated the individual Chinese then to smoke opium in the United States. Even when drug users are more readily available to respond to this question about motivation, rarely is there a decided answer, and even when one exists, it doesn't sufficiently explain the phenomenon. At any rate, we do know that at the end of the last century, perhaps 35 percent of the immigrant population smoked with some degree of regularity. This is Wright's esti-mate, based on interviews and hearsay evidence which he further broke down into three categories of use."22


This should be treated as a hypothetical maximum, although, what-ever the real numbers were, there can be little doubt that for the next half-century the Chinese were represented in the population of narcot-ics users out of all proportion to their total in the general population.23 The timing at the very beginning is important. Using the same rough es-timates again, it is possible to show how the aggregate number of Chi-nese users and the prevalence rate changed between 1870 and 1890. The tabulation is based on four assumptions: (1) minimal smuggling of the drug; (2) all smoking opium imported in that form and not prepared in the United States from gum opium base; (3) all opium smokers Chi-nese; and (4) all heavy Chinese smokers. 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 in each period. Both the 1880 and 1890 estimates do come close, how-ever, to the 10 percent "heavy smoking" rate figured from different sources by other authorities.


Notwithstanding the likelihood of error, the strong suggestion here is that there was a substantial jump in opium smoking among the Chinese between 1870 and 1880. Most of this increase was concentrated in the depression years, 1875-80, when the major rise in imports occurred. But significantly, as will be seen, this took place after the first antiopi-um legislation had been enacted in the country (the city ordinance ban-ning its use in San Francisco).24

At this time it required only a tiny fraction of the Indian opium out-put to make a substantial difference in the situation in the United States. In this context (that of calculations independently arrived at by growers, shippers, buyers, distributors, and consumers) the drug served several functions. The combined effect of the bottom falling out of the sweatshop industries and the intense anti-Chinese campaign threatened to destroy Chinese capitalism by driving its labor force away and bringing manufacturing and trade to a halt. At this time, then, the prospects for a trade in opium coincided with the deteriora-tion of the conventional Chinese economy; simultaneously the deteri-oration of the general economy put large numbers of Chinese workers out of work, making them dependent on the tongs for employment or welfare.

Opium was looked on, first, as having the potential to compensate for the general decline of profits, employment, and income. Given an initial level of demand, no matter how moderate, the legitimate traders in Chinatown were in a position to use opium in lieu of money wages to pay their employees, in effect, to deflate wage levels while at the same time inducing the workers to stay in San Francisco close to the source of supply, rather than leave for the East Coast or for the homeland. Opium also offered an alternative source of income to gambling and prostitution, which were declining as the economy worsened. With many unemployed Chinese seeking jobs, the "criminal" tongs were able to recruit new members to sell the drug at the same time they were paid, at least in part, with a supply of the drug for their own use.

There is no good way to tell how far recruitment to drug use was de-termined by the expectation of profit out of the trade or by the need for an analgesic and soporific as potent as opium. The order and timing of events are important, however, in order to establish just how specula-tive importation was in 1879 and the following years, for they reveal that use of the drug was propelled by powerful economic forces. Con-sumer demand no more explains the development of the market, with all the economic and social ramifications it then had, than individual desire for any good ever explains aggregate level of supply.

Chinese laborers had to enjoy smoking opium in order to continue doing so, of course, but insofar as opium was so valuable that, like gold or money, it could be exchanged for almost any other good, consuming it could also have reflected the simple desire for consuming wealth.

Having identified these functions of the drug, it would be misleading not to repeat that the spread of opium would not have developed out-side the peculiar economic conditions in which the Chinese, both petite bourgeoisie and working class, were forced to live. To take another ex-ample, in the Mississippi delta a strong effort was first made during the 1870s by white planters to attract Chinese laborers to working on the cotton plantations. The purpose was to displace black sharecroppers (who had, under early Reconstruction, gained the power of the fran-chise and were threatening to use it against the political supremacy of the planters): "The apolitical noncitizen coolie, it was thought, would be a step back toward the more docile labor conditions of slavery times and would also destroy all arguments about the indispensability of Ne-gro labor to the Southern way of life."25

The experiment failed, for several reasons. The number of Chinese attracted was small. Once the real terms of plantation labor became clear, they abandoned the work; having done this, they were able to build up successful grocery businesses of their own. Essentially it is a story of the Chinese, initially laborers, breaking out of the constraints of what has been called a split-labor market .26 It stands to reason, then that we would find no evidence either of opium use among the Chinese in the delta or even of accusations that it existed and was' a public menace.

In California, however, only a small minority of the Chinese achieved any kind of economic independence. Most were the hapless victims of the split-labor market in which, during the 1870s, the higher-paid (white) labor combined with small farmers and manufacturers to force out the Chinese altogether.

The earliest agitation for exclusion had been directed against Chi-nese miners when the pickings grew slim for independent prospectors. There is no mention in the record of anti-Chinese rhetoric of the time that the immigrants used opium or passed the habit on to whites. Not until the mid-1870s did talk of this kind become noticeable, and from what we already know of the movement of immigrants and opium dur-ing the depression years, it is evident that increased public conscious-ness of the habit came before its increased diffusion. In other words, opium-smoking was simply part of the stereotype generated by antago-nism between the races.

The earliest connotation of opium use was not an intrinsic one. There was no claim, for example, that it was harmful directly. Its use indicated, rather, how different, foreign, and unassimilable the Chi-nese were as a group. A California Senate report of 1877 stated flatly: "the whites cannot stand their dirt and the fumes of opium, and are compelled to leave their vicinity.""

In 1875 San Francisco passed a city ordinance against opium-smoking and the operating of dens for that purpose. The following year a similar ordinance passed in Virginia City, Nevada. Concerning this or-dinance Kane offers the testimony of a local physician on the reasons for the legislation:

Opium smoking had been entirely confined to the Chinese up to and before the autumn of 1876, when the practice was introduced by a sporting character who had lived in China. . . . He spread the practice amongst his class, and his mistress, "a woman of the town," introduced it among her demimonde acquaintances, and it was not long before it had widely spread amongst the people men-tioned, and then amongst the younger class of boys and girls, many of the latter of the more respected class of families. The habit grew rapidly, until it reached young women of more mature age, when the necessity for stringent measures became apparent, and was met by the passing of a city ordinance.28

This, of course, is the classic theory of contagion, but there is no way of knowing how much of it was rumor, how much was true, and how much was mere rationalization for the broader aims of the anti-Chinese agitation.

The Chinese opium crusade is such a clear illustration of the role of class in these developments, however, for it occurred when there was no precedent for a legal ban on narcotics and when no one believed that the drug or its use per se was harmful or dangerous. Just how un-formed the ideology of opium was is evident in the testimony, given sometime after the ordinance went into effect, of a number of authori-ties who were more familiar than most with the drug and the Chinese predilection for it. Seward, who was strongly opposed to the exclusion campaign, examined the criminal statistics for Chinese in California. While acknowledging prostitution, gambling, and a certain amount of extortion, corruption of police, and internecine feuding, he did not mention opium use." This was in 1881. A few years later, Richmond Mayo-Smith, a political economist, noted the evidence of opium-smok-ing but qualified it: "which latter vice, however, seems to be less of a public. nuisance than drunkenness, for it simply stupefies the victim in-stead of exciting him."" Even later, before the Philippine Commis-sion, the examining physician of the New York Life Insurance Compa-ny in Shanghai told the commissioners that he readily permitted opium users the life insurance they applied for, on the ground that "Chinese can use opium moderately for years, indeed for a lifetime, with no ill results. "31

The point to be emphasized is that the ideology of opium during the period in which the first antinarcotic legislation in the country was in-troduced specified virtually nothing about the drug or its effects. That antiopium laws were put into operation and that notions about the drug being harmful and dangerous were expressed and eventually believed is indicative of a class ideology in the making, although the character of the class conflict that stimulated the ideology is not simple.
The principal factor involved was the existence of a labor market split less by skill or the characteristics of industrial organization than by race, for the latter, much more than the former, set the pattern for determining wages. The Chinese, whatever their skill level, were paid less than whites. This labor market was the creation of the railroads and the mining companies, which hired labor agents in Hong Kong and Canton to recruit immigrants. Indeed, it was the creation of California capital as a class, whether individual elements actively initiated immi-gration or not. By no stretch of the imagination can the non-Chinese working class be held responsible for that. Its members were basically correct in identifying tendencies toward the dual wage market as a form of class threat from the start, with the potential for undermining existing working-class wage levels and subverting the power of class unity in collective bargaining.

The primary event that precipitated the campaign against the Chi-nese and against opium was the sudden onset of economic depression, the high unemployment levels, and the disintegration of working-class standards of living. Again, if blame must be leveled for that, it rests on the small, urban manufacturers whose rate of profit depended not on technological innovations, expanded capital investment, improve-ments in productivity, and because of these, lowered unit costs--all of which might have protected them against economic reversal—but rath-er on cheap labor alone, first female and child labor and then, because they were found to be more productive and easily disciplined, the Chi-nese. Once the railroad wiped out the geographical protection of this industry from the more sophisticated mass production of the eastern United States, the price of manufactures had to fall, and with that went economic stability. In other words, the depression was a crisis of-small capital, combined with the decline of employment in railroad construc-tion.

Hostility toward the Chinese was the immediate result, although the race issue did not, in fact or in time, serve the interests of the white working class or the small entrepreneurs. Neither group realized this, and among the working class the defense of the Chinese by the railroad and farming interests automatically reinforced the determination to ex-pel them. The opium issue, which was one of the many variations on this theme, was part of the general ideological response to labor market failure, reflecting the extent to which the secondary labor market, with its Chinese concentration, offered no "work relief" to the unem-ployed, insecure, white working class. The ideological role of the anti-opium campaign was to get rid of the Chinese. It had a practical conse-quence—providing a legal basis for unrestrained and arbitrary police raids and searches of Chinese premises in San Francisco. Ostensibly to identify opium dens, these raids served the same purpose as that of the vigilantes in the mine fields, against Chinese encampments in the mid-1850s .

I have defined the function of the antiopium campaign at one level of class conflict. Had the economic conditions not deteriorated, inciting agitation against the Chinese, the particular inducements to develop the trade in the drug among Chinese capitalists would not have arisen. They, no less than native American capitalists, depended on the con-tinued exploitation of the immigrants at low wage rates, and this, in turn, created a second level of class conflict tied to the first. At the sec-ond level the drug was also a class weapon, in that it depressed the real level of working-class wages and living standards, although in the broader, multilevel context, recruitment of workers for the opium trade was, for them, an effective and rational response to the economic bind. They would become pawns in the competition between the tongs for economic hegemony in Chinatown—cannon fodder, in fact, when the competitors took to their guns—but that was in the future and prob-ably would not have affected the calculations of the Chinese anyway.

Though the California antiopium legislation had little effect at the time (there turned out to be much more effective ways of opposing the Chinese), analysis of what took place shows a pattern which has re-peated itself in nearly every period of active agitation on the drug issue ever since.


Our valuable member John Helmer has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.

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