December 26, 2013

Opium Smokers and Opium Dens in Sibu

I remember the first time my town cousins bringing me up to the Opium Den in Sibu and that was in 1958. The shop's first floor was full of wooden platforms but only one man was smoking his pipe in the early morning sunlight which came through the cracks of the wooden windows. But the smell of stale opium floated through the soured and thick air. We quickly made an escape before the man realised that we were peeping at him. We ran down the wooden staircase before any one came to beat us. (Photo is from Google tp show an opium pipe, as I do not have a personal photo of one)

A Fujian made special lacquered bamboo pillow. How many of you can remember your Chinese relatives' "head support"?
I heard that this kind of pillow, bamboo lacquered head rest was a favourite amongst opium smokers (My own photo)
This is what I have googled - Interestingly this is also a remnant of antique head rest from opium dens of the past. The Chinese words are Te (good value) Foo (blessing)
An opium den was an establishment where opium was sold and smoked. Opium dens were prevalent in many parts of the world in the 19th century, most notably China, Southeast Asia, North America and France

It is incredible that I can still remember clearly the sight of the opium den above the shop in Market Street. We had been told over and over again not to venture upstairs. We were hanging around the Hua Ing Book Shop owned by our uncle Mr. Lau, and not far along the five foot way was my cousins' maternal grandfather's barber shop. We had this awesome adventure while our uncle had his hair cut.

Later my Chinese teacher told us stories of opium dens in Sibu so that we would not fall into the traps of drug addiction. He told us that opium smokers in Sibu in the early 1930's and 40's were wasted fellows, who brought their whole families down to the bottom pit of the society and for generations they would be cursed. Their sins would be remembered for ever!! We were fairly frightened by what he told us, so we did not even like people who smoked. Being in the Methodist School, we were often reminded what Methodists won't do : won't smoke, won't drink, won't even dance, and of course won't even visit the brothels which were plentiful in Sibu in the 1960's.

And of course we secretly read about the Opium Wars of China and kept the stories of Lin Zexu in our hearts. Lin ( 30 August 1785 – 22 November 1850) was a scholar and official of the Qing Dynasty. And that made us pretty proud of this Foochow ancestor!!

He is most recognized for his conduct and his constant position on the "moral high ground" in his fight, as a "shepherd" of his people, against the opium trade in Guangzhou. Although the non-medicinal consumption of opium was banned by the Yongzheng Emperor in 1729,by the 1830s, China's economy and society were being seriously affected by huge imports of opium from British and other foreign traders based in the city. Lin's forceful opposition to the trade on moral and social grounds is considered to be the primary catalyst for the First Opium War of 1839–42.Because of this firm stance, he has subsequently been considered as a role model for moral governance, particularly by the Chinese. (All these facts were not found in the history books written by western historians for HSC and STPM exams)

Lin Zexu's statue in NewYork City (by Wong Meng Lei)

(I visited Lin's home in Fuzhou a few years ago and saw his life work and history)

The smell of the stale and sour opium smoke lingered around my nose for a long time. I could not tell my father about that special smoke in my nostrils. It was so different from the Lucky Strike smoke that surrounded my father.

Little did I know then that my grandfather's only brother was suffering from ill health and depression after his wife's untimely death in 24 Acres (Niek Si Gak). He later sold this piece of land to 6 families. When his supply of medication (opium) finished, he had to bring his little box to the then Brooke government clinic to claim his supply. When he was happy he would sing while paddling the boat in the small stream. I was told he never visited the Opium Dens in Sibu. His was a medical treatment case.

The Methodist Church in Sibu, under Rev Hoover, was able to control opium smoking to a certain extent. Those Foochow migrants would be shipped back to China if they were caught smoking opium, gambling or commiting crimes. Families often went to see Rev Hoover whenever they had problems and he would give them counselling or help them solve some of the problems. And a frequent question Rev Hoover would ask, "Are you telling the truth?"

"I don't tell you lies" became the pass word of Methodists of those by gone days. Rev Hoover could not tolerate any liar. Probably that was the result of the great sense of justice that Rev Hoover had in him. "I swear on the Bible, that I would tell the truth, nothing but the whole truth.." is the oath one has to take on a Bible in any court in the USA or Great Britain and the Foochows in Sibu were taught that. I still remember many of my elders would raise their hands up and said that they were telling the truth whenever they had important things to tell others.

 Before the arrival of Rev James Hoover, Wong Nai Siong had  also signed agreements with the Foochows he brought out to Sibu. If these migrants broke the t and c, they were shipped back too. But somehow the opium dens of Market Road became a kind of fixed business for many years in spite of police and social controls. Perhaps these opium smokers were not Foochows but of other dialect groups. We Foochows call them Ah Pien Kui because they looked so ghostly thin.

It was a common perception that Ah Pien Gui seldom told the truth because they were desperate to get some opium to smoke in those days. Most of my relatives knew of cases of opium addicts who died early.

 But I am always very sad whenever I think of my grand uncle who died pre maturely because he suffered so much from his broken heart.


Anonymous said...

Double standard of the white people. When they imposed opium on us, it was fine. Now they continued to demoralize us with the cigarettes.

Anonymous said...

Know Hua Ing Well enough. Didnt know there was an opium den above in the 1950s. Was it licensed? Perhaps much earlier, there were more dens but greaty reduced and remnant by 1958's. BTW, there was a Cahaya Art Design-art tutition centre few doors from Hua Ing. closed now. teacher was a foermer Catholic High art teacher.

Ensurai said...

I could have written my post in a different way - a) my lack of political awareness in the early days b) My secondary school views based on Colonial history books c) my world views of history later on in life...Now I would say it would be my views of global giants stepping on minorities, women farmers and primary producers.

Ensurai said...

Former CHS art teacher Mr. Wong is related to my third Aunt from mother's side. Yes I know the tuition centre well and also the dress maker wife. She is a wonderful person, making such pretty dresses for women of Sibu. Must get news about them asap.

Anonymous said...

Saw Mr Wong in Kuching at the Spring iMall last month. He must have moved to Kuching!!

Ensurai said...

Confirmed with his sister. He is more often in Australia, visiting his daughter, and occasionally back in Kuching. His wife passed away three months ago in Kuching. It is a great loss to the family. Madam Ting was a wonderful person and great dressmaker.

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